03 January 2013

Hospitality: A New Breed of Food Reviewers

Photo by vmiramontes

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Aristotle

What’s Eating People?

Have you noticed that everyone has an opinion on food - Informed or otherwise? Food opinion is everywhere, which is particularly pertinent as hospitality businesses have typically thrived on word of mouth. 

For venues, opinion via reviews was once vaguely manageable. There was a time when certain restaurants flexed their right to refuse to serve newspaper food reviewers. 

A Sydney a venue went as far as to sue a publication over a scathing review by Matthew Evans said to have ruined their business - a case that was in the courts for nine years. Such was the influence of the traditional food press.

But the status quo has changed. In today's world, opinion is not black and white and in hospitality - no matter what the facts - the customer's personal experience underscores whatever they express online about a venue.

Understandably, publications now run shy of potentially litigious opinion pieces. Readers don’t necessarily trust editorial content any more, citing hidden agenda’s warped by the need to draw advertisers. The trend is reflected by newspaper and magazine sales that have been in freefall against online news, resulting in the number of printed pages devoted to the hospitality industry diminishing. 

The public has turned to a new breed of reviewer - the online reviewer - and while some may be the darlings of the public, they too are beginning to be loathed by some F&B operators. 

This angst is the flow on effect of society being in the reality show era, a time of ‘warts and all’ citizen journalism, where everyone has an opinion and can publish it online without checking their facts or even revealing who they actually are.

Sure, not everyone takes this stuff seriously, but a few voices speak louder than others which is why they are considered online influencers.

Who’s making the most noise?

The people identified as online F&B influencers interact regularly with local diners. Not all come with the gravitas of knowing what they’re talking about when it comes to cooking or service but they are trusted for being someone their readers can identify with.

Some of them blog about food or review venues, some mostly tweet food. Amongst these are freelance journalists, other professional writers, culinary professionals, photographers and enthusiastic amateurs. 

Slipping under the radar are those who are simply known as ‘the go-to person for food’ by their friends on Facebook, Pinterest or Tumblr. Or they may simply post photos of every meal they have on Instagram.

In a category of their own are the self-promoters - those that come with a chain of linked social media accounts for wider bandwidth of communications. Often these opinion makers participate in PR or Marketing sponsored events, using their social tentacles to flood online communities with duplicate posts. This activity has been seen lately to erode their gravitas, which may be perceived as more of a curse than a blessing for venues.

In that mix are those that post reviews of a single meal at a venue, which is then linked to a review aggregation network, to Google+ Local or a street publication such as Gram

Younger food writers have been contributing to Australian online journal subscription sites such as Agenda, The Thousands and Broadsheet. These publications have been criticized for being the first over the threshold rather than posting in detail once a hospitality venue has hit their stride. But they specifically attract a certain type of clientele, the one that will queue to be at the ‘hot new place’.

And let’s not forget that now Joe Average - who doesn’t consider themselves a critic - can post a few sentences on a local geospatial review website and app such as UrbanSpoon, Yelp, FourSquare or YourRestaurants, plus global travel sites like TripAdvisor, or even as their Facebook status.

Like it or not, it’s now part of our culture. When the public want a food recommendation, they go online for suggestions first. Today Google can be the friend you turn to for a dining suggestion.

Staring it down

You can’t prevent people from talking about your venue. So how do you address all these online opinions?

As I mentioned in my last post, this falls into the category of reputation management. It is critical for businesses where there is heavy competition so time should be allocated regularly to see what is being said.

It can be as easy as doing a search for your business online. Don't forget to also search Google Images. What you find may surprise you. You may also see what your staff are saying about you. At the very least, consider it as a gauge of how you are publicly perceived.

If there is a common thread to the criticisms or compliments, use that to further shape your business. It's possible that you may become more aware of the demographic and nature of your core customer, which should assist in determining your prices and service offering. 

Consider also that it may help to define your creative parameters. This could result in your generating a unique offering or finding a new niche where you have less competition.

When mentioned in social media communities, the correct etiquette is to acknowledge and thank the customer that has mentioned you. Should you not have social accounts with which to do this, consider linking to their review or comment on your venue’s website. This may start a long term relationship with your online advocate that could assist in building loyalty and further word of mouth benefits.

Dealing with an unflattering review

When you see something that you feel is inflammatory my best advice is to take a deep breath, and look away for a moment. In this time you can briefly pause to see if your fans respond and speak out on your behalf. Often this will happen.

By no means impersonate a customer with a retaliatory or an anonymous hyper-positive comment, nor should you vent in rage anywhere online. A chef, FOH or proprietor tirade is a stain on the business' reputation that is difficult to erase. 

Remember it’s the current nature of society that an embarrassing episode will spread virally faster than civil exchanges, so keep your crisis contained.

In many online instances you have the right of reply via a comments section, a business owner response, a contact form or an email address. If it is a clear case of bullying or trolling by a competitor most of the popular review sites will remove the offensive item on request.

Best practice for a bad issue is to privately take it up with the reviewer, site or publication and ask for constructive criticism and guidance on how to make their experience better, regardless of whether you disagree with their point of view. The fact that you acknowledge their opinion will be appreciated.

These steps are basic customer service translated for the internet. The game plan has changed significantly since Matthew Evans was a reviewer, but it represents new opportunities for hospitality businesses. Working with customer reviews can demonstrate that you are open to using feedback to nurture your business and it has the potential to turn the reviewer and their friends into long term advocates. 

So when it comes to opinion, be hospitable. That after all that is the name of the game.

A version of this piece first appeared in Espresso Italiano magazine and online for Lavazza. More social media advice from me can be unlocked by Lavazza customers on that website. In the current issue, I talk about Yelp for the hospitality industry.