Which cities are the best to visit for hospitality inspiration?

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

The world is an ever-closer place, that’s for sure. I have many personal stories that act as testament, including bumping into not one, but two British hospitality leaders in New Zealand at Christmas.


Last year was a busy one for me, moving full time into Think Hospitality and travelling to 21 countries, mostly for work but quite a few for pleasure too. Much of this travel is for client projects but the biggest chunk is presenting at and emceeing hospitality conferences. On counting, I worked out I had spoken to more than 7,000 hospitality leaders and professionals.


All that travel and listening to so many inspirational speakers opens your eyes to the innovation that exists in our sector. You recognise global trends and understand the opportunities in each country. It constantly reasserts what a great sector we work in.


So many principles of running a hospitality business are the same no matter where you go in the world, not least the challenge of getting the right team. In every country I visited last year leaders told me there was considerable pressure on the staff pipeline and they wished hospitality was more highly regarded as a career – and that’s without the direct impact of Brexit. Clearly the business models change, but not as much as you might expect. For the most part the secular trends are global, while cyclical trends are much more localised.


One thing we Brits can be proud of is the transformation of London’s food scene during the past two decades and the respect our capital has as a hospitality centre around the world. Apart from our American friends, it’s clear most other nations look to London for inspiration and as a benchmark, this is particularly prevalent across the rest of EMEA. 

During the Christmas break I took the opportunity to reflect on learnings and take-aways from individual countries and thought you might find it useful for your own travel plans this year. 


Beijing, China

In terms of using consumer technology in hospitality, China is only trumped by Japan. Forget your Visa and Mastercard when visiting China, neither work for the most part. Increasingly in Beijing people don’t pay with cash either, many outlets have stopped taking it. What becomes a nightmare for Western tourists is a super simple payment solution for residents. The two mammoth payment solutions of WeChat and AliPay work with QR code-type technology. Operators can use the solution to offer pre-ordering and pay-at-table technology. We see so many cool uses of such technology including scannable walls of dishes you can quickly select and which are then delivered directly to you, not a specific residential or work address. If you think the UK is bad for people looking down at their phones, wait until you hit the streets of China. People are glued to their screens so much coffee shops have virtual reality headsets for use while waiting. This use of technology quickly drains device batteries and in almost all coffee shops you can pick up a charging device that can be used on the go and dropped back at any point in the network. It works just like a Boris Bike, you’re only charged for the time you use it.


Dubai, UAE

If you want to see creativity uninhibited by cost, visit Dubai. It has some unbelievably iconic designs and loads of inspiration. You have the ideal recipe here –filthy rich wannabe restaurateurs splashing the cash on ridiculous fit-outs who aren’t too worried about returns, international brands wanting to make it big and gargantuan malls trying to stay ahead of the next city-sized competitor in development. Dubai is definitely eye opening and inspirational. For the most part the city has been driven by real estate opportunities for so long you get a mishmash of schemes across the city that open with a bang and then join the tens of others in a normal routine. That means you’ve got to make your money back quickly, if that’s your aim. Many of the established companies have finally got into a rhythm of creating concepts rather than just franchising but international brands are still prolific here, mostly from the US – although quite a few from the UK too. Dubai is still a favourite first stop for most British brands looking to franchise as it can be lucrative with territory fees. There is an expected bubble building around EXPO 2020, which is expected to pop shortly after, although it is undoubtedly the leading international destination in the Middle East and well worth a visit if you’ve not been before. 


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In contrast to Dubai, a city that has built itself as an international destination, Riyadh has long been off the international community’s radar. It has, however, always had a culture of hospitality closely linked to the Arabic culture and dining out. In the past few years, increasing numbers of international brands have appeared there, which isn’t surprising when you consider it’s the biggest market in the GCC. With the crown prince looking to open up the country an increasing number of brands are looking at opportunities and, with partitions coming down in many hospitality businesses, Saudi Arabia is becoming more palatable for many. That said, a number of brands still reject the market on a matter of principle, with recent events clearly not helping. Neighbouring Bahrain was a real revelation. It might be a small market but has some of the best home-grown concepts coming out of the Middle East. 


Dublin, Ireland

With Brexit looming and a casual dining squeeze in the UK, our closest neighbour has been getting a lot of attention. Walk through the streets of Dublin today and compared with even a year ago the number of British hospitality brands is on the up. There is still a traditional pub-going culture, with far fewer takeovers by gentrified drinking establishments. For the most part the market is still independent with a few larger players, mostly wet-led. It’s still one hell of a night out but with lots of creativity and innovation and, dare I say, many concepts clearly “borrowed” from some well-known London brands. 


New York City, US

I’ve previously written about New York in Propel following our study tour there but it would be rather remiss not to mention the second-best dining destination in the world (he says as a proud Brit with hopes no American friends pick him up on the claim). When it comes to the contemporary and fine dining end of the market, NYC clearly nails it. That said, the bar scene didn’t feel like much to write home about and in terms of mid-market dining the UK is a clear international leader. When it comes to fast causal to-go it does feel like they are a little more ahead of the curve, with many more brands in this space in terms of differentiation of offer, although food quality leaves a lot to be desired. Salad is most definitely a bigger thing, perhaps with New Yorkers being a little more health conscious. In terms of soft drinks there is a crazy breadth on offer, with much more category differentiation. Lunch subscription was my biggest takeaway, which has hit the UK in a small way but still has a long way to go.


Auckland, New Zealand

Australasia clearly leads the world when it comes to coffee. Having lived in Australia and New Zealand for five years, I’ve struggled drinking coffee elsewhere. If I’d visited Melbourne it may well have pipped this spot but Auckland also has an incredible casual scene. They do casual far more organically than us. By nature the Kiwis are that little more laid back and with that comes a beautiful cafe culture that feels unique. It’s a long way for a visit but if you’re in the coffee or cafe business, this part of the world should be a regular pilgrimage.


Copenhagen, Denmark

Outside the UK, Denmark is the country I spent most time in last year and it’s definitely up there as one of the best food destinations in Europe. As in London, this wasn’t always the case in Copenhagen. It’s risen from virtually nothing during the past decade or so and is a real inspiration for foodies. As a nation the Danes have defined their own food identity and placed it within the national psyche. As well as the renowned superstar fine dining players, Copenhagen has a proliferation of creative premium casual dining brands and the meat-packing district is full of independents with an edge. Traditionally the city’s hospitality companies have been multi-concept, perhaps driven by only having one significant market in which to grow. However, an increasing number of branded outlets are popping up and trying to keep an edge as they grow – perhaps much more strongly as this market likes the sense of individuality. Watch this space for these brands appearing across Europe, with many looking to London after Germany and other Scandinavian cities.


Tallinn, Estonia

Perhaps a city to save for the future regarding hospitality inspiration but certainly one to add to this year’s weekend away list. Tallinn has really been influenced by the Nordic food revolution and is on track to drive an equivalent in the Baltics. There are a number of great operators doing interesting things but you need to seek them out. If you’re lucky you’ll find some cool speakeasy bars, beautiful waterside restaurants and great street food markets.


Across the world the most prevalent theme that stands out is one of hospitality as the heartbeat of nations. 


For consumers we provide places where people meet, where food brings people together, where memories are made, where locals can meet with internationals, where people lose reality for a period of time, where children discover a love of food and where love is born on first dates.


To our teams it provides a sense of family and belonging, helps teach people the skills of life, develops empathy, enhances communication skills, and gives those who may not have had an opportunity a chance to travel. Our sector really is like no other.


First published in Propel Friday opinion.  

© 2019 by THINK HOSPITALITY LIMITED

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