What's More Important: the Entertainment, Food, Service or Ambiance?

Over the past several years, we have written a number of articles about how importance the atmosphere, ambiance, or what we call quality-of-place, is to the success of location-based entertainment facilities (LBEs). Many LBEs, to their detriment, tend to ignore this important critical success factor, mistakenly believing it's the entertainment that creates the guest experience. Yes, the entertainment is important, but just as important is the environment in which it is delivered, the quality of service, and food service (also so often neglected). We call these four critical success factors - quality-of-place, the entertainment, guest service and food service - the Big Four Success Factors (not to be confused with the Big Four in basketball).

Recent research in both the restaurant and hospitality industries gives strong anecdotal evidence to the importance of quality-of-place in the equation of success.

J.D. Powers and Associates, in the 2004 Restaurant Satisfaction Survey(sm) of quick service and family/casual chain restaurants, found that overall customer satisfaction is based on the overall customer dining experience, with four factors that are nearly equal in importance:

  • Environment - 24%
  • Meal - 30%
  • Service - 26%
  • Cost - 21%

The study was based on responses from nearly 55,000 customers who dined between May and August 2004. It looked at customer repurchase behavior and future spending intentions and found the customer experience with these four factors were the most important drivers of loyalty commitment.

In a research study reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference, Professor John Edwards at Bournemouth University in the U.K. wanted to determine what variables made the most difference in customers' appreciation of a given dish. So his researchers took one dish, Chicken à la King with rice, that was uniformly prepared, and served it to public participants in a variety of locations, ranging from a home for the elderly to a four-star restaurant.

The dish got the best reviews when it was served in a four-star restaurant. Edwards concluded that design and environment play a large role in how the public feels about the food it eats. He also found that the manner in which it was served also had a lot to do with the ratings. "The results show that in many cases the environment is actually far more important than the food. Go to a place where they serve pretty poor food, but where atmosphere is good, the company good, and the waiter polite, and it is probably more enjoyable than the stuffy place with the brilliant food," Edwards said. "When we eat, there are three things that make up the occasion: the food, the consumer and the situation. Most people just consider the food and only now are we beginning to understand the importance of the situation, the ambiance, what the waiter says, and so on."

The August 2004 issue of the journal Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly reported on a similar study, The Relative Importance of Food, Atmosphere, and the Fairness of Wait. The study found that only three attributes - food (being the most important), atmosphere of the dining area, and fairness of order of being seating - are significant predictors of overall dining experience satisfaction. The authors of the study, Professor Joanne Sulek and Assistant Professor Rhonda Hensley at North Carolina A&T State University, point out that atmosphere includes décor, noise level, temperature, cleanliness, odors, lighting and color. They said, "The way the restaurateur expresses these characteristics helps to create an expectation of the dining experience even before the customer is served."

Similar findings of the importance of atmosphere or quality-of-place have been found in other research studies, including Demonstrations of the Influence of the Eating Environment on Food Acceptance, reported in 2000 in the journal Appetite.

A research study by NFO Worldwide took a somewhat different research approach with 600 frequent quick service restaurant patrons by comparing their answers on what they said was important to them with their responses on what influenced their purchasing decisions. NFO Researcher Shubra Ramchandani described the results as the things consumers want from quick service restaurants that they're not getting. The top 5 were:

  1. Friendly and polite service staff
  2. Service staff that is knowledgeable and able to answer questions
  3. Service staff that shows pride in the restaurant
  4. A restaurant that is in touch with customer's special needs
  5. An enjoyable overall atmosphere

That doesn't mean that food quality and value aren't also important. But "everybody is delivering at a high level," Shubra said. "Menu items, quality of food, wait times. So you filter down to service-related items."

Finally, in the same August 2004 issue of the journal Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, a study of hotel loyalty authored by Cornell Hotel School Professor Judy Siguaw, titled Are Your Customers Loyal?, found the chief factors that build guest loyalty were hotel design and amenities. The study also found that guest satisfaction with hotel ambiance positively affected word-of-mouth. The study looked at responses to questionnaires returned by 364 guests from two different hotels. The findings from the research support those from a 1999 study in the hotel industry on the importance of design and amenities as drivers of guest satisfaction.

So, although these studies were looking at two related leisure venues, they both found that quality-of-place was an important driver of loyalty and repeat business. Just an in a restaurant, where the environment has a significant impact on the customers' overall experience, satisfaction and desire to return - even though they primarily came to enjoy the food -- the same holds true with LBEs. Guests come to an LBE for the entertainment (and hopefully also the food), but the quality-of-place also has a major impact on their overall satisfaction with their experience and repeat business.