10 Key Take-Aways for Restaurant Success in Dubai in 2021 and Beyond
The restaurant scene in the UAE is wonderfully rich and vibrant, with customers being spoiled for choice as they are presented with dozens of different cuisines from across the globe, and incredible experiences that can only come from dining in the Emirates.
There is no city in the world quite like Dubai, and the same can be said for its diverse and ever-growing selection of dining experiences. Even with the challenges of 2020 and the COVID pandemic, the Restaurant industry in the region has adapted, grown and evolved, with greater focus given to delivery, responsible social distancing and new dining alternatives.
“People will be seeking out casual environments and looking to spend their time in venues that provide good ambience, music and food at a reasonable price point without compromising on quality.”
– Lloy Rubio, General Manager, Lola Taberna Espanola (Barsha Heights) 
Owner and Operator Expectations for the Medium / Long-Term Future of the UAE F&B Sector 
Standing out in such a busy market can prove difficult, especially when you’re still recovering from extended periods of low turnover or only just open again, and when owner expectations are low. But making an impact and giving your brand the recognition it deserves isn’t impossible.
Here are ten takeaways you need to know, to help your restaurant succeed in the UAE.
1. Set Your Restaurant Business Apart from Your Competitors
With increased competition and a growing struggle for footfall or share of delivery orders, Brands have to stand out with an enhanced online presence and a high level of customer service both online and off.
Promote what you do best, and tell your customers why you’re the best at it – let people know what to expect from you, and pair this with stunning imagery or professional-looking videos to active the senses of the customer (the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text – and 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual )
When you’re looking at how to promote your restaurant, take a look first at what your competitors are doing and saying – is their message well received? Are customers engaging with them?
To stand out you need to be different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t utilise similar angles – just don’t promote them in the same manner!
Make sure you’re optimising your content for each channel (for example: More than 2 hashtags on Facebook is considered spam, whereas on Instagram you can use up to 30), and that you’re providing your customers with the information they need each time.
2. Offer More Than Your Competitors, Rather Than Value Reduction
Dropping your prices or offering ‘exclusive’ offers may feel like a viable solution when it comes to attracting business, but constant discounting or over-promoting sales actually devalues your product and your brand!
For example, Individual A has signed up for a Restaurant newsletter, which they receive once a week. Every week there’s a new offer “10% off the menu”, “50% off when you first order!” “Buy One Get One Free” – after a while, Individual A realises these aren’t special or time-limited, they see the same discounts every week, so they stop opening the emails because the content is never different. They also stop feeling an impetus to purchase, they don’t need to hurry – if they miss the deal this week, they’ll get it next week. They’ve already subconsciously decided that they never need to pay full price with the Restaurant ever again.
Constant price reductions don’t just damage the sales impetus, it affects the Brand Reputation – when people see constant offers and sales (especially if there’s no other content in between these announcements), they don’t assume that it’s good value – they see the company as desperate, and start to wonder if they are selling a substandard product which can’t be sold at full price.
Sales and Offers do have their place in a restaurant marketing strategy, but they should be used sparingly and very carefully – and if an offer says that it’s the ‘final discount’ then it needs to be and if this offer is then extended or reworked, it again weakens the trust level that consumers feel towards the business.
Rather than devaluing products with constant markdowns that reduce your bottom-line and erode your brand, look to focus on the dishes and their values – what makes them outstanding? Why are your customers choosing them? What can you offer them to give customers more value?
For Example: If you’re seeing a particular dish being extremely popular at a certain time of day, you could consider making a ‘Meal Deal’ featuring it; offer a beverage and perhaps either a light starter or dessert for a reasonable price and consider making this offer time-limited (such as between 11 am – 2 pm).
This approach gives your customers value (the dishes they’re looking for and want to eat), gives you a focus for your marketing campaign, and less disruption to your income as you’re not giving away huge discounts.
3. Know Your Audience – Who is Visiting Your Restaurant?
Knowing how to appeal and engage with tourists is vital, but as we’ve seen with travel restrictions, it’s equally important to balance this with the requirements of the local populace and appealing to your domestic market as well.
In 2020, there were 9.89 million people living in the UAE, with 3.38 million living in Dubai . Even with the COVID pandemic, there were 5.51 million overnight visitors to the city in 2020, and 810.2 thousand between January – February 2021 .
You need to determine who your audience is – what sort of people are visiting your venue or ordering your dishes? What do they expect to see from you, and where do they expect to find you online? Are you mostly attracting international visitors, or is your core customer based locally?
The approach to appealing internationally can be quite different to connecting locally, and it’s important that you know what content will work for your audience.
There are cultural differences and language differences that you need to take into consideration. Whilst experts have noted that Dubai has “much higher levels of English proficiency than the UAE as a whole” , it is estimated that 75% of the population speak it, with 25% speaking Arabic. , so offering content in dual languages is an essential tool in connecting your venue with a wider audience.
4. Make Your Restaurant an Experience
Changing consumer tastes mean that there’s more to customer wants than just finding somewhere to eat.
The Key drivers of:
- Food Quality
- Instagrammable Dishes
are factors that now tend to rank ahead of price concerns.
Customers in the UAE are looking for different experiences; only 7.7% of people in a 2020 survey said they’d decided not to try something new .
Yunib Siddiqui, CEO of Jones the Grocer was quoted as saying, “For 2021, business models that are versatile, that provide multiple revenue streams, not solely reliant on dine-in are more likely to survive.”
Expanding the services you offer, to include takeaway, curbside collection, etc, and making in-house experiences memorable with excellent customer service, well presented and delivered dishes, and themed experiences or concepts will enable your business to stand apart in a positive fashion.
Getting involved with activities, such as FooDiva’s ‘Dine Around Dubai’ concept, where guests are treated to a tour of handpicked dishes from various restaurants in the city and utilising word-of-mouth and social media recommendations can help you grow awareness of your brand and increase your customer base.
Globally, 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations , so it’s essential that your experiences are well thought out, and you manage your online reputation as well as your reviews.
Staff need to be trained not just in your venue, to provide exceptional experiences – from understanding the menu (beyond what’s written on it), to handling complaints, but your online staff need to know how to engage with visitors, what responses to give (and when), how to report or remove inappropriate content, and when they should escalate matters to management.
Your staff are the face of your business, they are the ones interacting with your guests and delivering your vision and values, you need to enable them to speak with the voice of the brand, and have the tools to do so correctly.
5. Recognise the Value of Aftercare for Restaurant Customers
The Customer Experience doesn’t end at the end of their meal. Word of mouth referrals, whether verbal or online, are important drivers that influence new guests – so it’s essential that customer satisfaction, service and engagement is monitored and responded to.
If a customer leaves you a positive review, take the time to respond – not only does this increase the number of positive search results for your SEO, but it makes a happy customer feel even more positive about the brand, and more inclined to recommend you to others.
If a customer leaves a genuine negative review, by answering it and addressing or solving their problem, you’re showing them and others that you care for the customer experience, that you’re willing to address issues, and that you’re a reputable brand – this builds trust and can turn an unhappy guest into a brand ambassador.
Taking the initiative with loyal customers can also be a valuable way of building an emotional connection – if someone’s been visiting you a lot, think of little ways you can reward them, from a complimentary beverage to an extra course, paying attention to their needs and behaviours can endear you to them. Consider creating a club or newsletter for frequent guests, and require their date of birth, or ask them to share important dates – then use this information to celebrate with them.
The aftercare you offer is an important factor in your restaurant strategy, acquiring new customers can cost up to 7 times more than retaining an existing one , making it far more practical and better use of resources to follow up with existing guests, make sure they’re happy, and engage with them as required.
6. Make Your Restaurant Available on Relevant Channels
Customers expect a positive omnichannel experience; this means being able to contact Customer Services through the channels available to them, usually a website, email, messenger apps and social media platforms.
Research your customer base and look at the channels where they are most frequent. By making yourself available to them, potential customers will be able to connect and contact you in an easy manner that puts your brand in a positive light.
It’s important however that you monitor these channels, if customers are asking questions or inquiring about the availability of dishes or opening times at short notice, they’re not going to be happy if it takes ages to get a response, for example, 59% of brand replies to user Tweets occur within 15 minutes, and 40% say they’re more likely to consider buying from a business they can message. 
7. Make Use of Social Media for Your Restaurant
Having a presence on social media is a MUST in the UAE, 99% of the population (9.84 million)  make use of the channels.
At a minimum, you should have a presence on Facebook and Instagram for direct to customer marketing, and a LinkedIn profile to connect, network and develop your business audience, as well as engaging with other businesses who provide your services, ingredients and restaurant technologies.
Your social media channels will often be a customer’s introduction to your brand, so it’s important that you create content that is clear, easy to understand, appeals to both new and returning customers, and has the information they need available.
8. Take Advantage of Mobile Technologies to Promote Your Restaurant
There were 17.06 million mobile connections in the UAE in January 2021, and although the figure has seen a 7.5% decrease (year-on-year) , making your content available on mobile devices, and optimised to display properly is essential.
In order to attract interest, your restaurant website needs to be responsive (displays and works correctly on mobile devices). This is especially important if you offer direct ordering from your site, as customers want to be sure they can trust their information will be kept safe when they input sensitive information (such as payment details).
Developing your own app is one approach you may consider, or listing with a 3rd party delivery service, so your restaurant is seen by a wider audience and can be engaged with quickly and easily.
As with your website, it’s vital that you keep the contact information, menu and details up-to-date and respond to enquiries efficiently.
9. Know Who to Connect with to Promote Your Menu, Venue and Services
Food Bloggers, Influencers and Online Reviews have a huge impact on how customers view venues, menus and services.
Influencer Marketing can be a difficult matter to undertake, you need to carefully research who are the top influencers that relate to your restaurant (whether that’s theme, concept or menu/cuisine type), how many people they’re reaching, whether they’re genuine – and importantly, whether their behaviour and values match the standards of your business.
Once you’ve chosen an appropriate Influencer, you need to determine a time scale for their review, how they’re going to undertake it (are they visiting in person or receiving a takeaway?) and what the minimum standards for the content should be.
Influencer Marketing should not be rushed, and people offering to create content or leave reviews in exchange for complimentary meals, should be carefully evaluated for standards, efficiency, and effectiveness before any exchanges are undertaken.
With online reviews, as we’ve mentioned, it’s important to engage with the reviewers, make sure any fake or inappropriate reviews are removed or reported, and responses are personalised and not delayed.
With both Influencer Marketing and Review Management, it’s important that you conduct yourself with the business vision and values in mind, and that responses are delivered in the company voice.
10. Talk to Your Followers – Let Them Know You Care!
When customers take the time to engage with your brand, you should be taking the time to respond and show them that you care about their experiences, that you respect that they’re spending their time with you and that you’re active and involved in the community.
Social media platforms especially are now more focused on engagement with comments and conversations holding more weight with the processes that influence who sees your posts and when, so it’s important to create content that’s going to engage people.
Even if someone puts a short comment such as “Oooh lovely!” or “Wow nice!”, responding with thanks, as well as liking the post, will not only show that you’re engaged and happy to speak with them, but it will help your content rank with the algorithms that drive the platforms behind the scenes.
Another way you can get your followers to engage with you and to promote conversation is to encourage user generated content (such as ‘Take a picture of your take-away!’) which you can then share and create a buzz, which builds your brand name, authority and increases your network of brand champions.
The Recipe for Success in Restaurant Marketing
Marketing your restaurant isn’t an easy task, and there are so many moving parts to consider – but taking a data-driven and analytical approach to determining your audience and where to find them, then offering personalised responses and exceptional customer service is essential to get ahead.
2021 is still going to be a year of restructuring and recovery as the COVID pandemic restrictions make trading more difficult than normal, but with perseverance and creativity, restaurants in the UAE can thrive.
If you’d like assistance in working out your restaurant marketing strategy or need to know where to find your customer base, get in touch with our experts – with award-winning experience, and 5-star service as standard, we’ll provide the virtual solutions to your digital products.
Resources Referenced in This Blog:
 GCC Food and Beverage Report 2019-20: https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/kw/pdf/insights/2020/11/GCC-Food&Beverage-report-web.pdf
 Global Media Insight, 2021: https://www.globalmediainsight.com/blog/uae-population-statistics/
 Dubai Tourism, 2021: https://www.dubaitourism.gov.ae/en/research-and-insights
 The National News, 2019: https://www.thenationalnews.com/uae/education/english-proficiency-in-uae-among-best-in-region-report-shows-1.948182
 Education Overseas, https://www.educationoverseas.com/about_dubai.php
 The Pro Chef, 2021: https://www.theprochefme.com/uae-food-trends-2021/
 Reputation X, 2021: https://blog.reputationx.com/online-reputation-management-statistics
 Social Media Week, 2021: https://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2021/02/how-to-gain-new-customers-and-reduce-the-cost-of-acquisition/