How far ahead should hospitality leaders be looking?

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

The future can be such a dividing subject. In business we have to be looking forward to consider where consumer and market place trends may change to adapt our approach and future-proof our business, yet we have to avoid the pitfalls of not concentrating on the now or fall into the realm of navel-gazing. The question I find myself answering a lot is how far should we be looking into the future? That’s a hard topic to answer. 


You’d think it would be the largest names in our sector spending the most time and resources looking into the future, planning for the big societal shifts that are hypothesised. There at certainly some cutting-edge players out there doing just that, but for the most part it seems our biggest operators are just trying to cope with bringing their business practices, brands and approach up to date. Not yet really looking beyond the immediate challenge and trends coming down the track. 


I met two recently appointed chief marketing officers this week who are the first in that role at their respective companies. Both talked heavily about taking a more strategic approach that would help the business thrive into the future, rather than the tactics-based approach they’d been welcomed to. This takes foresight and some bravery on the part of the chief executive. It is ultimately not a position they are going to see immediate return from, the strategies we discussed would likely take years to show much in terms of return.


I wondered, and asked, what sparked this move, seeing a change in thinking and internal positioning of marketing as a strategic lead. On both occasions the need to have more foresight and be better prepared for market changes was the answer. Both were casual dining groups, both will definitely have seen challenging trading. It’s great to see strategic marketing being invested in at this time – it’s all too easy for businesses to concentrate on short-term cost-cutting during tough times, ultimately at the expense of the future success of the business.


I don’t think it’s a coincidence Wagamama has been market leading of late. I think it is one standout example of a business that looks to the future, conducts extensive research, invests in technology and engages with businesses it knows are innovating around future trends.


Meeting with Emma Woods, its customer director, and Andre Johnstone, UK marketing director, ahead of launching its seamless payment app, it struck me how their thinking was so far ahead of the market. The solution they developed took heavy investment and testing. It was also clear it wasn’t expected to be an overnight success. It’s part of a roadmap of innovation that will continue to evolve the business and keep it ahead of the market, with continued relevance to its customers.


Compare that meeting with another just a few days later with the board of a large casual dining group and it couldn’t be more different. The focus of the meeting was about getting up to speed with social media. I saw the challenge far deeper-reaching than something that could be patched with a tactical promotional campaign. The job at hand was really about needing to enact a revolutionary reposition project for one brand. The problem, however, is the short-term focus of the investors driving a culture of immediate return in the executive team, which knew it would be the right approach but felt it was unattainable.


Back to those big societal shifts and macro-trends, beyond even this internal brand-focused approach. Who in our sector is driving or involved in these conversations?

Yesterday (Thursday, 3 May), I met with Lara Ladyman, a farmer and farming journalist from Australia who recently won a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, an organisation that aims to broaden horizons through study and travel overseas with a view to developing farming and agricultural industries. 


We toured London and talked extensively about the current trends and challenges our sector faces. It was fascinating. She is visiting the US, China, Canada and the EU looking at what lies ahead in the whole supply chain from farm to plate, specifically looking at evolving technologies. She was asking questions such as: “Will we be eating cell-cultured meat and 3D-printed food?” 


For the most part it seems major suppliers and retailers are leading the way in this type of discussion about the future of food. But with changing consumer buying habits seeing growing proportions of food spend being out of home rather than in-store, I wonder if there is a broader conversation to be had in our sector? Adversely it seems most of the representation of the out-of-home market seems to come from high-end chefs. 


In truth, it may be a much broader challenge our sector has. That is the importance we put on food within our businesses. It often seems to be relegated to a subject for purchasing and senior chefs alone, but given the relevance to our business it should be at leadership level. Think of any industry conference you’ve attended recently, how much of the content was on food? In the most part it is missing. I feel inspired to do my part by including a section about food trends and the future of food into the Restaurant Marketer & Innovator European Summit next January, but perhaps it’s time for us to lift food up our agenda and work to engage in these conversations. 


If you’ve read this and at this point are screaming at your screen that you are already, I’d love to hear from you and get you involved in January.


First published in Propel.

© 2019 by THINK HOSPITALITY LIMITED

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