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Experience on the Menu: Boost Engagement by Incorporating Events into Your Marketing Strategy

The holiday season is the perfect opportunity to entice hungry holiday shoppers to dine at your establishment. But even with so many reasons to celebrate, the last few weeks of the year go by fast, making mid-December the time to strike while the iron is hot. To attract more customers, delivering memorable experiences can be just what it takes to bring in holiday business and keep customers coming back after the first of the year.

While great food is a strong selling point, it’s also more or less expected. The real difference between a good eatery and a great one comes down to customer experience, and this year, more than ever, guests are placing a higher value on enjoyable times than on price and product.

The savviest restaurants know that the final weeks of the year are a prime time to wow guests with events and sensory perks to keep them coming back long after the ball drops and the new year begins. Creating great experiences involves many factors, including sights, sounds, scents, and, of course, taste, but the ingredient that might be the most appealing of all is feelings, mixed with a little touch of creativity.

We’ve put together a few tips for creating a memorable guest experience.

Create Anticipation

One of the most enticing elements of the dining experience takes place before guests ever arrive at your restaurant. Your online menu is the best tool you have to get customers excited before they step foot in your door by including mouthwatering photos of your restaurant’s interior, signature dishes, and guests enjoying themselves. Add descriptive copy, contact information, and up-to-date special holiday hours. Then mirror these efforts on reservation platforms and social media channels.

Make First Impressions Matter

First impressions are the most long-lasting and important way to impress customers who may be visiting your business for the first time, and these initial experiences begin the moment your guests arrive at your restaurant.

Creating a great first impression begins in the parking lot, so make sure there’s ample parking, especially during the bustling holiday season. This could include anything from additional reserved parking spots or free valet services. Lack of parking can actually drive customers away, not just the first time, but could cause you to lose a customer for good.

Once inside, make sure customers are greeted with a smile, seated promptly, and served immediately. Because the holidays are busy times, this means having your restaurant adequately staffed to accommodate the heavier traffic days and times.

Set the Mood

Leveraging sensory elements can help create the mood and memories that customers crave. Scents, sounds, and visuals should be appropriate for the time of day and the level of activity. This means keeping music levels at the right volume at all times—not loud enough, and customers could become distracted by loud kitchen noise; too loud and your guests can’t talk and connect with their co-diners.

Decorating for the season helps to create a festive, warm, and welcoming environment. Be sure to keep any natural elements fresh. This means replacing fresh flowers, watering holiday plants, and removing any dead leaves or other elements.

Shop Your Business

The best way to test drive the guest experience is to “shop” your own business by visiting as a guest at various times of the day and different days of the week, paying particularly close attention to all of the “it” factors that make a good first impression. Fix what doesn’t work on the spot, if possible, and share your experience with managers, hosts, and servers. If time and budget allow, offer your staff a free meal for doing the same.

Share the Love

To bring customers back again and again, inspire them to share with others just how much they loved their experience at your restaurant on social media. Create “shareable” opportunities with events and decor that create photo ops. Guests will enjoy showing off your uniqueness because it reflects their good taste.

Turn your customers into a team of marketers for your restaurant with the social media tactics:

  • Create Insta-worthy experiences by setting up a holiday-themed photo backdrop or holiday-themed props at guest tables.

  • Encourage servers to join in the festivities by offering to take photos of your guests.

  • Get your own Snapchat filter.

  • Create a holiday hashtag.

Give Back

Consumers have a strong affinity for companies that do good, and the holiday season is a perfect time to demonstrate your generosity. Host a dine-to-donate event, giving a percentage of every check to a local non-profit service organization. Or offer discounts for guests who donate personal care items, clothing, socks, coats, or blankets to local homeless shelters. These philanthropic gestures not only help others but serve as a way to boost brand loyalty.

Establish Partnerships

Shoppers are out in full force during the holiday season, making this the perfect time to begin partnering with nearby retailers and creating cross-promotions. Offer coupons to the gym next door, flyers for a nearby nail salon, or display a sign at your restaurant’s entrance promoting a band at a neighboring bar. And of course, ask them all to pay it forward and do the same.

Delayed Gratification

By offering coupons to holiday guests that are good for dining in the slower winter months, you can keep driving in new business after the first of the year.

Solicit Customer Feedback

The simplest way to find out what customers want is to ask them. Encourage servers to chat with guests about your holiday promotions. Ask if there are any experiences or events they’d like to attend. Of course, look at your online reviews and respond by thanking customers for positive feedback and discussing remedies for negative. You can’t improve what you don’t know about, so be vigilant about soliciting customer response.

Restaurant Experiences Guests Will Eat Up

Keeping your business going means always thinking of ways to get customers in the door. While great food is a must, a restaurant owner or manager still needs to think of creative restaurant promotion ideas that guests will love.

The holidays present plenty of opportunities to create one-off experiences. From ugly sweater contests, holiday game nights for families, or hosting a paint your dog event, the ideas are endless. We’ve put together a few of our favorites.

Themed Events

Restaurant theme nights have been evolving into cultural experiences beyond the typical trivia, karaoke, or ladies’ night, and with good reason. If done well, theme nights can bring in new guests, improve customer loyalty, and infuse life into your business.

And themed events don’t have to be exclusively an evening activity. To draw from your target group, build a theme that works for your guests’ demographics, likes, and time schedules and fill a spot in your week when business is otherwise slow.

The first step to creating a successful theme-centered event is to identify your target audience and build a theme that appeals to their tastes and preferences. By creating unique experiences that customers can’t get anywhere else, you’ll be sure to add to your customer base.

Wine Tastings

With wine tastings, guests have the opportunity to learn more about wine and enjoy their favorites. These events are particularly successful in the colder months when wineries may be closed to the public for the season. Consider basing your event on different vintages or regions such as “The Wines that Put Italy on the Map” or "The Top Ten Wines from South America.”

If you have a sommelier on staff, great! If not, invite one to come as a guest to talk about the wines. As a bonus, you can pair the wine tasting with a dessert or cheese tasting. Offer prepaid tickets to the event on your website and social media so you can gauge the inventory you’ll need and have time to prepare.

Beer Tastings

Like wine tastings, beer tastings give guests the opportunity to learn about the ingredients and the brewing process while sampling some unique brews. If you don’t want to invest in an entirely new inventory, consider partnering with a local brewery to share the costs.

Beer tastings can work at any time of year, but because there are fewer outdoor beer gardens in the winter months, bringing brew tastings indoors will help attract a brand-new crowd. Offer discount coupons to entice these beer enthusiasts to come back for a meal after the holidays and turn new faces into loyal guests.

Book Club

Creating a book club nook in your restaurant for slower times of the day is a great way to attract new guests and draw in revenue during otherwise slower times. If you have the space, create a quiet area, separate from the rest of your restaurant for your bookworms to talk and read in a calm and peaceful atmosphere.

Study Groups

When it comes to cafes, coffee and studying go together like peanut butter and jelly. Make your restaurant “the” place to go for study sessions during finals season or winter break by hanging posters around local universities and college dorms, letting students know they’re welcome to sit and stay a while without feeling pressured to eat and run. The best part about this type of restaurant event is that they work great for weekdays when business is usually slower.

Game Days

Families can be at a loss for how to keep the little ones entertained during winter vacation, so create a special daytime family-friendly game day event that includes prizes, child-sized menu specials, and games little people like to play. This could be anything from board games to computer games. Be sure to have enough iPads on hand for the number of tables in your gaming area to be sure the event is a winner for both your guest and your business.

Four-hands Dinners

A four-hands dinner is a collaborative chefs’ event where 2 or more chefs cook together for a unique dining experience. From deliciously prepared courses to expertly-paired wines, the only limitation is the size of your kitchen and your imagination.

Consider a themed fusion dinner where Asian chefs come together with Mexican cuisine specialists, for example, for a unique menu experience. Be sure to collect data from your guests so you can incorporate some of the evening’s favorite dishes into your menu by asking your guests for feedback in exchange for a discount on a future meal.


If you have the space, consider creating a mini movie theater with themed showings for various age groups. Hold a kid-friendly movie event at earlier times of the day before your normal dinner rush or hold a late-night screening on a weekend to attract customers that might normally be visiting bars or actual theaters.

Offer dinners in easy-to-handle to-go boxes so guests can comfortably move about during the show and take their leftovers with them when the movie comes to an end. Enclose a coupon inside each box for a discounted meal, good for after the first of the year.

The holiday season creates a perfect opportunity to not only capitalize on the busy shopping rush but it can also be a great time to build relationships with existing customers and turn first-timers into loyal patrons. Creating an experience that stands out and shows you value your customer’s business can be the factor that differentiates you from the competition.

It takes more than good food to complete the restaurant experience. It takes creativity, attention to detail, and keen attention to who your guests are and what makes them happy. And there’s simply no better time to offer your guests memorable experiences than the season of giving.

By Eileen Strauss


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