These days, if you don’t have a website, you almost don’t exist. For the hospitality industry, this key customer driver is crucial, explains Ilona Varga
It used to be a phone number, street address and friendly maître d’ were all you needed to be found by the hungry masses. But today’s smart-phone-toting diner requires mobile rendering, widgets and points of engagement. If that all sounds like a different language, fear not—your translators are here to help.
“Websites are an extension of the restaurant itself,” says Kate Johnstone of Ascender, an agency specialising in brand strategy and digital design. The firm worked closely with restaurateur Sam Christie of Longrain. “I think we actually used our managing director’s handwriting,” recalls Johnstone, who’s also worked with Christie on his other venues, The Apollo in Sydney’s Potts Point and the newly launched Surry Hills Indian restaurant, Subcontinental.
“The art direction, the photography—all of it should be designed to embody the experience of being at the restaurant, thus creating the desire to go,” says Johnstone. “With Longrain, we decided to let beautiful food photography do all the talking—and selling. People are looking to experience the food, and if there’s no photography or the site’s not art directed very well, you lose traction.”
For Sam Christie, that was the clear objective. “When you’re looking at the website, you have to get a real feeling for the restaurant. It’s the first impression of what the restaurant’s going to be like.”
That said, it’s not all extreme close-ups of artfully draped shallots. Nial Phillimore is a managing consultant with IMExpert, an internet marketing agency whose sole purpose is to get businesses found online.
Yes, original and relevant images are good, he says, but equally important is that the website is easy to navigate with clear headings or tabs, and an obvious and easily accessible ‘point of engagement’—phone number, email link or contact form.
“A lot of websites try to be too focused on the aesthetic, and neglect functionality, which lends itself to a poor user experience. There’s a fine balance between something beautiful and something functional—and often it’s the beautiful ones that fail. Huge hero pictures taking up the full screen, with no real information on there; nothing to engage the incredibly fickle and very busy internet audience whose basic attitude is, ‘We want to know now, or bollocks to you’. The most important thing is finding that balance of style and substance.”
Johnstone agrees that just as you entice a user via sensory means, it’s important to deliver the nitty-gritty, too. “Contact details and operating hours up front—people want to know when you’re open. And a menu,” she says.
“It’s another arm, looking at a website,” says Christie. “It’s more about getting information—menu, address, phone number—immediately than anything else.”
Johnstone suggests to her clients that rather than creating a desktop website and a bespoke mobile one, a responsive site is best; one that can ‘snap down’, as she calls it, to a mobile device. “Across the hospitality industry especially, people tend to browse on their phones,” she says.
Phillimore also points out that Google recently announced that all websites not optimised, or rendered, for mobile devices will drop in rankings, though Christie didn’t need Google to point this out.
“The whole mobile thing is important now. A lot of people are scrolling through their phones to call the restaurant or see the address. That was way up there for me in terms of importance,” he stresses.
The other thing Christie was keen to implement was the ability to book a table online. “People are time poor and tech-savvy,” he says. “A lot of people work from their desks and contact online. Plus they might want to book a restaurant at 1am when no-one’s there to answer the phone.”
“It’s more about getting information—menu, address, phone number—immediately than anything else.” Sam Christie, Longrain
This can be as simple as an email address for customers to click that takes them to their own mail server, or a simple ‘widget’—a web application allowing the customer to book a table, making it even easier for them, and you.
“Longrain has recently added the ability to book a table, which was a function that it hadn’t had until then,” says Johnstone, admitting that though it’s been a great addition, it’s not a solution for every restaurant. “Part of The Apollo’s ethos, for example, is wanting a phone call—a receptive contact rather than a faceless online one.”
“You can’t change a website’s look too often, or directly connect with consumers through it, but a good, consistent, regular social-media strategy can. People want to see food stuff, and want to get excited.”
As each restaurant is different, different approaches will apply. For example, Christie’s new establishment, Subcontinental, feels very different from his other two, and this is reflected in the website. “It’s a little bit simpler than Longrain and The Apollo—a little less information; more succinct and cleaner. Sometimes less is more.”
This is a thought echoed by Phillimore, who often advises clients to pare back erroneous information and only include what is actually relevant. “Make it really, really obvious what the website’s about, and only that. Ensure yours loads quickly, and is succinct—not pages and pages and pages of blurb. Don’t go talking about your suppliers or providers; this is your shop window.”
“Less really is more, in some instances,” agrees Johnstone. “Stay true to what it’s like to dine there. Treat it as an extension of the restaurant itself. One big image, phone number, opening hours and that’s it,” she says.
Really? “It can be that easy.”