February 2, 2023

Tech drives rail catering change

Confidence in rail travel is booming in much of the world and a new ridership is driving changes in catering strategies, reports Roger Williams

Across continents, passenger levels aboard intercity trains are mostly back to 2019 levels. That’s great news for railways, caterers and suppliers who have endured a lean time during the pandemic.

According to feedback from International Rail Catering Group (IRCG) members, passenger confidence in Europe rose from only 10% in May 2020 to over 95% in September 2022. The continent has the highest density rail network in the world and dozens of active train operators. Figures from the International Union of Railways (UIC) shows this buoyant market has grown nearly 10% since 2014, recording its highest total of 583 billion passenger kilometres in 2019.

In the same period, the Americas saw slower progress, growing by only 1.9%, while Asia and the Middle East saw the highest growth at a healthy 15%. That’s due mainly to China’s investment which has supported construction of the world’s largest high-speed rail network. Nonetheless, ongoing lockdowns may have shrunk China’s 2022 volumes.

Leisure is new business

With many companies keeping the brakes on travel, there are fewer business passengers on weekdays, but longer weekends are stoking the appetite of adventure-hungry leisure travellers.

Successful event trains, such as Switzerland’s Glacier Express, show just how much leisure customers love having gastronomy onboard. “Leisure customers are looking to enjoy onboard dining as part of their journey experience, and their expectations are often higher as they are paying for themselves rather than being on business expenses,” said Tim Uebersax, Panoramic Gourmet’s CEO.

That recognition is fuelling a rethink by some intercity railways where meals are currently limited to a weekday business demographic.

New passengers, new habits

Rail’s green credentials also attract younger travellers. Recent Bank of America research shows Millennial and Generation Z dietary preferences are driving a marked shift in consumption habits when it comes to meat and alcohol.

Caring for the planet is raising demand for plant-based food dishes and rail operators are responding. Christian Hölbl, the Chief Operating Officer of Austrian onboard caterer DoN, said: “We recognise dietary tastes are changing, with more and more people visiting our onboard Bistros requesting vegetarian and vegan meals. IRCG’s recommended ‘Best Practice’ is for all onboard caterers to put food sustainability and nutrition at the forefront of their onboard catering offers,” . 

Scan and buy

Passengers also now expect finger-tip control of everything via their smartphones. That’s led some railways, such as LNER in the UK, to invite passengers to scan a QR code, generate a café bar menu and place orders for service to their seats. 

This opens the way to accessing live train info, special offers, seat upgrades and other benefits too. In turn, this helps railways better understand consumer preferences, build brand loyalty and grow ancillary revenue.

On French TGV’s, self-select order screens are positioned throughout the train for a click and collect service from the bar. “The easy-to-use menu screens have been really well received by customers and have helped raise average transaction values and customer satisfaction levels,” said Benoit Vignon, Newrest’s VP of Sales Group. 

At the same time, the walk to socialise at the onboard café bar is still enjoyed by many passengers.

Apps to order

Rail caterer JLV was one of the first companies to offer customers an app to for café bar orders. Available in Czechia on CD trains, it rewards multiple purchases and regular customers.

Petr Pospisil, JLV’s COO warned: “As well as the system being easy to use, the products purchased by customers online, whether onboard or pre-order, must be available and accurately delivered, on time, every time. Failure to provide the preferred selection will deter customers from ordering online again. Also, rewarding loyalty and offering special offers are really important to build up sales.” 

Delivery to (s)eat

Ordering food online for home or workplace delivery is commonplace in modern society. Yet the equivalent pre-order service for trains has been an underutilised strategy by many railways, complicated by the way tickets are sold and that specific train reservations aren’t always required. 

Shaun Hopper, in charge of train catering development for international caterer SSP, said: “I see great opportunities to raise sales and reduce waste through pre-order for intercity trains. By developing online partnerships with ticket agencies and utilising existing ground-based food production facilities, we can offer customers a huge range compared to traditional onboard menus. This could be through click and collect from a station outlet, or for pre-departure delivery onboard or to the lounge, or served in the lounge after arrival – all personalised to match the customer’s journey arrangements.” 

And why not? As long ago as 1871, long before the internet, hungry travellers could order a wonderful luncheon basket to be delivered to their train by English station caterers Spiers and Pond. Now more than 150 years later, great onboard catering and hospitality can still help delight customers and make their ‘ticket to ride’ a really enjoyable experience…all caterers have to do is make it as accessible and tempting to passengers as possible.

Roger is the IRCG chair. For further insights and advice on the travel catering market contact roger@thecateringexplorer.com.

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