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Insights from over the pond

Last year I was delighted to win Restaurant Marketer & Innovator’s (RM&I’s) Future Marketing Leader Of The Year award. One of the prizes was a trip to Austin for the SXSW Conference followed by a few days in New York City for meetings and site visits with Union Square Hospitality Group.

Touching down in Austin my hotel was a mere ten minutes from the main convention centre, which gave me a glimpse of the scale of SXSW. After speaking to local taxi drivers and people at the hotel, it’s clear the festival is an ingrained and integral part of the community.

At the first conference it was clear I was surrounded by vital connections from around the world, with a shared interest in marketing, digital and technology.

The first talk I attended focused on the future of influencer marketing. Particular points were:

• The shift to retained and ambassador-type models where influencers work with brands over a sustained period

• A structured model where algorithms dictate an influencer’s worth to a brand based on metrics

• The continued rise of micro-influencers within niche audiences and target demographics, matched by bespoke content

I also really enjoyed talks focused on food tech and the future of alternative proteins. A lot of plant-based brands were there alongside entrepreneurs and those interested in the space. Austin has a strong vegan community and a diverse food offering, while the plant-based market in the US is arguably the most advanced in the world. It was great to hear investors’ and brand owners’ journeys, challenges and what they see as the future of food. UberEats representatives also discussed the shift to convenience dining and delivery services and how restaurants like my own can maximise their assets to meet this demand.

Some really valuable and interesting takeaways were:

• The alternative protein space is growing at an unparalleled rate compared with other industries

• The potential growth niches within this are vertical farming, algae as a protein source, and fungi

• Delivery is set to continue its growth and restaurants should consider how to adapt menus to suit

The opportunity to meet new people and network was possibly the most powerful aspect of my SXSW experience. I enjoyed conversations with a diverse group of people who were open to discussing ideas and sharing experiences. The fact events and sectors overlapped gave the festival depth and meant I was able to attend evening events in places such as the New Dutch Wave House, which hosted an incredible cinematic take on classical music. I would attend again and encourage others to do so.

After three nights I flew to New York. Having lived there ten years ago I’m familiar with the city and had a hit list of restaurants to check out. My current favourite is Plant Food + Wine but I was eager to check out Jajaja and The Butcher’s Daughter. Research trips are incredibly productive and, besides getting to sample new tastes, provide great insights into the way other restaurants operate. As New York is such a densely populated and culturally diverse city, it offers some amazing innovation with food and service, providing a fresh perspective.

RM&I set up a number of site visits and meetings for me with Union Square Hospitality Group and visiting its Manhattan offices was amazing. Having read Danny Meyer’s book and connected with his experiences in opening his first restaurants, it was incredible to be able to present my questions to the company’s management team. I was particularly impressed by their enlightened hospitality and the way they get to truly know their customers to make their experiences unique. Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe are slick operations that, although unique brands in themselves, are recognisable as part of the same machine in the way they look after people. This meeting made me consider how I could make our customers’ experiences more personable and what information we need to convey to guests to facilitate a personable but unobtrusive experience. I like the idea of forming a relationship with customers and bringing them into our narrative, which is a key component of what Union Square does and has achieved. Lots of food for thought!

I would like to thank the donors who contributed to this sponsorship – Fleet Street Communications, Elliotts, WE ARE Spectacular, Wisetiger and RM&I for making this possible. The work that goes on behind the scenes to not only make trips like this possible but the continued work year round in support of the awards and programmes is incredible. Thank you all so much!