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Building Participation: A Cross-Segment  Imperative

Building Participation: A Cross-Segment Imperative

Participation increases can change foodservice financials dramatically, and usually for the better.

In researching the annual business outlook piece that begins on page 26, it became very clear that, even as most onsite operators can look back on a better 2009 than many of their commercial restaurant counterparts, they are looking forward to a challenging year ahead.

Whether you call it “The New Frugality,” as I saw it headlined in a recent article, or something else, there's a pretty clear consensus from the readers I speak to that the onsite marketplace is a much different place today than it was just a few years ago.

Their customers, regardless of segment, are not only increasingly value-oriented but are also just putting up more resistance when it comes to parting with so-called “discretionary dollars.” It's a trend most forecasters think will continue for some time, especially if unemployment remains high.

  • In B&I, downsized employee counts and catering moratoriums are making status-quo operating models passé;

  • In College and University dining departments, cash sales are down, catering cutbacks are also widespread and students are squeezing every last dollar out of meal plans;

  • In Healthcare, promised retail upgrade funds are on hold, brown bagging is strong and (need we say it again?) catering customers want more for less;

  • and in K-12, tighter nutrition regulation, demands for higher food quality and the elimination of a la carte cash cows are squeezing budgets.

For these and other reasons, it is our prediction that in 2010 onsite operators in every segment will be taking a a much harder look at their participation numbers and at strategies they can use to improve them.

That's not to say such improvements are easy to achieve. In many cases it will mean a re-examination and re-thinking of the basic dining experience and onsite environment in which it occurs.

The customer base is far more diverse today, and not just ethnically. To achieve high participation rates and the satisfaction affinities that drive them, dining has to be much more chameleon-like, featuring characteristics that appeal to a broad mix of demographic, cultural and age groups. It must appeal to those who want to socialize about work, those who want to forget about work, those who want to eat on the run and those who eat at their desks.

Yes, the food also is important. Yes, perceived value is important. And yes, variety and convenience remain important, as does offering the right marketing and promotional mix, front of the house dining experience and retail product mix.

This is quite an order, and not really the kind of strategy you learn about in college hospitality, nutrition or food management courses. And while the strategies to achieve greater participation vary to some degree by segment, the impact of even a modest increase can be dramatic in all of them. In cases where participation increases reach the double digits, it can dramatically change the financials and potential of a foodservice program, almost always for the better.

Which brings me to the theme of this year's FM IDEAS Conference, Building Participation: The Universal Imperative. The conference will return to Chicago this year, on October 26-28, and will be hosted at the new Trump International Hotel there. The program will focus on the ideas, tools and strategies operators can effectively use to increase their site participation rates, even in a time of budget austerity.

For now, we'd like to invite you to save that date. And if you have a success story about an innovative approach you used to substantially increase your participation rates, let us hear about it! We're looking for a few additional presenters for the conference and are accepting presentation submissions for consideration until March 12. (You can do so at

Come October, we look forward to your participation at our event and to the results we hope it helps you achieve.

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