Last month, The Guardian ran a story about the Australian chefs who are starting to fight back against the onslaught of bloggers and Instagrammers contacting them in search of, well, a free dinner.

OK, so not quite entirely free. The bloggers and Instagrammers are offering to write reviews of the restaurant or post images of themselves or their food at the restaurant, to help drum up more business for the establishments. In return for a complimentary night of fine dining.

The story features Duncan Welgemoed, the chef and part-owner of highly-rated Adelaide restaurant Africola. He recently achieved social media fame in Australia for publishing his sharp but legitimate response to a reality TV participant who was looking for a freebie at Africola.

Welgemoed is far from the first. Ireland’s White Moose Cafe came to prominence last year for taking much the same approach to a request from a YouTube influencer.

These incidents feel like the bellwether to a more general trend as chefs, restaurateurs and hotel managers start to push back at the whole influencer industry. For example, chefs from all corners of the globe are sending the requests they receive to Australian restaurant reviewer John Lethlean, who ‘names and shames’ by publishing them on his own Instagram account with the hashtag #couscousforcomment.

Have influencers gone too far?

But basting all chickens with the same brush is unfair. For a long time, many hotels, bars, and restaurants have been happy to cosy up to media, Yelp reviewers, distinguished bloggers, and less celebrated Trip Advisor users. In today’s digital landscape, these channels are, or were, just an extension of good old-fashioned word of mouth.

The issue comes with a change of attitude and approach on both sides. Some restaurateurs are reporting requests from influencers that sound more like blackmail than offers of a mutually-advantageous opportunity. The clear message is that the influencer will use their audience to publicly revile the establishment unless they get a taste of the freebie VIP treatment. The Guardian article mentions a host of restaurants that are agreeing to feed Instagrammers out of fear or intimidation.

The flip side of that is the never-ending list of new bars, restaurants, and cafes opening with interiors or menu items explicitly created to maximise exposure via Instagram. Smart tactic or does this just simply feed the vicious circle?

Can everyone afford to be so principled?

It’s easy to take a stand when you or your restaurant’s own social media channels have thousands of followers, your desk is overflowing with food book deals, and you have full tables most nights.

However, hospitality is an unflinchingly tough business, and companies need to stand out in any way they can find and afford. There’s no one-size-fits-all silver bullet, so the temptation is to throw spaghetti at the wall and see which strand sticks. If you have a table free one evening, the cost of entertaining an influencer may not be that great and, therefore, worth the risk.

That being the case, are there some guidelines that restaurants and bars can follow if they are considering working with influencers?

  1. One swallow does not a summer make, and one influencer isn’t a marketing strategy. Working with an influencer once is unlikely to move the dial and certainly isn’t going to save a struggling establishment.
  2. If you, your chef, your sommelier or your establishment has more followers than the influencer, you probably don’t need them.
  3. Generally speaking, Instagrammers are likely to be more positive than bloggers or Yelp reviewers, for example. IG tends to be a less toxic environment where influencers want to show the best side of themselves.
  4. If an influencer approaches you, make sure they’ve done their research on your establishment, what you offer, and who is your target audience – don’t work with anyone who sends a generic request.
  5. Whether you realise it or not, you are paying for their meal or stay in some way. Be direct and ask what you’re going to get for it in return. Will it be a review and a social post? Will it be two YouTube videos? If you’re a new establishment, working with proven influencers can be a smart way to get social-ready images at a lower cost. Just make sure the deal works for both parties. How open they are to collaborating differentiates good influencers from chancers and freeloaders.
  6. It doesn’t always have to be a meal. If you find a good food blogger that you like, maybe they can come in and learn to make one of your new dishes with your head chef, or be taught how to whip up their favourite cocktail by your bar manager? You’ll get way more coverage from this type of experience than from simply comping a free meal.
  7. Finally, you can always say no. If you have a small local pub or restaurant, there’s a good chance an ad in the town paper or a hyper-targeted Facebook ad will be a better use of your time and resources.

Influencers – whether on Instagram, YouTube, blogs or review sites – are a double-edged sword for the hospitality industry. But, if you have a plan and are clear about your expectations, you can learn to create long-lasting collaborative relationships instead of feeling like you’re being held hostage.

Matt Warnock

Matt Warnock

Writer

Matt is an experienced journalist-turned-marketer, with content in his blood and a particular affinity for tech, SAAS, B2B and hospitality. Originally from the north west of England but now a proud Amsterdammer, his first job was working as a kitchen porter, eventually progressing to the dizzy heights of silver service waiter and occasional barman!

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