Visitor attractions regain catering equipment appetite

CARLSBAD, CA-SEPTEMBER-17: The kids buffet at the North America's first ever Legoland Hotel at Legoland on September 17, 2013 in Carlsbad, California.  The three-story, 250-room hotel is located at the entrance of Legoland California theme park. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Operators of leisure venues and visitor attractions have generally under-invested in new catering equipment during recent years, but as the economy recovers and a compelling food offering becomes central to their proposition, there are signs that times are changing. FEJ reports.

Last month, Barclaycard released a report which said that as consumers’ spending confidence grows, they are likely to go on more days out to catch up with friends and family. Over one quarter (27%) of people it surveyed intend to visit more amusement parks, museums and aquariums during the next quarter. And in line with the rise in non-essential spending in many categories elsewhere, 24% inferred they want to act less cautiously and “treat themselves for a change”.

If things are as clear-cut as they sound, the UK’s leisure and tourism sector can look forward to a much needed boost, and if that’s the case then it’s inevitable that food and beverages will feature somewhere in the equation as well. Indeed, Barclaycard’s studies confirm what everyone in the industry already knows: consumers are looking to eat out more again. Statistics bear this out, too. Restaurant spend rose 17% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2015, while a quarter of consumers indicate they plan to visit more restaurants in the next three months. “The fall in petrol prices and muted food prices will give them a bit more discretionary income,” comments Howard Archer of IHS Economics in the report.

Whichever way you look at it, these are all positive signs for a market sector that is being reawakened after a period of under-investment. Any destination expecting an increase in visitor numbers this year needs to think seriously about whether they have the right set-up in place to exploit any anticipated growth, or at least match the demand likely to come their way. It is reported that some 70% of UK adults buy food and drink from leisure venues, emphasising the key role that catering plays in servicing customers and the opportunities that exist for secondary spend.

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Speed of production and service is critical in the leisure and tourism catering sector.

Generally speaking, consumers have been cautious when it comes to catering purchases at leisure venues over the last few years, leading many outlets to offer discounts in a bid to lure them out of their caution. But with consumer confidence set to rise in 2015, operators would be well-advised to provide more innovative menus that prompt customers to purchase, rather than over-relying on profit-damaging discounts.

Radford Chancellor, managing director of foodservice consultant Radford Chancellor Ltd, told FEJ recently that he expects many catering equipment projects to arise in 2015. “We see a large increase in investment opportunities for the catering equipment and catering facilities sectors this year,” he says. “We believe this is because there has been a sustained under-investment over the last five years, which relates back to the earlier unstable economy. We are aware of a number of very high profile leisure venues about to embark on large-scale catering investments.”

It is a trend that Graham Crisp, sales director of Instanta, has also noticed. He says that one impact of the recession is that a lot of operators have spent the last few years ploughing money into repairing existing equipment rather than purchasing replacements. But now, with the economy beginning to grow, they are starting to invest again — albeit in a different way than before.

“The buying criteria has most definitely changed,” he says. “If the recession did any good at all it was perhaps to highlight the high costs involved in repairing and maintaining poor quality equipment because when it comes to buying new we are certainly seeing more of our customers showing an interest in whole life costs. In the case of water boilers this means factors such as warranty length, in-built filtration and other features for which they might pay a little more but which will ultimately extend the life of the unit as well as maintaining its operating efficiency.”

We are aware of a number of very high profile leisure venues about to embark on large-scale catering investments”

The leisure and tourism sector is, of course, a vast one. While some venues will suit intimate coffee shop-style set-ups serving hot beverages and sandwiches, others require a huge equipment estate to deliver high volumes of food in very short periods. And there are those that offer corporate hospitality and banqueting, which place altogether different demands on the operation as far as catering is concerned.

Traditionally, leisure venues and visitor attractions have developed food propositions around a quick service offering, sometimes to the detriment of quality. Guy Cooper, managing director of Mitchell & Cooper, a supplier of catering and barware equipment, thinks this is beginning to change and says the equipment purchasing decisions that are now being made bear this out.

“Historically, leisure operators have looked to implement durable, longstanding equipment that can deliver large quantities with ease. Once, consumers associated these venues alongside visitor attractions with convenience food, which explains this choice; now, with consumer expectations rising exponentially, operators need to implement new equipment for different reasons, in lieu of re-evaluating their food and drink offering. The term ‘fast food’, for one, is rapidly becoming archaic, where operators now take pride in serving handcrafted, authentic produce that is appealing to a growing customer base.”

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There is expected to be a rise in major foodservice projects in the leisure industry this year.

Paul Hickman, development chef at Lincat, agrees that venues are offering higher quality dining experiences as part of hospitality packages, but he finds it difficult to see beyond fast food-style service as the mainstay of leisure venue businesses, simply because speed of service is crucial.

“Whether it’s half-time at a football match, or you’re taking a break at a visitor attraction, customers don’t like to queue for food for too long, so caterers need to get a high volume of hot food through quickly,” he says, adding that his brand’s Opus 700 clam griddle and Silverlink 600 counter-top fryers are examples of the kind of products that are popular with the sector. The griddle, for instance, can produce 4oz burgers in 80 seconds. In sports venues in particular, burgers, pies and chips remain the typical fayre. “We therefore see caterers invest in items to produce these quickly and efficiently, without compromising taste,” adds Hickman.

Stuart Flint, business and training development manager at Electrolux, is also adamant that a café-style fast food offering will continue to be prevalent within leisure venues, if only because people don’t visit expecting fine cuisine. Instead they want food they can procure quickly in order to spend more time enjoying the attraction they came for.

“Due to this, a food offering modelled around convenience and speed will often prevail. That said, there is no doubt that we are talking about an increasingly health-conscious group of consumers, so when purchasing new equipment, managers and specifiers need to consider the health-conscious consumer.”

One company that has grown its presence in leisure venues and stadia recently is Mom’s, the premium hot dog company that provides its customers with a full equipment and retail package.

With consumer expectations rising exponentially, operators across the board need to implement new equipment for different reasons, in lieu of re-evaluating their food and drink offering”

Managing director, Nick Pagett, says it all comes down to having the right proposition. “A broader range of foods are growing in popularity, such as bunny chow from South Africa, as the population’s taste buds broaden in this sector, but it is important that the offering fits the audience and the occasion; we have seen some Tex Mex operators being removed from theme parks due to poor sales, yet this food type is still in growth on the high street.”

He continues: “Clean eating, great value, handheld snacks is where the new demand lies and because typically products must be quick to serve as there is little dwell time in these places, the equipment must be able to cope with not only large volumes but also hot hold times, so as not to diminish the quality of the food being served. Our current equipment range includes a fully branded mobile cart, a counter top bain marie, a hot hold cabinet, which is ideally suited to high volumes as it is dual-tiered, an illuminated retail steamer, which is great in a forecourt or kiosk scenario, and a bar top steamer that is perfect for the smaller operator.”

Radford Chancellor admits that speed of service is likely to continue shaping the buying decisions that are made in the sector, but he also stresses the need to innovate. Concepts such as live cooking and healthy fast food or products that enhance venue perception are key to operators growing their revenues if they put the right equipment foundations in place. “Buyers are looking for equipment that is reliable, robust and requires minimal maintenance,” he remarks. “Our advice for leisure sector buyers is always to look at the ‘lifetime’ costs of catering equipment and not just the capital costs. While we understand capital budgets are still being held back, buyers should not lose sight of the longer term goals and costs.”

It’s a message that Electrolux exudes, too. “The leisure sector is one that relies on casual staff who are expected to undertake a wide variety of tasks, as opposed to experienced chefs,” says Stuart Flint. “Due to this, equipment in leisure venues needs to be tough to withstand not only constant use, but also potential misuse by operators as there may also be a high turnover of staff.”

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