Clout of the tourist dollar

The Stokehouse is an icon of Victorian tourism, and an example of what can be done by savvy restaurateurs.

The Stokehouse is an icon of Victorian tourism, and an example of what can be done by savvy restaurateurs.

A great strategy for regional restaurants to thrive is to become a tourist icon. But how exactly do you go about doing that? Start by asking the experts, says Miles Clarke.

The perception that a restaurant is “touristy” and panders to the tourist market can give it an undesirable reputation. The implication is that serving food to tourists is somehow different to having plumbers or merchant bankers as customers. It’s nonsense, but perceptions remain.

In May R&CA members read about Alla Wolf-Tasker, who deserves culinary sainthood for the work she and her family have done in Daylesford over three decades to lift the quality of  dining in regional Victoria.

Her uncompromising approach to regional cuisine and produce has helped to lift the image of regional dining and indirectly created hundreds of jobs, with chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs around the state confident to court the tourist dollar.

It’s the tourists that make the difference in rural economies, often determining the entire viability of a village or town. One needs only look at the Beechworth Bakery in Victoria to see the power of one determined individual. In the Barossa Valley of South Australia, the 1918 Bistro & Grill has positioned itself in the wine tourism market so well it has secured 90 per cent of its business from leisure travellers.

Most restaurants catering to tourist traffic are in prime positions, usually with the best views in the area. They may be convenient for tourists but not necessarily so for staffing requirements. Business might fluctuate significantly according to the season, all of which impacts on pricing and can draw that pejorative of “tourist trap”.

Inbound tourism numbers are about five million a year and domestic tourism, while currently fairly flat, is a huge source of revenue for the restaurant sector. Examples include Hastings Street in Noosa and King Street Wharf in Sydney where tourists bring energy and vitality to the dining precincts.

The truth is Australia has some iconic restaurants which have reached their celebrated status through providing leisure travellers with a world-class dining experience, a sense of occasion and an experience of friendship and laughter.

It takes just a moment of looking at the website of the Stokehouse on the waterfront at Melbourne’s St Kilda to see that management knows as much about managing image as food and service.

The 1916 building which opened as tea house has been through many changes of use, with the Prince Group steering its fortunes since major renovations in the early 1990s. It operates as a fine dining restaurant upstairs, with a more casual bistro and bar downstairs where menu items seldom go north of $20.

It’s a natural for tourists and the sunsets on Port Phillip Bay are as good as you’ll get in a horizontal city like Melbourne.

Roger Fowler is operations manager and has been with the Prince Group for 16 years, having started as a chef in the downstairs bistro. The restaurant welcomes guests from all over.

“Local tourist business is hard to judge. On weekdays we certainly get a larger proportion of people from the Port Phillip area. Over the weekends the customers come from all parts of Melbourne. The Stokehouse is known internationally and our main tourist periods tend to be when major events or conferences are in town. Peak periods for us would be Spring Carnival, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, Ashes Cricket, AFL Finals and the Comedy Festival.”

Tourists are good business, says Fowler, with average bills for two ranging from $100 to $150. Business is also buoyant at the moment, but not without its problems. The Europeans with their Euro-charged exchange rates are a significant proportion of their international clientele.

“With wholesaler prices increasing all the time, it’s hard for us to increase our prices in line without a customer backlash. I really feel for the producers and farmers, with the middle man reaping the rewards,” Fowler says.

The best way of building his tourist business is through word of mouth and consistency. He prudently won’t reveal his techniques for generating business when going through a quiet patch. He’s quite supportive of the work Tourism Victoria does for the industry.

“Tourism Victoria has always been great with us and we try to assist their needs where possible.”

Michael’s Restaurant has been a fixture of Brisbane’s fining dining scene for more than a quarter of a century and has been in the Riverside complex since the mid-80s.

It’s heavily patronised by the business community, but it also enjoys strong tourist trade thanks to its location overlooking the Brisbane River. Celebrities who have stopped by include the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, Tony Bennett, Joan Collins, Joan Sutherland, U2 and Dire Straits. The restaurant is a magnet for the Big End of town for lunch, with tourists more likely to frequent it in the evening. The average bill for a couple who have three courses and wine is $220.

“Locals are important as they keep returning. However, the tourist market is just as important to us,” says Bettina Hamilton-Irvine, the Functions and Marketing manager for Michael’s.

The management at Michael’s is tireless in keeping the restaurant front-of-mind for people who can influence the decision-making process of tourists, especially at times when business is soft.

“We keep positive relationships with the concierges of most of the major hotels. They are good to us and we reciprocate. We make sure they know our restaurant so they can recommend it better. Some hotels have included us in their in-house restaurant recommendation brochures and we also advertise on tourist websites,” says Hamilton-Irvine. The company offers special deals through AMEX and other third party marketeers.

Michael’s has done much to insinuate itself into the tourist industry of the state, playing a supportive role for the sector.

“We have held networking functions at Michael’s and MIX, our adjoining lounge bar, where tourism groups promote the area to travel agents. This seems to work well. Michael’s Restaurant also has a good relationship with the Department of Tourism, Regional Development and Industry, which regularly uses Michael’s for catering or functions and has events in conjunction with our restaurant. We hold an annual Queensland Day Food and Wine Festival at Michael’s Restaurant. We initiated this and due to its success, the Department of Tourism, Regional Development and Industry has started to support us in this,” she says.

Word of mouth remains the key marketing ingredient for leisure or business customers at Michael’s. “It’s particularly useful when it comes from hotel staff, as this is where tourists get their information. Tourists also speak to locals such as taxi drivers, shop assistants and others. As Michael’s is such a well known place with a great reputation, word of mouth is always a good thing for us,” says Hamilton-Irvine.

At 1918 Bistro & Grill, Chris and Melissa Fletcher have two years under their belts as owners of the busy restaurant in Tanunda in the Barossa Valley. The restaurant opened in 1992 and the Fletchers have been there seven and three years respectively.

“We find that our tourist trade will use lunch time at the restaurant as a place to have a quick bite to eat in between cellar doors, hence not drinking (or spending) much at lunch time. Dinner time at the restaurant they are more relaxed and will enjoy a meal over a bottle of wine,” says Melissa Fletcher.

“Locals use lunch time for business or long lunches, spending more than the tourist on food and beverage. Dinner for locals is more about having a bite to eat (not cooking at home) usually BYO, as many of us have a great cellar collection living in the Valley, generally spending less than the tourists at dinner time.”

While word of mouth recommendations are important, restaurants wanting to secure tourist business need to advertise more aggressively than their counterparts whose business is mostly from the local community.

“Advertising in tourism guides is always a great reference guide for people coming to South Australia and the Barossa, they can easily find and contact the restaurant. Keeping the restaurant consistent with food and service is a huge factor for tourists returning to the Barossa,” says Fletcher.

“We get a lot of recommendations from local cellar door and accommodation places that advise tourists to dine at the restaurant. Many people that have travelled from interstate and overseas will mention that a family member or friend had dined in the restaurant and had recommended us.”

It seems to be working for the Fletchers.

“Generally tourism is very steady and picks up with the warmer weather. We get a lot of walk-in trade as we are situated on the main street. Tourism is definitely up from last year,” Melissa Fletcher says.

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