Happy campus

Caterers must work hard to keep students on campus. We spoke to leading companies and brands to learn some tricks of the trade

Q: How important is offering variety to students and how do you achieve this? 

✥Fiona Martin, Client Relationship Director – Education, Aramark: “Students are discerning customers and, if they aren’t getting the choice of food they want on campus, are likely to look elsewhere. In part, this choice can be achieved by making sure you have a good balance between recognised brands and ‘own label’ products. At Aramark we also build variety into our food offer through a calendar of promotions, new food concepts and special deals. As an example, this year we have already introduced new ‘one pot stews’ into our menus during the winter, and then as spring arrived we focused on a ‘warm salad’ offer. 

“It’s not just variety though. Firstly, you need to ensure you deliver consistently high quality food and drink to ensure students keep coming back again and again. Secondly, student expectations of customer service have changed. They expect it to be great and as good as the High Street.”

✥Claire Nutter, Head of Marketing for Chartwells: “Variety is absolutely key to keeping students on campus. We work in partnership with our university clients to develop a whole range of food offers and we’re constantly evolving these concepts.

“Value for money, however, remains the most important factor. We’ve undertaken research for a termly trend report, ‘Student Bites’, which has helped us to get an accurate snapshot of student attitudes and predict how eating out behaviours may change.

“The vast majority of students regularly eat lunch on campus, but far fewer eat dinner on campus – unsurprising really, considering their busy social lives and their tendency to socialise with friends at home or make the most out of student deals on the high street. Students are experts at making their money go a long way; 40% of the average student’s weekly food budget is expected to be spent on campus and this could be split between multiple venues and on both food and drink.” 

✥Peter Taylor, Strategic Development Director for Education, Sodexo: “The results from our 2014 University Lifestyle Survey shows that variety is not as important as it has been in the past. This year, 17% cited it as an important consideration when buying from an outlet on campus, a slight drop
from the 21% two years ago.

“We are competing with what is on the high street and continuously looking there for the latest trends. Over the last couple of years, street food has grown significantly in popularity and with roughly a third of students from overseas, we are providing a food offer which represents global tastes. An example of this is our Street Food Revolution pop-up offer where we currently have three menus (Indian, Mexican and Caribbean). We will be introducing more menus this year; for example we are developing a Brazilian menu to link with the World Cup, while North African and British offers are also in the pipeline.”

Q: Will students always choose based on price or are quality and health factors too?  

✥FM: “Healthy products are becoming increasingly important, but not just in isolation. Many students are living away from home for the first time, so we see it is the role of the caterer not just to provide healthy food but also guidance and information around how to live healthier lifestyles – everything from easy recipes to cook at home through to looking after your body. Our new ‘Healthy for Life’ health and wellbeing programme, introduced across our university sites this year, tackles this. 

“Price will always be important to often cash-strapped students, but so too is value – and the two aren’t quite the same thing. Students rightly expect high-quality food in a relaxing and sociable environment, and will prefer this to a lower cost but inferior-quality option.”  

✥CN: “Around 50% of our student population spend about £10-£30 per week on going out to the
pub and on general entertainment; whilst this is a high percentage of their overall spend, students do make their money go a long way. Not working the traditional Monday to Friday week gives students the benefit of flexibility, enabling them to eat out when the best offer is available. Price, volume and convenience are cited as the major factors influencing their behaviour.

“Students are becoming increasingly interested in healthy eating but healthy options have to be affordable. We focus on ‘grab and go’ and hot handheld food options. Sandwich meal deals are massively popular. With value for money in mind, we also offer meal deals on plated food, with water as the add-on drink. We have just introduced a range of ‘Flexitarian’ meals – our meat-free concept which offers a more flexible and healthy diet from a lifestyle and an environmental perspective.”

✥PT: “Price does remain the most important consideration to students with two-thirds stating that it is the main factor they consider when buying food. But it appears that value for money is also influencing their choice and has overtaken quality. Our survey reveals that value has increased quite significantly over the last four years, growing from 34% importance in 2010 to 47% this year.  

“Healthy eating has become a key part of student lifestyles. It does appear that cash constraints have affected the eating habits of students, with the impact seen most acutely for those living off campus in rented flats or houses, where 57% say financial hardship had changed their diet. Of those who had changed their diets for this reason, about two-thirds (67%) were eating less healthily, up from 62% in 2012.” 

Q: Which products are currently proving most popular with students? 

✥FM: “American food trends such as barbecue pulled pork, global ‘street foods’ and Mexican food are also in vogue. Personalisation is also huge – students want to have food or drink in their own way, from adding their own toppings to meals to their own flavours for coffee. Big high street brands on-campus continue to be popular but have almost come to be seen as part of ‘normal service’, particularly in out of city universities.” 

CN: “According to our student panel, the items they want to see more of this summer include noodles, broths, soups and stir fries, Caribbean and Jamaican food – which is growing in popularity due to pop up stalls and street markets – and health-focused, under-500 calorie meal options.”

PT: “Sandwiches and wraps remain hugely popular. In addition to an ever-increasing choice of breads and fillings, there is also a move back to some old favourites such as hot dogs and burgers. We have also launched a gourmet hotdog range, ‘Swanky Franks’, which is also proving to be a hit with the student market.”

Q: Is the HE sector doing enough to compete on campus with town/city catering facilities? 

✥FM: “Students have different expectations of campus and town or city facilities. They are willing to spend more on the high street as they expect a campus offer to be cheaper. Universities also need to recognise how the demographics of their student population affect how they eat on campuses. Those who largely live locally, staying at home, are more likely to want a quick bite to eat on campus, saving a main meal at home or in town for the evening.”

✥CN: “We work closely with our university clients to ensure that the food offers we provide constantly evolve to keep up with high street trends and meet the diverse needs of students. 85% of students today use promo codes; students have constant access to the latest offers, discounts and promotions on the internet, so providing discounts and offers in such a format is becoming increasingly important. We are also partnering with a range of high street retailers to ensure that our food offer is suited to the hugely diverse student community.”

✥ PT: “There are many ways the sector can compete against the high street, through offering innovative and tasty offers to actually replicating the high street on the campus. “It’s not just about what’s on offer; we see the importance of actively conversing with our customers via social media. We have student experience managers at many of our universities whose job it is to use these channels to engage with students.

“This sphere is ever-changing and we have to adapt as the trends change. For example, in March we were the first contract caterer to introduce a loyalty app, Sodexo Reward Tree, where customers can use their smartphones to collect loyalty stamps.”

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