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Getting On the Map with Tourists

December 3, 2019

Original content c/o: National Restaurant Association

How to stand out when tourists come looking for a taste of your town

Modern travel is an immersive, sensory experience. Tourists want to discover new experiences, and those include new foods and new kinds of restaurants. Younger consumers, especially, want a culinary taste of place in order to get a sense of place. They want to eat like the locals.


Tourism business counts now for restaurants and may count even more in the future because travelers tend to be dine-in customers. Industry experts surveyed for the National Restaurant Association’s newly released Restaurant Industry 2030 report predict that even as off-premises sales skyrocket over the next decade, the demand will also increase for the unique face-to-face restaurant “experiences” that on-premises diners seek.

Tourists are an especially important market for restaurants. Their dollars account for a third of fine-dining sales, and almost a fourth of casual-dining sales, according to the National Restaurant Association.

You want to get them through your doors and win their favor — not because they can become weekly customers but because they’ll come back to you if and when they come back to town. And more important, they’ll recommend you.

First things first: How do they find your restaurant? How do you find them?

Act local and think like a tourist. After all, tourists and locals flock to Antoine’s, Café du Monde and Galatoire’s in New Orleans. What do they have? Mystique, mythology and distinctive menu items — three things that can turn a restaurant into the not-so-hidden gem that tourists put on their itineraries. It’s the same recipe for newer tourist hotspots, like 10-year-old Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, which has built a “must-try” rep by offering fantastic fare supported by cult-level word-of-mouth recommendations.

Figure out your own secret sauce for building your tourist business:

  • Focus on marketing your restaurant’s unique selling points. Are you situated near a top tourist attraction or can you boast some amazing views? Play up the menu items that make you a quintessential example of your area’s cuisine. Or maybe you have a long history with locals or an interesting origin story? Each of these is a marketing hook.
  • Make sure your website is mobile-friendly and highlights menu, hours, and location. Include buttons for your Twitter and Facebook pages, and links to reviews. Curate your online presence with TripAdvisor, Zagat, Yelp, and Google. These are the go-to search engines for travelers; they trust other travelers. Google only displays restaurants with 4+ star ratings when someone types in “best (food)” + city; make sure your operation shows up.
  • Invite ride-share and taxi drivers in for a meal and make sure local tour guides and key attraction docents know about you so that they can recommend you. They’re the ones getting asked where to eat by out-of-towners.
  • Get involved with the Chamber of Commerce and visitor bureaus to be in-the-know on upcoming events. Connect with city hotel concierges and track (and reward them for) their referrals. Call tour agencies and arrange a prix-fixe meal at a discount during off hours for their tour groups.

And before they walk out your door, ask out-of-town customers where they’re from and how they heard about your restaurant. Let them know you’d love to see them back again.

American Express is a sponsor of the Association’s recently released Restaurant Industry 2030 report.