Personalizing the Guest Experience in Casual-Dining Restaurants

Is it possible for big brand restaurants with multiple locations to deliver the intimate, personalized guest experience that the modern consumer is seeking out these days?

Anna Krone is TGI Fridays’ Director of Bar and Beverage Innovation, and Mityas is their Chief Experience Officer. In a conference at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show, which I was lucky enough to attend, they suggested that bars and restaurants should shift their focus towards personalization—whether a brand runs one venue or 1,000. And, considering TGI Fridays has almost 500 locations across the US and over 900 globally, focusing on individual experiences is certainly a demanding task.  

“Personalization really matters” Mityas said. This means focusing on the individual rather than large groups of target customers. “That personal connection with a guest every night across the bar with every drink is what really separates you from the competition.”

As a writer who's basically obsessed with guest experience in hospitality, I’m intrigued by the unique challenges that come with offering a personalized experience in large brand restaurants. So, from my own attendance at Nightclub & Bar, and further research online, I aim to address those exact challenges here.

First, why focus on personalization? 

 You’re not just competing with the bar down the road. You’re competing with technology that allows people to stay home.  

There are a ton of delivery services and online apps that can easily provide restaurant-quality food and drink to people’s homes—however, we’re still largely social creatures. We want to go out, be with people, have experiences. Personalization is a powerful tool because it’s an area where convenience technology falls short.

Additionally, people want to feel connected to the space they’re in, not served a cookie-cutter version of an impersonal brand. This becomes complicated when considering the importance and benefits of brand consistency—the ability to provide an incredible guest experience that is unique to your brand across all locations, regardless of geography. 

So, how can brands provide a personalized experience while maintaining consistency? 

The guest experience should largely be a part of your brand—ingrained in your culture, the very roots of who you are as a company. If you deliver an exceptional and personalized experience, it should be replicated every single time someone comes back. This sense of dependability is a big part of what drives repeat business; the customer remembers how good their experience was and wants to have it again, and again.  

Also, it’s important to understand that you’re not going to appeal to absolutely everyone. As David Klemt wrote in his blog for Nightclub & Bar on this topic, “Being all things to all people means you’re nothing to everyone.” Blunt, but true. A personalized experience at the core of your company’s culture means focusing on a niche audience and embracing that niche wholly. 

Many brands understand the hows and whys of targeting a specific demographic—like marketing to millennials, for example—but experts like TGI Fridays’ Mityas argue that it’s time to shift to an even narrower perspective. The benefit of which is giving people a reason to think about your restaurant before all others because they're connected to and invested in your brand. 

You’ve got to dive in and really get to know your guests. Who’s coming through that door? How long are they staying? What are they ordering? What music do they like? The more you focus on these types of questions, the more you can personalize and build brand loyalty within your guests.

Digging a little deeper brings us to three main factors to focus on:

1.  Staff and training

2.  Rewarding guest loyalty in unique ways

3.  Adopting innovative technology

Let’s go through each and unravel the key elements that contribute to creating an excellent, personalized guest experience. 

1. Staff and training

 So many places train only once, when someone’s first hired. This, however, is not the case at TGI Fridays. They do annual re-validations.

You may have heard before that it’s easier to train someone new to the industry than a seasoned vet—as the new person doesn’t have the preconceived notions or bad habits of the experienced one. This may be true, but consistent training updates for your staff means that those old habits can be changed or eliminated. And it makes any change or transition phase a whole lot smoother. 

Update your staff on modern concepts of guest experience and genuine hospitality. Get them engaged and motivated to not just meet customers’ expectations, but exceed them. If they’re struggling in any way, ask them why and help them through it.

Hospitality expert and consultant Kelly Jones—who’s worked with The Malibu Inn, Proof Tavern, and Hell’s Kitchen, just to name a few—also spoke at a Nightclub & Bar conference, stressing the idea that “your staff is your brand.” He urged business owners to "build up the people who will build your business." Your team is the point of real human contact with your guests, so the brand experience needs to be deeply ingrained in their minds and personalities. 

Jones pointed out these four elements of high-performing teams:

1.  A Common Purpose: an overarching goal that your brand and team truly believes in.

2.  Performance Goals: individual goals for each team member to strive towards and achieve. 

3.  Complementary Team Members: staff that understand and support each other.

4.  Mutual Accountability: there’s no passing the blame here, if there’s a mistake, it’s everyone’s mistake. 

“Train, train, and train some more,” Jones said. The more you expect from people, the more you have to train them.

Also, you’ve got to be a role model that employees can base their behavior on. If you’re not aligned with these values and don’t appear to believe in your brand’s cause, your staff won’t either. Also, practice empathy with your team.

“How ironic,” Jones points out, “that the dishwasher is one of the lowest paid positions, but you couldn’t pay anyone in this room enough money to take over that job for a week.” Understand where your employees are coming from and make sure they understand that you’re all in this together. 


2. Rewarding guest loyalty in unique ways

How many “loyalty” cards do you have in your wallet right now? How many of them are sitting with a bunch of random “points” that you have no clue what to do with or just don’t care? 

Whitney Larson, President of the POS tech company Vemos, also spoke at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show and brought up these very questions. She recognizes the value in a loyal customer, stating that they’re “worth more than 10 times their first purchase.”

According to her findings, a mere 11% of millennials actively engage with loyalty programs. For them, a “points card” system is simply inconvenient, unemotional, and unoriginal. 

However, 62% of millennials say that brand engagement is what makes them more loyal. Largely done online nowadays, brand engagement is when people create an emotional and/or rational attachment to a brand. A quick and clear example is when someone takes a selfie with their Starbucks cup, posts it online, and then Starbucks itself will retweet or respond to the post. 

But there are many other ways to reward guest loyalty than just points cards and retweets. One incredibly effective and wonderfully personal way is to treat guests like VIPs. This takes a bit of cunning and memory work on behalf of your staff, but if a guest is recognized and brought a dessert for coming back, or given a free upsize to their pint because, “I remember you; I had a blast serving this table last time!” they’ll be blown away. These little things add up and really make a difference.

In a similar talk at the NC&B Show, Kyle Noonan—founder and CEO of FreeRange Concepts—urged bar and restaurant owners to “market with your consumer, not at them.” His idea is to “be willing to be bold and offer them something they wouldn’t expect.” Focus on the wants and needs of individuals that are patronizing your establishment and bring them those ‘wow moments.’

He used the metaphor of a koi pond to describe his modern view of hospitality marketing. When you walk up to a koi pond and dip your finger in, the fish swim right up to you. Why is that? Because these fish have never seen a hook—your guests shouldn’t see a hook either, in the marketing sense. If you offer a personalized experience that exceeds their expectations, people will happily come back to your location. It’s time to market without a hook.

3. Adopting innovative technology

TGI Fridays’ Mityas warns that while technology is important, it shouldn’t be replacing anyone on your team—so maybe stay away from buying a robot bartender for now. The real value of technology lies in enhancing the relationships between your guests and your team. 

Control Play, for example, is a music video, playlist, and digital signage service that’s centered around a personalized guest experience. You’re able to use personalized playlists to suit your brand experience, schedule the right videos and songs for your dayparts, and even display a personalized message on your screens to greet new guests or celebrate a special occasion. The system makes it easy to effectively create ambiance in your bar or restaurant, and you can boldly offer your guests something they wouldn’t expect. 

Implementing this system throughout many locations also has the benefit of retaining brand consistency. The audio/video elements of your restaurant can be maintained easily across all venues, heightening the dependability of your brand experience overall.

But are music videos right for your business? Some may think the medium doesn’t belong in a casual-dining space, but it very much depends on what that space looks like and who the people within it are. 

If you look at the stats from Vevo, one of the largest music video platforms, it becomes clear that music videos are more popular than ever. In 2018, their monthly music video view count was 25 billion, and the average amount of time users spent watching videos per month was 1.1 billion hours. It’s a huge revelation to unravel, but it’s evident that your customers are indeed watching music videos—so why not integrate that feature into their overall experience? 

This is exceeding guest expectations: great music, great visuals, all fitting to your atmosphere. People may expect muted sports or news on your TV screens, and possibly the radio playing in the background, but what really blows them away is how this consistent, holistic experience helps your brand engage guests on all 5 senses

Of course, this is just the main tech that I’m very familiar with. There are plenty of other innovations to look into that can enhance guest experience. In Klemt’s blog, he points out how “TGI Fridays has used shimmering dust, flaming elements to Tiki drinks, and color-shifting butterfly pea in their beverage programs.” This is the kind of innovation that’s directly related to your menu items rather than the atmosphere, and it also works to separate a business from a crowd. 

Casual-dining blog Fast Casual has a pretty great article on other technologies available now that are transforming the restaurant industry: read it here!


It starts at the top with the decision maker(s) of your brand choosing to implement a change. It could be a new training regimen that sets a standard for guest interaction, a new take on marketing efforts and driving brand loyalty, or it could be the addition of a new technology that enhances the ambiance and energy of your space. 

But your staff training, guest loyalty, and innovative technology all need to be assessed and adopted into this modern idea of personalization when focusing on guest experience—especially when managing many different locations. 

Whatever the idea is, make sure your plan unfolds piece by piece in each location to maintain consistency.  

Thinking of adopting an innovative solution to your brand?
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Kevin Avram

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