Make the Most of the Opportunity

If you manage Visitor Catering Services just how do you ensure that your facilities are well run, offer value for money, meet current legislation, maximise your return financially and meet the expectations of your visitors?

Although there are many examples of visitor attractions offering a first class service with a proactive approach to managing the services, there are many where there is still a high degree of apathy emanating from the caterer, the client organisation or both.

Unfortunately we have all experienced cafes and restaurants where the service fails to meet either customer or client expectations. Unfashionable menus, outmoded service methods, de motivated staff, slow service, poor food standards and high selling prices are all indicative of a poorly managed and unsuccessful catering service.

So why do standards vary so much? Perhaps it’s because some organisations have taken a view that in providing a service regardless of quality they have fulfilled their obligation to the customer, but more likely it is a lack of systematic management of the services on an ongoing basis.

There are, however, steps that can be taken to ensure that the catering service within an organisation keeps abreast of ever changing trends, ensures customer satisfaction and offers value for money for all.

The proactive visitor services manager will be looking to the future, assessing customer’s needs, predicting trends in the market place, benchmarking services and tariffs against other visitor attractions and monitoring the service closely.

The Catering Policy

We believe that every organisation providing catering services should have a clear catering policy and service level agreements. They are essential tools in the everyday management and ongoing development of the catering service without which there is nothing to measure performance against. However surprisingly few organisations have such a formal document.

The document should record the organisations aim’s and objectives for catering and should include statements everything from menu offer and service style through to financial targets and expected customer satisfaction levels. Immediate, medium and long term objectives should be included as appropriate.

The importance of this policy document should not be underestimated. It is a focus for all parties involved in the provision or management of catering services whether the catering is run in house or contracted out and prevents any misunderstandings about what is required, when and where, why, and at what financial return. However it can only be formulated after full consideration of the needs of the venue and with a deep understanding of the target audience – your visitor. It requires careful research.

To be effective this policy document should be formally reviewed every 12 – 18 months to ensure that changes in the needs of both the organisation and the customer are met. With a clear catering policy in place the ongoing development and monitoring of the services can commence with a combination of the following tools:


One of the most powerful tools in managing the catering service is to use the restaurant yourself. It is surprising how few managers regularly use the restaurant under their control. Simply being present during service periods, observing customer reaction to the menus, watching how catering staff interact with the customer, viewing plate wastage and chatting informally to customers can provide very good feedback on the success of the operation.

Mystery Shoppers

Using ordinary members of the public, representative of your visitor base, to provide feedback on your catering services will elicit genuine customer feedback on the service received and can be a very valuable way of assessing service standards. There are companies such as ours that provide a professionally managed service. By conducting these across a period of time patterns of strengths and weaknesses can be identified and built on. Mystery shoppers are particularly useful if time or distance prevents the visitor service manager from accessing the café regularly or if they are too well known by the catering staff to experience a genuine customer journey.

Market Research

Visitor feedback surveys can be enormously beneficial, serving several purposes. The quality of the existing service can be measured but more importantly future development plans can also be tested. Information on the visitor’s socio economic profile, patterns of usage, group type and size, dwell time, catering expectations, potential spending power and alternative dining venues can be solicited and used to develop the catering offer either as part of a strategic review process or as part of day to day improvements to the service. Perhaps the greatest benefit of market research over say customer comment cards is accessing those visitors who do not use the catering facilities and understanding why. Often one of the most significant areas for business growth is the untapped market. Understanding non users needs and planning for them could deliver some great bottom line results. After all a visitor service is not a visitor service if customers do not take advantage of it.

Benchmarking and Competitor Analysis

Most museums, galleries and visitor attractions will have a good idea of the quality of the exhibits or rides and temporary exhibitions featuring in nearby or competitor venues but just how many benchmark their catering offers? How frequently do you look at high street cafes and restaurants and compare the food style, food quality, prices, service standards, décor and ambiance to your own? Yet this is what your visitors do, even if only sub consciously. If such an exercise does take place it is usually as part of a redevelopment of the services or when a problem with standards has been pointed out. But benchmarking should be an ongoing discipline ensuring that the catering offer remains fresh and relevant to the visitor.

Boyd-Thorpe Associates run café development days where groups of catering managers and/or clients are taken through a morning workshop aimed at getting them to think more laterally about service delivery in their venue followed by an afternoon of café visits where ideas are gathered and the merits of different approaches are discussed.

Another aspect of benchmarking is the monitoring of financial performance which requires a more formal approach. Spend per head, spend per visitor, percentage uptake of catering services etc can be compared with similar locations to assess performance.

Comment Cards

Customer comment cards can provide a valuable source of information on the existing service. Although they are more often used to record complaints about a restaurant than to put forward practical suggestions, if actioned correctly, negative issues can be turned into positive sales opportunities.

Regular Formal Auditing

Sometimes a more formal approach to contract monitoring is required and this can be achieved using a tailored audit framework to measure the delivery of visitor catering services in a number of areas against your policy objectives. This may be relevant in a contracted out situation where the caterers are required to meet certain key performance indicators or in an in house operation where the catering team’s bonuses are linked to performance. A more formal audit approach can also be used to produce an action plan when problems arise. There are four key areas which should be considered.

Operating Standards: For example what are your first impressions, is the décor and ambiance suitable, does the menu content appeal, is there an appropriate children’s offer, is the restaurant clean, is the service efficient and personable, does the experience offer value for money?

Food Hygiene and Health and Safety: Is the physical structure of the catering facilities and equipment compliant, are there adequate management control systems and procedures in place, in use and effective to eliminate contamination issues, are there adequate due diligence procedures in place, are risk assessments complete?

Financial Performance: How is the caterer performing against the budget and against industry benchmarks in spend per visitor, spend per head, penetrations levels, tariffs and overall bottom line turnover, are bookkeeping standards adequate, are the correct commission levels being paid?

Marketing: How effectively are the services marketed to visitors, non visitors, event organisers, are there new markets that could be tapped, are day to day sales being maximised through up selling and cross merchandising?


Finally, and perhaps the most important, regular client, caterer meetings are essential to maintaining open lines of communication. At these it is useful to have an agenda, setting time aside specifically for discussing the results of benchmarking, competitor visits, formal audits, customer feedback and the future development of the catering services. Proper minutes should be taken and action points should be agreed to review at future meetings.

The management of catering services is never going to be easy. However by taking the time and trouble to introduce some of these activities, the potential for growth in customer satisfaction and financial performance is considerable.


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