Heritage Sector Insight: Maximising visitor experience in cafes and restaurants

Angela O'Donnell

March 30, 2017

A visit to a café or restaurant within any visitor attraction is no longer seen as an add-on at the end of a visit, it is now expected as part of the experience.

The ALVA (Association of Leading Visitor Attractions) published their annual report this month, highlighting a 7.2% increase in visitor numbers* throughout 2016, across museums, galleries and visitor attractions (*across their membership).

Within this growing market, where many venues now market their dining offer as a stand-alone destination, we are often asked by clients within the culture and heritage market,

“what is the key to creating a great customer experience within my restaurant or café space?”

Although there is no clear-cut formula for success, there are a number of considerations that can assist with exploring this question further:

Visitor Profiling

If you are considering the addition of a café or restaurant to your attraction, or thinking about refurbishing or updating an existing space, step back and take time to fully understand your demographic. Many well-known culture and heritage sites will routinely carry out market research in great depth before any planned development works take place.

With many museums and galleries, visitor profiles and volume can vary throughout any 12-month period and are usually dependent on a number of factors, including;


Seasonality (including time of year and term time/school holidays)

Headline exhibitions or events taking place at your venue

Time of day

Define your Vision

Secondly, consider what you want your space to be. In many of the larger attractions there may be multiple food outlets which can be tailored to each specific visitor group (The National Maritime Museum is a great example of where this is possible). If you have only one area to plan, be mindful that you can’t be everything to everyone at any one time. However, by carefully zoning your restaurant or café in a subtle manner, you can accommodate a varied audience throughout the day.

If you want to create a fine dining experience – such as Keeper’s House at The Royal Academy or The Rex Whistler at Tate Britain, be wary that this will largely appeal to an adult-only audience. This may only work if you have multiple outlets within your venue or your visitor demographic is not child or young family orientated.

Flexibility is an absolute must, whatever your menu offer or service style. Food and eating trends change not only seasonally but throughout the day. If you are opting for a counter style service, where possible keep as much of the display ambient as possible, allowing you to interchange for food display from breakfast right through to afternoon tea. Counter space can be minimal with tiered, abundant goodies creating a feast for the eyes. Benugo who operate within the UK culture and heritage market, does this to perfection.

Creating Ambience

This isn’t just about the visual appeal of a space but also how it feels. A happy and loyal customer will feel engaged with their surroundings, whilst gaining a real sense of your personality. If a space works, customers will unconsciously know which route to take within the restaurant or café setting. The quality of your food and customer service are at the heart of a great visitor experience and the design process will take all of these factors into account.

Invest in Operations

It is natural to want to devote a large portion of your restaurant or café budget to front of house, because that’s what’s on show to customers. However, the back of house operation is of equal importance.  The kitchen sits at the heart of every catering facility, irrespective of food and service style – and if your kitchen is unable to deliver your offering, the quality of your food and service will suffer, and so in turn will your customer experience.

Zoe Watts, Commercial Director at Vacherin spent much of her career overseeing public catering within culture and heritage organisations, most notably at Tate and Natural History Museum. She comments;

“Whilst it is key that the design reflects the personality, the brand and the story of the organisation or attraction, it is just as important that the visitor has some ‘down time’ from the sensory overload and (particularly during school holidays) the hustle and bustle of the museum or gallery. The café or restaurant is their opportunity to refuel and re-energise before continuing their visit.

Catering brings much needed revenue to culture and heritage establishments, so commerciality needs to be considered at every stage of the customers journey. The designers should consider the whole picture and work with the organisation’s communications team to ensure catering has a strong presence on signage and wayfinding. The catering areas need to factor in ease of use and accessibility to all the products and design should include not only the fixed elements but details such as merchandising and displays to showcase the food and drink at its best.”

Overall, your catering offering should deliver a memorable and fitting experience for visitors , as well as providing a viable revenue stream which offers profitable results for your venue.


Written by Claire Smith, Business Development at ABDA Creative Design & Build.

Click here to view some of our latest and greatest design projects within the Culture & Heritage Sector.



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