Tourist Invasion at SXSW in Austin

March 17, 2007

Do tourist-heavy restaurants have different issues than neighborhood restaurants?  Here are a few tips for Accidental Tourist-Restaurants.

It is South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin this week.  I’ve been spending time downtown going to shows with some of my best friends from LA.  I realize every year that standing in a sparsely populated nightclub listening to music that is WAY too loud is fun in moderation–and only when you’re with good friends.

If you don’t know already, SXSW is the largest music festival anywhere. 70,000 people rock-out in venues all across the city (mostly downtown).  Up and Coming bands perform at showcases and sponsored parties for executives of record labels and publishing companies, and guys like my old friend Joe, who is the Director of Music Supervision for a little channel called MTV.

Looking out over the huge crowds last night from the perch of a restaurant upper deck around 11:00pm I started to wonder how restaurants feel about SXSW: the huge crowds of people, wild people, rock and roll people, drinking people, loud people, out-of-town people. How SHOULD they deal? Should it be business as usual, or should they have a contingency plan of action. And what about customer relationship management? Should they really be asking for the name and email address of a guest that will only be in town for 4 nights out of 365? Geez, what about customer service and hospitality. That’s hard enough as it is.

You’ve been to a restaurant (or been working in one) when a giant Greyhound bus pulls up and a trans-continental youth group pours out of it like clowns at a 3-ring.  The floof-manager freaks out causing the trickle-down effect.  Soon everyone is freaked and a little bit “cranky” – to be nice.  Until the show is over and they load up and head out.  Then the soothing calm of near-silence falls on the now seemingly cavernous dining room as the waitress assesses the measly tip left behind.

Well… SXSW is the equivalent of 2 Greyhound buses of rock-concert attendees rolling up every hour for 6 days straight.

I’m NOT exaggerating.  The words Total-Freaking-MAYHEM come to mind.

The first restaurant we went to the Hostess said the wait would be :45 mins. We had to catch a show at 9:00 so after 45 mins. Joe went back and inquired with the Hostess.   A small argument ensued because she contended that she told us in the beginning it would be 1 to 1.5 hours! hmmm… We left.   Across the street we enjoyed fish tacos at a simple line serve franchise: In and out in 50 mins.

I’m not going to go into all of my experiences. You don’t have time, nor do I.  Let’s just say most restaurant – okay all of them that I went to –flipped out and forgot everything.  You would’ve thought these managers worked for FEMA in Sept. of ’05 as unprepared as they were for something that clearly wasn’t spontaneous.

I want to offer a few tips to you restaurant marketers out there who deal with large festivals in town and those who might deal with events or even you who are very TOURIST HEAVY and deal with killer rushes with in-frequency and inefficiency for that matter…

1. Know your market and anticipate it.

With an annual event (like SXSW) it should be no surprise that these people show up. Unlike a bus randomly rolling in off the Summer Camp trail, SXSW is planned long in advance. So why didn’t more restaurants have a plan?

A little more planning and many, many restaurants could have made TONS more money. –A little side bar here….a literal-ton of money is only in the neighborhood of $40,000–

2. The Best Defense is a Good Offense.

Create something that embraces the people.

  • Haul in tables and a tent for the parking lot and add staff.
  • Pre-make grab and go meals. Sell them at a premium
  • Create your own event in an event
  • Create a quiet section no music, no kids
  • Create a non-tourist section.

3. Use the Momentum Marketing Concept.

Basically this means ‘go with the flow’ Don’t throw money at marketing… Throw Marketing at Money!

Hey, all said SXSW was a good time. Restaurants don’t ruin people’s fun. They enhance it or they are subjected to it.


P.S. In my Mouth-Watering Marketing System I go into detail about the differences between Neighborhood Restaurants and Destination Restaurants.


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