Is social media hurting the hospitality industry?

Is social media hurting the hospitality industry with the endless search for the next bright shiny light?

It’s Friday afternoon. We’ve all been there - productivity approaching zero, scrolling through Instagram to find the coolest new spot in town to bask in our freedom, quench our thirst and tickle our taste buds.

We’re all guilty of it and it’s not exactly our fault, dining options keep increasing and so do the people who want to talk about it on social media. Whether qualified to or not, all it takes now is a phone and an Instagram account with a funky name to become a compass for those in need of a little foodie direction.

But what effect is all this having on the hospitality industry?

Has the scale of importance for dining begun to shift from great quality, experience and service to instagramability? Does it now matter if day in, day out you’ve got the best offering in the city if nobody is talking or posting about you? Or will people rather flock to the restaurant with 600 likes on a bagel? Must be a pretty great bagel.

Is said bagel now worth more?

Now, this wasn’t always the case. Before the Instagram generation, our folks had their favourite spots - the kind of place you’d only visit on a special occasion. The kind of place that you’d spend weeks on weeks being excited for, knowing that your table was booked and ready - you probably even already knew what you were going to order. So did your waiter.

The world has changed a lot since then sure, the obsession with food has skyrocketed as our attention turned to reality television, celebrity chefs and social media. The convenience of fast food has begun to dull through the well overdue realisation that it (shockingly) is actually bad for our health and the dominance of affordable mid-range dining is beginning to show its teeth.

But moving forward though, where does this leave us? Are we constantly looking for the perfect restaurant or are we simply just happy looking? Forever trying something new, looking for the next big thing.

Rather than changing menus seasonally, we now have restaurants with no fixed identity changing menus and concepts every few weeks. With each new menu comes new marketing budgets and the attention isn’t so much on creating tasty balanced menus but rather creating a fantastic appearance of the concept through our telephone. It’s a rather brilliant marketing strategy and it is working - but do we really want to encourage a situation where food is not the most important part about food?

If there is always a newer, brighter, prettier light then how does one ever get on top? It’s just not sustainable. Money isn’t made in the hospitality industry through one-off sales but repeat business, if we cant produce an environment that encourages any sense of customer loyalty then we are continually going to have venue turn over. With venue turn over we will then have new venues opening and promoting the hell out of social media - the circle of life (and death) begins again.

It bothers me even writing that statement - ‘If we can’t produce an environment that encourages customer loyalty’.

It used to be enough that if you were good, you did well and you made money. You didn’t need an Instagram to prove that your food was good, the experience you provided built your reputation and your reputation did the talking for you.

Venues are now bending over to please consumer expectations - trip advisor, blogs, Instagram, one bad review, the idea that the customer always being right. We’re more worried about how we appear rather than what we actually create. Spending more time and money on how people perceive us rather than reminding ourselves that we are actually really damn good at what we do.

What would happen if we got rid of media/marketing budgets and put that into a fund to encourage creativity from young chefs? Give them the freedom to express themselves, make mistakes and master their trade with no consequences from their employer. Create an environment that breeds future generations of hospitality talent rather than spending that money helping an iPhone celebrity get a few extra likes.

Is it the fault of food bloggers? No, not exactly - we’re creating the environment for them to exist and thrive. It’s become the industry standard.

And let’s put this bluntly, bloggers do not work for the industry - it’s a self-indulgent business. So why is the industry working so hard to please the bloggers? We will give out free meals, throw parties with ‘Instagram VIP’s’ (whatever that means), we re-post their content and yet tomorrow they’ll post about the franchise next door putting you out of business - as long as it gets them a few likes and a couple of followers.

As I write this, Edinburgh bloggers on Instagram are talking about:

  • A paid for event at the Printing Press - connected with the Principal hotel group. Owned by the Starwood Capital Group, based in the United States with over $51b USD in assets.

  • Biddy Mulligans, a large pub on the Grassmarket owned by the G1 group from Glasgow - owners of over 50 venues across the UK who in 2018 had a net worth of £67,939,877.

  • The Ivy - owned by Caprice holdings based in London with dozens of bars and restaurants - net worth approx £47.4m.

  • Winehouse 1821 - another gifted event on the ground level of a hotel owned by an Italian wine producer of over 25 million bottles per year. The largest privately owned wine enterprise in Europe, not exactly local or boutique.

  • Epicurean - owned by the Raddison Collective group, enough said.

That was just in a 3-minute search - all conveniently in time for the weekend. And that’s the problem with this blogging business, it’s dominated by the big groups.

All while independent places like The Walnut, Ishka and Tasteil have gone on the market this week. The Walnut? One of the best, most consistent and well-priced dining spots in all of Edinburgh yet shown no love on social media - 5 of their 21 tagged photos come from one individual.

Independents just can’t compete with these enormous companies and their marketing teams. They’re too busy running restaurants and hoping the money keeps coming in - they can’t afford an extra member of staff who doesn’t actually help during service. They can’t afford to invite dozens of ‘influencers’ for free meals, launch events and tastings because they probably aren’t even paying themselves a wage. They can’t do it themselves because they barely see their families as it is working 100 hours a week, knowing that if this doesn’t work they’ll lose their home.

In the 90s big fast food companies ruled the dining landscape through a targeted television advertisement, now big companies have found a way to monopolise the mid-range dining sector through social media.

The worst part is, we’re doing the work for them.

It may be a load of fun being a part-time 'foodie' on the weekends but your desire to jump from one venue to another to continue pushing out content is only hurting the industry you say you are love and helping the continued gentrification of this beautiful city.

Help the little guys.

It’s about time something changes - watch this space.

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