Certain times of the year, such as the holiday season, bring increased demand for restaurant events and private spaces, but the truth is that marketing them is a 12-months-a-year job in the restaurant industry.
“It may seem early, but people start thinking about their holiday spending and planning private events around May or June,” says Marci Liu, co-founder and digital marketing expert at ELMNTL, a Dallas firm specializing in hospitality marketing.
It’s never the wrong time to start marketing your private spaces, Liu says. “Bigger corporate events and weddings are being planned all year round, so you want to make sure that you’re marketing your space to get these events.”
10 ideas for restaurant events
Networking happy hour
Reach out to local businesses or networking groups to promote your restaurant. Let them know you’re available for hosting these events.
Open mic night
Hosting an event like this can bring new people in the doors, including local musicians and their fans. Serve a limited menu of high-margin menu items and station a bartender in the private dining area. It’s a great way to show off the versatility of your space.
Decade night (such as 80s night or 90s night)
Contact party planners with a sample menu of nostalgic dishes from a particular decade and position your restaurant as the ideal space for a throwback night. Planners of reunions at local high schools and colleges may be especially drawn to this marketing.
Wine tasting dinner
Put together a partnership proposal with a local vineyard, winery, or brewery to pair a special menu of your food with their drinks in your exclusive private dining space. You can market to both of your mailing lists on social media platforms.
Someone in your town is organizing speed dating or another type of dating event that would be at home in your restaurant. Reach out to them as a venue for future events.
Charity dinners all need a venue and your private dining room is a good option, especially for smaller nonprofits for whom a hotel ballroom would be overkill. Reach out to the charities in your communities to let them know you’d be happy to host.
Pop up dinners are more popular than ever. If you know a chef who doesn’t have their own brick-and-mortar restaurant, reach out to see if they’d like to host an event with you. It can be a chef that’s between restaurants, testing out a new concept, running a food truck, or working as a private chef.
If you can set up a big-screen TV in your private dining room, there’s no reason not to offer it up to sports fans. If you know someone who runs a fantasy football or baseball league, goes in for March Madness, or goes crazy for WWF wrestling, let them know you can make their sports viewing party dreams a reality.
Many towns have an improv comedy or stand-up comedy troupe. If your area does, reach out to them to suggest a showcase for an awards dinner in your private dining area.
Space permitting, you can host a cooking class in your kitchen and host everyone to enjoy the fruits of their labor in your private dining room. Better yet, invite a local cooking school to use your space if they want to uplevel a nuts-and-bolts cooking instruction into a learning and dining experience.
Now that you have expanded your thinking about what you can do with your private dining space, it’s time to think about expanding your marketing efforts.
7 smart marketing strategies
“A lot of owners think that if they have a beautiful space then it will magically draw customers and they don’t have to do anything else,” Liu says. “Unfortunately that’s not the case.” Promoting private dining is another part of promoting your restaurant. Below, Liu shares ways that owners and managers can craft excellent marketing ideas for restaurant events that keep them top of mind for private event planners.
1. Use your existing channels
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to reaching people who are planning on booking a private restaurant event. “The way that we approach marketing is that we tell our customers to use the existing channels that they already have,” says Liu.
That means creating content promoting your private event space specifically and sharing it widely across all platforms. “Use your social media pages, your website, and your email list.” All of those channels help you reach existing fans of followers, who don’t always know what you offer for private events.
2. Show your space in action
One of the biggest mistakes that Liu sees from restaurant owners is posting photos of their beautiful private event space sitting empty in broad daylight. “You want to make it as easy as possible for people to see themselves and their party in that space,” he says. “Even if the space is beautiful, you want to post a picture that has people in it, enjoying themselves with food and drinks.”
Showcase a picture from a previous event or you can even stage a photograph, so people get an idea of what their private dining event will look like in the space. Photos that show people actually using the space help guests picture their own event at the venue. “Always make the content as specific to your audience as possible,” Liu says.
3. Convey why you’re special
Saying that you have a certain number of chairs or square footage is good, but getting across what really makes your restaurant special is what’s going to make you stand out. “Put yourself in the position of a party planner and think about what specifically your restaurant offers that make events extra special,” Liu says.
Spotlight a signature dish, live music, or ideas for restaurant events that stand out from other private event spaces. “Craft a message around that and use wording like you’re talking directly to that person about why they want to have their event with you.”
4. Share your space
Many organizations and nonprofits need to put on events on a tight budget. Lending space to local writers, artists, and fundraising efforts is a surprisingly effective way to spread the word about your event space.
It gives a new audience the positive experience of attending an event at your restaurant, and it makes them more likely to think of you in the future when they need to host an event. Plus, everyone present will tell someone what a great time they had. Word-of-mouth marketing has been instrumental in building the events business.
5. Reach out to past private events guests
“The most likely people to book an event are people who have booked an event before,” says Liu. Loyal customers who have had a past event at your restaurant are likely to do so again. Now is the time to reach out to them since they’re likely thinking about where to have an event when the holiday season rolls around.
“Once someone has had an event with you, there’s no reason why your relationship should end there. If you keep that relationship going, they’re going to become ambassadors for you and your restaurant.” Anytime you host a private event make sure that you capture the contact info of the planners so you can add them to your email marketing list or email them when it comes time to book a private event.
6. Measure progress
All too often, restaurants don’t measure their progress or track any figures related to private dining. It’s a missed opportunity, according to Liu. “You always need to be measuring your progress and referring to it to see what works and what doesn’t,” he says.
After implementing a new marketing strategy, track the number of private event leads or bookings that happen as a result. You can also look at private event numbers from the previous year and set goals for the future. “It’s a learning process but you won’t know what to tweak if you don’t have those numbers, “ Liu warns.
7. Do the unexpected
Take your client’s pulse and offer fun—maybe even outrageous—surprises. Proceed with caution: This strategy hinges on you really understanding what your guest expects, so add those unexpected flourishes only if you’re absolutely certain they’ll be welcome.
You could have your staff dress up to match a party’s theme, for example, or use special effects like dry ice or artificial snow to create an unforgettable moment during the event. Dramatic decor, an art installation, or an appearance by the chef can also delight guests. “The unexpected is what people remember.”
Marketing your event space regularly isn’t totally effortless, but it’s not all that difficult, either. Using these tips can help you keep the private event spaces in your restaurant booked. Consistent marketing can pay big dividends around the holidays and all throughout the year.