Late last year I was delighted to win RMI's Future Marketing Leader of The Year award. One of the prizes was a trip to Austin for SXSW festival, followed by a few days in NYC for meetings & site visits with Union Square hospitality group, which took place earlier this year in March. Due to the opening of my third restaurant & the new task of managing a small group, i've only just been able to fully recap what was an incredible trip, and wanted to share some of the insights i learnt on the way.
Flying into Austin & getting to a comfortable hotel just 10 minutes from the main convention centre, i truly got a glimpse of the sheer scale of SXSW. The festival is such an ingrained part of the community here & everyone from hotel workers to taxi drivers are happy to discuss the impact it has locally. Getting dropped nearby & heading into the first conferences, i immediately connected with people from all over the world with a shared interest in marketing, digital & tech. The first talks i attended were focused on the future of influencer marketing, and particular noteworthy points were;
The shift to retained & ambassador type models where influencers work with brands over a sustained period of time
A structured model where algorithms dictate an influencers worth to a brand based on a number of metrics
The continued rise of micro influencers within niche audiences & target demographics, matched with content bespoke.
I also really enjoyed the talks focused on food tech & the future of alternative proteins. There was a large presence of plant-based brands, entrepreneurs & those interested in the space. Austin, locally, has a strong vegan community & diverse offering in regards to food. Equally, the US plant-based market is arguably the most advanced in the world, and it was great to hear from investors & brand owners as to their journeys, the challenges they faced & where they see the future of food heading. Also on the topic of food, Uber Eats representatives discussed the shift to convenience dining & delivery services, and how restaurants like my own can maximise their assets to meet this demand. Some really valuable & interesting take-aways were:
The alternative protein space is growing at a rate unparalleled by any industry
The potential growth niches within this are vertical farming, algae as a protein source & fungi.
Delivery is set to continue to grow & restaurants should consider how to adapt menus to suit delivery
The opportunity to meet new people & network at SXSW is possibly the most powerful aspect of attending. I enjoyed conversations with a diverse group of people & felt there was a real openness to discussing ideas and sharing experience. The fact that the events & sectors overlapped gave the festival depth and meant that in the evenings i was able to attend things like The Dutch Soundwave, which hosted an incredible cinematic take on classical music. I would absolutely attend again, and encourage others to do the same. After 3 nights, i flew to New York.
Having lived in NYC 10 years ago, I'm fairly familiar with the city & had a hit list of restaurants to check out. My favourite currently is Plant Food & Wine, but i was eager to also check out JAJAJA & The butcher's daughter. Research trips are incredibly productive, and besides getting to sample new tastes, its a great insight into the way other restaurants do things. NYC being such a densely populated & culturally diverse city, offers some amazing innovation with food & service, and it really offered me a fresh prospective.
RMI setup a number of site visits & meetings for me with Union Square hospitality. Visiting their office in Manhattan was amazing, having read Danny Meyer's book and connecting with his experiences in opening his first restaurants, it was incredible to get to put my questions to their management team. I was particularly impressed with their enlightened hospitality, and the lengths they go to to truly know their customers & make their experiences unique. Gramercy tavern & Union Square Care 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 really made me consider how i can make our customers experience more personable, and what information we should have on guests in order to facilitate a personable, but not intrusive experience. I like the idea of forming a relationship with our 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 James & Erin from RMI, and all of the sponsors for making this possible. The work that goes in behind the scenes to make not only trips like this possible, but the continued work year round in support of the awards & programmes is incredible. Thank you all so much!