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The role of digital in hospitality’s toughest hour: 4 lessons for uncertain times

By Lola Milner-Barry | Marketing Manager

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October 18, 2023 | 6 min read

Agency True’s Lola Milner-Barry pinpoints 4 survival tactics that leading hospitality brands have used to survive in the toughest times they’ve faced in a generation.

A sign in a shop window saying "we're open"

How are bars and restaurants staying open in such difficult times? / Clay Banks via Unsplash

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the hospitality industry has grappled with unprecedented challenges. While a semblance of normality has returned, the hurdles have been daunting, pushing many establishments to endure some of the toughest times in their history.

A multitude of factors, including domestic and international constraints on both operators and consumers, surging inflation, escalating costs of goods and transportation, persistent supply chain disruptions, staffing shortages, and the notorious energy bill crisis, have made recovery a formidable uphill battle.

Amid this adversity, the industry has undergone a transformative journey, driven by the need to survive. For many operators, this has entailed a swift embrace of innovative tech and digital solutions to capture the interest of patrons and lure them back through their doors.

Here are four crucial lessons that have emerged for the brands that are weathering the storm.

1. Streamline the experience

Customers seek exceptional experiences. Beyond offering quality products and services, eliminating unnecessary hassles will leave a lasting impression. Technologies such as contactless payments, the use of AI to curate digital discounts and personalized rewards, near-field communication (NFC), and QR code menus, all enhance customer satisfaction, and entertainment. Last year saw Coke’s The Real Magic campaign introduce QR codes on bottles, granting access to an augmented reality experience featuring singer Ava Max, creating a digital surprise that conveyed the brand’s message.

2. Make your website a resource

When higher wages may not be a lever that the industry can pull due to rising costs, employee experience including training, career trajectories, staff benefits, and lifestyle all become increasingly important in recruitment. Often, your brand’s website can be a powerful tool in this pitch.

For patrons who want to discover more about venues, and the local area, creating a ‘go-to’ online destination will support with brand traffic and increase conversions.

Take British hotel chain Premier Inn, which offers local guides for short-term city breaks around the UK, functioning as a valuable tool for visitors while establishing the brand position as experts in regions where they have hotels. Ramping up a gear, Airbnb’s ‘surprise and delight’ navigation bar, features an ‘OMG’ holiday section at the top of their homepage. This works as much to inspire as it does to sell holidays.

3. Balance tactical work with branding

Yes, tactical promotions can generate short-term gains, but building a strong brand is equally vital. Research by Survey Monkey highlights that 70% of consumers prefer known names in search results. Balancing tactical and branding initiatives, such as robust paid social campaigns and consistent search strategies, will yield longer-term results.

4. Make social media your front-of-house

Food and beverages dominate social media trends, with hashtags like #food and #foodporn continuing to be among the best-performing hashtags on Instagram and TikTok in 2022. Neglecting a social media presence is a missed opportunity. A recent GO Tech report shows that social channels are giving search giants like Google a run for their money when it comes to how consumers are finding venues. With over 48% of consumers already using social channels to book venues, there’s a clear opportunity for businesses in the sector to drive bookings and footfall. Integrating systems like bookings platforms into their social media accounts will maximize reservations and keep customers engaged for the longer term.

The industry’s challenges are far from over. But by adopting a strategic approach rooted in a deep understanding of consumer interactions across channels – be it through search, social media, websites or new platforms, operators can establish robust insight-driven strategies and integrate sector-enhancing technologies at the core of their operations. By doing so, businesses will better place themselves in a more resilient position over the coming months.

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19 years ago true was founded with the aim of being different; straight-talking, to the point, focussed on delivering long-term growth, not through chat, but through action. Creating work that was true to our clients’ needs, true to their customers’ needs and true to our own expectations.

Over the years we’ve helped start-ups to become market leaders, created award-winning campaigns that have helped clients out-perform their competitors and digitally transformed bricks and mortar businesses.

From marketing to product experience, we help clients transform the way they interact with their audiences – to fully realise their opportunities for growth. Our services include Planning & Strategy, Effectiveness, Measurement & Operation, Marketing Communications, Experience Design, Platforms, Products & Technology.

We've been fortunate to work with some fantastic clients including Aardman Animations, UK Sport, St Austell, Fuller's, Sustrans, npower, TCMM Shutter Group, Sustrans, The Mall at Cribbs Causeway and Parmenion.

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