AGENDA: Conran sharpens customer focus - Sir Terence Conran’s growing restaurant portfolio has hired a marketer just as some believe the UK economy is to slow further. Danny Rogers reports

A small story toward the back of the Evening Standard last week sent a chill through London’s top restaurateurs. It was the news that two of the City’s biggest employers, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and stockbroker Merrill Lynch, have put a pounds 30-per-head limit on expense account lunches.

A small story toward the back of the Evening Standard last week

sent a chill through London’s top restaurateurs. It was the news that

two of the City’s biggest employers, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and

stockbroker Merrill Lynch, have put a pounds 30-per-head limit on

expense account lunches.



While this may prompt sneers of derision among the majority who just pop

out for a sandwich, the significance is that it could herald the end of

the UK’s London-led restaurant boom.



In the same week, the restaurant group most closely associated with the

renaissance in eating out, Conran Restaurants International (CRI), hired

its first dedicated senior marketer.



Expanding horizons



Dominic de Vetta, a marketer with six years’ experience at Lancome,

L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble, joins in the new year. His arrival comes

at a time of international and UK expansion for Sir Terence Conran, who

is clearly not a man to be put off by a mere world recession.



David Loewi, CRI managing director, said the appointment signals a more

focused approach to its marketing.



’For a long time we relied on public relations to raise awareness of our

restaurants, but as our client base expands and the economy softens we

need to target our message more carefully,’ said Loewi.



De Vetta, the man responsible for taking Lancome into the database era

by developing a relationship marketing strategy, will be given the task

of developing the first Conran loyalty card.



’We need to know who our top customers are and reward them

accordingly.



Hotels have become very good at this but restaurants are way behind,’

says Loewi.



The move comes at a time when Conran is close to adding hotels to his

portfolio. Next autumn he opens the Great Eastern Hotel, which will

feature seven restaurants alongside hundreds of guest rooms and

shops.



Loewi says the Conran Group is moving into a new phase of business

development and must now ensure that all its different businesses work

more closely on a cohesive marketing strategy.



Conran’s seven-year roll-out of swanky, individualistic London

restaurants is drawing to a close. What began with Pont de la Tour in

1991 and developed into the mega-eateries of the mid-90s - Quaglino’s,

Mezzo and Bluebird seat a total of 1200 diners - has more recently

scaled down.



His three restaurant openings this year - Sartoria, Orrery and Coq

d’Argent - have been closer to 100 seats and there are no plans for any

new large London restaurants. Instead, Loewi says we will see the

nationwide expansion of the Zinc Bar and Grill format.



The rationale is that the Zinc’s modestly priced food and drink in a

cafe environment is more appropriate to pre-millennium Britain.



’In an economic downturn, larger restaurants will look emptier and this

will deter customers,’ says Mark Sheppard, restaurant analyst at ABN

AMRO. ’They can go into a vicious circle. People will look to

’downtrade’, seeking equal quality at a lower price.’



For this reason CRI may find itself competing with publicly quoted

groups such as Group Chez Gerard, which spends 2% of its turnover on

marketing, and the brewer/catering chains such as Whitbread.



Loewi is adamant, however, that the group can retain that ’Conran

magic’.



He says that while the marketing will be more closely integrated, the

restaurants will retain their individuality.



Diner profile



’Customers who go to Pont de la Tour are different in profile from those

at Mezzo. We don’t just want a washover effect.’



Paul Hickman, a restaurant analyst at Peel Hunt, suggests that

merchandising may be a useful extra revenue stream. ’Merchandising is a

valid development for an upmarket restaurant company.’



Indeed, Damien Hirst’s The Pharmacy Bar & Restaurant is looking at

opening a separate retail outlet for a large range of medically-themed

merchandise.



While the UK restaurant scene gets darker, Conran sees a bright spot

across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. As a result De

Vetta’s role is likely to be increasingly international.



Next autumn Conran opens the Bridgemarket under the gothic arches of a

bridge in Manhattan, New York, which will be a complex of restaurants

and shops in the Bluebird mould. He has already opened the Alcazar in

Paris.



So perhaps it is a time of consolidation for Conran in his native land

while the rest of the world is about to feel his entrepreneurial

effect.



The recruitment of an ex-Procter & Gamble marketer to aid Conran’s

global plan indicates the seriousness with which he is taking the

discipline.



All De Vetta needs to do is make sure the brokers’ pounds 30 finds its

way into the tills of Conran-owned restaurants.



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