As college and university dining departments endeavor to do “more with less,” efficiency measures and budget cuts can go only so far before the very mission of the program is compromised. Revenue enhancements, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to improve service and/or financial contribution, and one source of “new” revenue that seems to be gaining favor in campus dining is a focus on growing voluntary meal plan sales.
Many schools have some minimum meal plan purchase requirement, usually applying to freshmen and/or students living on campus, while offering meal plans to others on a voluntary basis.
Food Management and Envision Strategies surveyed dining directors and managers about voluntary meal plans with regard to their current program, price range, purchasing habits, locations used and promotional methods.
Only 4.5% of directors surveyed indicated that they were signing up more than 90% of the potential market for their voluntary meal plans while over a third (34.1%) indicated that that number was 10% or less.
Of those who purchase voluntary meal plans, most are either resident students with no mandatory meal plan requirement (32.5%) or commuter students living within walking distance of campus (29.8%). Of the rest, 17.9% are commuters who have to drive to school and 7.4% are faculty or staff.
When respondents were asked to rank the locations where voluntary meal plans were most and least used on their campuses, residential dining units topped the list while vending and concessions were at the bottom.
Respondents were also asked what they thought were the top two attributes important to voluntary meal plan customers by customer type. For resident students with no mandatory meal plan requirement, it was clearly the availability of all-you-care-to-eat/buffet meals. That and the availability of declining balance dollars were considered most important for commuter students of all types as well as for for faculty and staff.
Sojo Alex is an associate at Envision Strategies, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning and operations consulting for food service, hospitality and retail enterprises. Prior to joining Envision, she was the Brand Manager for Culinary Services at Michigan State University.