Promotional events can increase participation, gain publicity and improve morale for customers and employees, but the costs and labor involved can sometimes offset these benefits. However, using customers to help work on promotions—from planning and organizing, to promoting and staffing—can help ease the financial burden and result in more successful events.
“We know from experience that the best foodservice promotions and activities are student driven,” comments Dave Furhman, director of dining programs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. “It is absolutely essential that we work with our customer base. This has been proven time and time again.”
Furhman’s “Sterling Brunch” program is a prime example. The quarterly Sunday brunch, which Furhman compares to “an upscale brunch like you would find at a fancy hotel,” was suggested by students.
“They told us that they’d like a time when they could spend more time socializing with friends and enjoying a meal,” he explains, admitting that he would not have thought of the idea himself.
Furhman admits the event’s success was only moderate at first.
“In the beginning, to be quite frank, students weren’t involved,” says Furhman. “It was just a nice event that we did—nothing spectacular. Then one of the student groups came to us and asked to get involved.”
This represented a turning point for the program. The junior class president, after eating a regular meal in the hall where the Sterling Brunch is normally served, commended Furhman on the quality of the food. She also mentioned an important detail that Furhman had not considered: that facility was considered a freshman dining hall, and as a result most upperclassmen did not dine there, even during the Sterling Brunch.
Furhman allowed the junior class to take ownership of one of the brunches, and eventually each class was assigned one brunch. This opened up the event to a wider range of participants.
“Each class does outreach to their own classmates,” Furhman explains. “They also subsidize the event, which is a huge help. It has allowed us to make the program bigger and better.”
Now, more students from every class are eating in the “freshman dining hall” on regular days.
“We’re working very hard to solicit feedback from our students and provide them with opportunities to show that we’re listening,” Furhman says. “When we try to do events alone, we second-guess [them], and we fall flat.”
A dedicated team: Like Furhman, many operators have found that working with an existing group or organization is an excellent way to fund and promote an event. At St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, a 25-bed facility in Murphysboro, IL, food service manager Cyndi Lindl partners with the hospital’s “mission and values team” on many promotions.
“The focus of the group is to promote the mission and values of our corporation,” says Lindl of the Catholic hospital. “Each year they pick a value and plan events that focus on it.”
Last year, the team picked “stewardship” and created a recipe that combined ham, beans, greens and many other ingredients in a large pot to form a “stone soup.” The organization has also organized a luau, a 50s-themed dinner and a Western day. During these events, customer counts often double.
Although Lindl sometimes plans her own programs, she admits, “we get better participation on the days the mission and values team does it. It comes out of their budget, which leads to a higher participation because obviously more people participate when they don’t have to pay for their meals.”
The promotional benefits of a customer-planned event are perhaps most marked in colleges. Paul Warrender, operations manager at Providence College in Rhode Island, works with a student planning committee on all of his events.
Providence College’s dining services are managed by Sodexho, which provides a list of monthly promotion suggestions. In upcoming months, Warrender may produce a Tex-Mex day complete with country line dancing (“Stirrup the Excitement in Texas”), a New York-themed day and a “home for the holidays” event in December, but the final say belongs to the students. The planning committee advises Warrender on how—and whether—each event should be held. “They decide how best to implement [the events],” says Warrender. “It’s a much better system than me taking a stab at what an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old wants in his or her dining hall.
It’s [also] easier for me to communicate through them than to try to publicize things myself.”
The Providence College student planning group is responsible for promoting events, and they do so through radio ads, campus TV ads and flyers. Warrender calls them “event ambassadors.”
At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, director of dining services Dean Wright conducts focus group testing to find out how best to conduct his promotions.
“Recently, we met with students to find out how much they knew about the possibility of purchasing a meal plan while they lived off campus,” he recalls. “We had tried print ads and thought we were doing well with that, but the students told us otherwise.”
Student suggestions led him to create a DVD showcasing the dining facilities that was sent to all off-campus students. “That’s been a real success,” says Wright. “Right now we [sell] just as many off-campus as on-campus meal plans.”
The focus group later suggested that dining services provide even more information, and “Dish,” a student-run online magazine, was born. There, students suggest dining promotions and publicize events, like an annual silent auction that usually brings in about 700 to 800 participants.
Even elementary schools, like the 11 Fox C-6 schools in Arnold, MO, make use of their “customers” to promote events. There, assistant food services director Joan Valleroy coordinates a much-loved dining promotion called “Bear Week,” which features bear-themed cupcakes, cookies, breads and other treats, as well as raffles and contests. To build excitement for the event, Valleroy has students create bear paper dolls, which are posted on bulletin boards and judged in a contest.
“That really gets the students excited for ‘Bear Week,’” she notes. “The more anticipation there is, the better participation we get.”
Engaging customers: At the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers in Martinez and Sacramento, CA, promotional events are a powerful tool for boosting morale. Michael Beday, chief of canteen services, produces an annual “Employee Appreciation Day” for the two canteen operations and two medical facilities that he oversees. These events are sponsored by a promotional fund taken from the canteens’ profits. “It allows [the employees] to see that the money they spend in the canteen actually comes back to them,” he says.
Beday ensures that Employee Appreciation Day truly belongs to the employees by putting them in charge. “We recruit a team of volunteers to help us develop the agenda. They generally have input on everything from the amount of money we allot, to the menu, the music, whether or not we’ll have dancing, to the prizes we’ll offer at raffle.”
Beday also uses employee volunteers to staff the event in every capacity. One even serves as M.C.
“Working with the volunteers gives me a clear insight on what their needs or desires are,” he says. “By working together with them and giving them ownership, we also promote a positive [image] of our services.”
Using future managers: Sheryl Powell, unit director in Kramer Dining Center at Kansas State Univer-sity, found an eager group of volunteers in the food service production management class that she teaches. As part of their course work, the students put together special biannual dinners. Food and decoration costs are the only contributions from the school.
“The students generate the menu, standardize the recipes, sell tickets and produce and serve the meal,” Powell explains. “It’s a great way for them to learn about production management because they have an incredible amount of ownership.”
The meal also benefits the school. “It’s a great promotion for our dining services and our academic department,” Powell says “And it also gives us great ideas that we can incorporate into what we do every day. We get to see what trends are out there and what kinds of foods our kids are being exposed to, whether they’re from Denver or Kansas City. We implement ideas into our regular menus all the time.”
Last year, the students put together a vegetarian entrée that proved to be the dinner’s most poplar dish. The simple casserole of cheese, vegetables and marinara sauce atop polenta was a compilation of recipes that the school already used, although they never had been married in that format. Powell is eager to add the dish to her regular menu next year.
“We’ve struggled coming up with vegetarian entrees, and this was so simple—and so good,” she says. “We get so many interesting ideas from our students, and they benefit when we offer these dishes back to them.