When colleges begin to open up their campuses to students, their dining programs will face a number of challenges associated with lingering safety concerns from the coronavirus crisis. A significant issue will be the nature of the ordering and payment process, which traditionally has involved interaction with dining staff, but the recent crisis has put new emphasis on high-tech “contactless” ordering and payment (primarily through mobile device apps) as a “safer” alternative.
The college-age demographic was already adopting such technology even before coronavirus, and the question for college dining programs is how much the crisis has accelerated that trend. To help answer that question, Nutrislice, a major vendor of digital engagement and guest experience solutions for the noncommercial foodservice industry, surveyed more than 800 college students across America the last week of April on what they will expect from their on-campus dining services once schools reopen post the COVID-19 shutdown.
Among the major findings:
- About 35% said that they do not plan on purchasing and/or consuming food from an on-campus dining location, about a third of students because they are not returning to school and the majority of the rest because of safety concerns;
- Of those that do plan on obtaining food on-campus, 85% said they are extremely (34%) or somewhat (51%) concerned about how they will order and pay for their meals safely;
- Nearly 80% said that they would be more likely to get food from an on-campus dining venue that offers digital ordering and payment options that limit contact with dining staff;
- Almost 30% said they plan to avoid any on-campus dining venue altogether if digital ordering and payment options through a mobile app or online are not offered; and
- Students generally seem more likely to be willing to sacrifice food variety to get contactless transactions, and less likely to sacrifice speed of service.
Specifically, when asked if they anticipate getting food from an on-campus location once schools reopen, about 35% said no. Of those, about a third said it was because they weren’t returning to school and about 38% said it was because of safety concerns. The rest cited “other” concerns.
Asked about the influence of having contactless ordering/payment options on dining location choices, half said they would be somewhat more likely to get food from on-campus dining locations that offer digital (contactless) order/payment options through a mobile app or online while 29% said that was an absolute requirement.
Mobile apps and websites are the clear first choice (cited by 69%) in contactless technologies that would make students feel safer, and almost 75% said having access to mobile food ordering from campus dining locations was important to them when their school reopens.
Among other preferred contactless options, students cited digital menu boards (44%) that eliminate the need to handle a physical menu and even smart takeout lockers (28%) and pop-up pickup locations around campus (24%) as safe contactless solutions to accessing campus dining.
Interestingly, when asked what they were willing to sacrifice to get contactless ordering/pickup/payment and given four options to rank, most (38%) ranked “variety of food options” as the one they’d most be willing to sacrifice while “speed of service” was the one ranked last (i.e., least willing to sacrifice) by the most respondents (39%). “Dietary preferences” got nearly equal ranking in all four slots while over half (nearly 55%) ranked “nutritional information” either third or fourth, indicating some reluctance to sacrifice this service for the sake of access to contactless transactions.
“COVID has created this ‘new normal’ that has accelerated the customer experience [toward adopting mobile ordering/payment] and the challenge is figuring out how to operate it and what is the new path,” offers Mike Craig, chief evangelist for Nutrislice. “It is going to touch on meal plans, menus, the environment and service model.”
However, Craig says there was data lacking about the student perspective on all this, so Nutrislice developed a survey to explore it.
“While before, everybody figured that mobile ordering would be important, we were astounded at just how critical it is going to be to college dining operations, not only as [students] come back but into the future because [given] fears of COVID-19 spreading, students are going to avoid dining on campus if they can’t order and pay for their food digitally.”
While campus retail dining outlets are clearly more adaptable to mobile ordering and takeout, residential dining facilities operating under the traditional all-you-care-to-eat model may have some adjustment challenges, though Nutrislice’s survey didn’t address this issue specifically. Still, the implications are that a new mindset will have to emerge regarding customer relations.
“We feel there is going to be this great reset button and everyone is going to experience food with this reset button,” Craig observes. “You may have had a relationship [with customers] prior to COVID-19, but now you’re going to have to tell the right stories, communicate the right things, have the right offerings and show that you’re checking the boxes [to address] the customer experience and the concerns they may have. I am optimistic that [normal dining operations] will eventually return, but it will be on a new campus where operators will have to build this trust and relationship from scratch.”
As for the new, more impersonal “contactless” models being encouraged by the reaction to coronavirus eroding college dining’s traditional role as a community builder and campus culture facilitator, Craig says that will continue, but likely in a different way.
“I think what the modern consumer is pushing for is that they want these things, but they want them on their terms,” he notes. “Before, everything had to go through the residential dining hall and that’s where those experiences needed to happen. Now, I think those experiences will still happen, but on the terms of the customer, and it may not be in the dining hall.”