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Operators pair meetings, meals and see opportunities for growth

Operators pair meetings, meals and see opportunities for growth

Restaurant operators are finding that hosting business meetings can be good business when it comes to boosting their sales.

As companies hard-pressed by the recession cut travel expenses and reduce conferences, high-end steakhouses are providing tools to produce meetings at reduced costs to the sponsors while increasing their own private-party sales.

And even such less-upscale concepts as Panera Bread are getting into the action, providing opportunities for independent business people—a growing breed with increased unemployment and an ensuing pool of freelancers and contract professionals—to schedule business and social meetings.

The business-meeting audience is a potential growth area for revenue, said Aaron D. Allen, founder and chief executive of Quantified Marketing Group, a consultancy based in Orlando, Fla.

“As the rise of the telecommuting warrior and virtual-office virtuoso continues to grow, so too will this profitable—if under-leveraged—revenue-building opportunity for the restaurant industry,” Allen said.

“With unemployment at record highs, the green movement exploding in adoption, and offices looking to cut down on overhead, one would have to really have their head in the sand to see that certain segments of the restaurant industry need to rethink their new prototype designs and efforts to woo the business market,” he added.

Borrowing a page from the popular eVite web service, Panera Bread, the bakery-cafe chain based in Richmond Heights, Mo., recently began testing a free online meeting invitation application, “Let’s Meet at Panera,” to help customers schedule business or social meetings at 14 locations in the Indianapolis area.

“This test is limited to the Indianapolis area, but we’re in the process of expanding it into other markets,” said Dana Darts, regional marketing manager for Panera LLC.

“We’ve heard positive feedback from customers that have used the new site to invite their friends,” she said. “It really hasn’t had any impact on store operations, since we’ve found most people are inviting a small group of friends or colleagues.”

In September Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc. of Orlando, Fla., said it would install satellite communications and high-definition televisions in more than 100 of its Ruth’s Chris and Mitchell’s Fish Market restaurants to lure business meetings. Morton’s Restaurant Group Inc. of Chicago since 2007 has offered Velocity HD Suites in 70 of its restaurants, providing closed-circuit satellite television meetings for companies largely in the pharmaceutical, financial, insurance and technology sectors.

Ruth’s Hospitality said its partnership with Advantage Broadcast Solutions, a division of Event Support Services Rx—or ESS Rx—would provide professional satellite meeting suites in its private dining rooms. They will feature a digital, 16:9 ratio high-definition projection system as well as satellite reception for live sessions.

“Given the challenging economic environment, satellite meeting capabilities are becoming increasingly important for companies as they look for alternatives to host large meetings and conferences with groups from across the country,” said Cheryl Henry, vice president of new business and corporate affairs at Ruth’s Hospitality.

“We believe this new satellite meeting capability is a tremendous opportunity for our restaurants,” she said.

Doug Mack, president of ESS Rx, added that the Ruth’s project would allow considerable cost savings for business meetings.

“This partnership allows companies to reach large numbers of potential clients or employees across the country at thousands less than is charged by today’s top providers,” Mack said. “In fact, based on a 100-venue broadcast, savings exceed $200,000. This is especially good news in today’s economy.”

Panera’s business-meeting offering is comparatively small potatoes, being tested just in Indiana for now. But the nearly 1,300-unit chain already draws a sizable market of independent contractors and freelancers by offering free Wi-Fi in its stores.

The company said the “Let’s Meet at Panera” service and the website were aimed at small-business owners and social gatherings, such as entrepreneurs, event planners, social groups, book clubs and professional organizations.

“In our challenging economy, we find many more people are launching their own home-based businesses or looking for innovative ways to increase their business,” Darts said.

“We’re offering ‘Let’s Meet at Panera’ to provide ‘virtual’ meeting space outside the home or business setting,” Darts said. “We believe meeting at Panera provides an out-of-the-box and inspirational setting for meeting organizers to gather with their guests in a professional, convenient and comfortable location.”— [email protected]

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