The Arena summer event is a firm favourite in the foodservice calendar and as the leading foodservice marketing agency we always attend. This year the headline speaker was a real pull – Steve Richards, CEO of the Casual Dining Group (CDG), which includes brands such as Las Iguanas, Belgo, Bella Italia, Café Rouge and La Tasca, sharing his vision for the group. In addition to the after lunch speaker slot there was also an informative presentation from YouGov on the out of home market, specifically highlighting three key trends: the rise of premium home delivery with the likes of Deliveroo, the growing influence of technology and the ever increasing demand for ‘free-from’ food.

Having said hello to familiar faces and sampled the delicious waffles on offer it was time to head in to hear from YouGov. The headlines ran something along these lines (despite the caveat that the data was of course pre-Brexit):

· Consumer confidence is down but spending doesn’t seem to be impacted
· Average spend on eating out of home is £75 per month, although London over-indexes at £104
· 4 in 10 say they are eating out more
· The most frequented out of home operators are coffee shops and cafes, followed by mid-range restaurants. The former being driven by consumer lifestyles and the rise in on-the-go, as well as the increase in food quality over the past years.
· Consumers are spending more on food to eat at home but that doesn’t seem to be cannibalising out of home spending – good news!
· The rise of premium delivery – research from a base of 350 Devlieroo users found that the majority will still visit the restaurants in person that they order from, so delivery should  be a huge opportunity for operators (indeed CDG has been preparing for the last 6 months and has been live with their delivery service for five weeks now and sees it as a key opportunity).
· Technology – with an ever growing penetration of smartphones and tablets, responsively designed websites which display correctly on smaller screens (rather than apps which take-up valuable storage space) are a must, as is the ability to view a current menu and book quickly and easily online when it comes to a restaurant’s digital presence.
· Free-From – one in four households have someone with a food allergy or intolerance; one in five sufferers are ‘suspected’ rather than officially diagnosed; one in ten people are cutting gluten out of their diet; two in ten are looking to cut gluten out of their diet; one in five are looking to cut out gluten and or dairy from their diet; 50% of menus included on Menurama have gluten free options; 27% of those with food intolerances or allergies tend to stick to the same restaurants where they know they are catered for; one in five people with food intolerances or allergies eat out less than they would like to and those with allergens and intolerances will tend to dictate to the wider group and therefore have a strong influence on restaurant choice, which will often be researched online prior to booking.

Having digested the facts and stats on the market it was then time to enjoy a fabulous three course lunch from the team at the Mandarin Oriental and get to know our fellow diners a little better. We had a great table with a good mix of both new and familiar faces and the conversation and wine flowed freely. Soon however it was time to pipe down and hear from industry heavy weight Steve Richards.

With an estate of 310 restaurants and some of the best known brands on the high street, there’s not much Steve Richards doesn’t know about the casual dining sector. With ambitious expansion plans across both the UK and Middle East, what was previously known as Tragus with the re-brand to The Casual Dining Group in 2015, is a force to be reckoned with under his leadership as CEO. Having sold Strada, the CDG has focused on reinvigorating their brands and maximising key sites. As the fourth largest restaurant business it has doubled its profits since they started and intends to do the same again – impressive stuff. Currently their aim is to have 650 sites in the UK alone, so what is the secret to the group and Steve’s success?

By refocusing brands such as Bella Italia to make them more authentic when it comes to the food offer and far more contemporary in design, CDG has turned what was a tired high street staple into a far more dynamic brand. Key to this has been understanding their consumers and what makes them choose Bella Italia, which they have done with the help of large scale qualitative insight across 284 consumers. From this they identified their key audiences including an older demographic, affectionately called ‘Denise & Keith’ which currently delivers a 50% share of revenue and values the wholesome pasta offer.

When it came to Café Rouge there was a job to do to get people who were positively disposed to the brand but had fallen out of the habit of visiting. By improving the décor and food quality and creating a more authentic French bistro experience they are seeing a turnaround in the brands fortunes. Belgo however has been a gift, as consumer demand for craft beers and simple casual dining menus means its bang on trend, much like Las Iguanas which, despite being 29 years old, couldn’t be more ‘of the moment’ as all day dining and the popularity of South American cuisine continues to grow. Whilst with La Tasca there has been a concerted rationalisation of the estate, with only twelve sites remaining and only six of those actually branded La Tasca. However, it seems CDG is keen to have a contemporary tapas concept as part of its brand portfolio. What it will look like in the future is unlikely to be what we see today though, so watch this space.

As for where they locate their sites, well,  leisure parks and travel hubs with guaranteed footfall are where you’ll find new openings in both the UK and Middle East. They are also still on the lookout for more brands, but wisely avoid the latest fad, favouring more established concepts which have stood the test of time. Indeed Steve’s acid test for a scalable concept is ‘will it work in Wisbech or Wigan?’ – a criterial that is sure to weed out the more flaky hipster concepts.

However, far from being conservative, CDG is keen to embrace change and has recently introduced home delivery into its infrastructure, as well as operating a devolved business model with each brand taking autonomy for itself so only brand MD’s and FD’s report into CDG. This they hope engenders an empowered hierarchy helping brands and sites become more entrepreneurial with the ability to introduce things like local produce and specials onto menus where appropriate.

Then having taken questions from the floor and handed over to Steve Norris, Arena Chairman, for the obligatory charity draw which raised £1,420 for Hospitality Action and Springboard, it was time to depart the grand dining room and move to the bar to network with colleagues and contacts. Congratulations must go to Loraine and her team on another great event.

To find out more about Arena and their packed schedule of foodservice networking events thought-out the year visit Arena’s website.

Jellybean Creative is a leading foodservice marketing agency. We help top brands with food service pr, food service marketing, digital and design. If you feel we could help you with your marcomms, strategy, public relations, creative or digital then drop us a line today.