Using Social Networking to Engage Gen Y Diners and Employees
By Matt Salvitti

Generation Y, Millennials, Echo Boomers, the under-30 crowd…whatever phrase is used to identify this demographic, there is no denying its effect on everything from popular culture to finance and business, to the hospitality industry. This group (those born between 1980 and 1996 and raised as the neo-liberal children of the Baby Boomer generation) defies the traditional depiction of restaurant diner or employees and needs to be approached differently than other demographics.

A recent Journal of Hospitality and Tourism research paper has cited some of the key Gen Y values and expectations as involvement, individualism, flexibility and respect – essentially feeling valued while being heard. According to the 2008 Culinary Trend Mapping Report How Gen Y Eats, “Any foodservice operator without a laser focus on this generation needs to play catch-up. Fast.”

It can be a daunting task when restaurateurs who possess years of experience within the hospitality industry are charged with marketing to and hiring members of this emerging demographic. First and foremost, when speaking to the Gen Y patron and employee restaurateurs need to recognize this is a generation who has grown up during decades of major technological advances, vast consumer choice, and accessibility to many diverse cuisines. Additionally there are currently more information outlets and media stimuli than at any other point in history. As a result the GenYers want their food and beverage choices constantly updated.

To address that desire a slew of new marketing techniques have developed. George Jage, President of the World Tea Expo, notes, “There is a tremendous movement with the younger people – the up and coming generation is so much more socially aware and connective.” Jage points out those sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn naturally lend to creating more of an effective marketing outlet, and that the “social networking platform is very key to eventually meeting face to face with the end user.”

This Gen Y end user is becoming even more prevalent in the hospitality industry workforce as baby boomers begin to retire and the national workforce falls upon its hardest times in decades (unemployment recently hit a 26-year high). Employers have come to depend on the skills of the budding and generally inexpensive Gen Y employee. As a result a new school of thought has arisen among certain employers within the hospitality industry – a notion that perhaps has its genesis in the realization that approximately 50% of the industry workforce falls within the Gen Y demographic.

Liz Stone, VP of Training and Recruiting at the national brewery/restaurant chain Gordon Biersch, points out that her firm has embraced these new recruiting tools. She comments, “The way we have trained, mentored and hired has completely changed. We promote a workplace [Gen Yers] are going to enjoy.” The use of ‘Team Member Task Forces’, one-on-ones with senior management, and catering to the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) culture has led to “retention rates shooting up.”

A key part of this revamped approach to recruiting, as well as advertising, is reaching out to guests and potential employees via social networking sites such as Facebook, My Space, and even Craigslist. By creating group pages via a local Gordon Biersch brewery’s Facebook site, patrons can read about restaurant promotions, ‘tapping’ parties and other specials – all while engaging their group of friends with the simple click of a mouse. Stone even engages YouTube as a recruiting tool. She explains, “We’re taking it more aggressive than most, but it shows the Gen Y demographic [our firm] is a good place to be, when many kids are saying ‘I want to work with people just like me’.”
Wanting to work with people “just like me” is evidence that more so than ever the young Echo Boomer is thirsty for education, information and connectivity. It is difficult to deny this momentous affect on the industry when twenty-somethings searching for a restaurant job eschew the newspaper classifieds for a YouTube recruiting video. Enlightened Millennials might look to the World Tea Expo’s Twitter page (over 400 followers strong) for information on healthy drink alternatives, whereas in the past they probably would have stopped at the nearest vending machine for a cola.

In this light, food and beverage industry professionals will have to come to terms with the sobering notion that today’s growing multitude of generational focal points are no longer looking to billboards and print ads for influence (as their baby boomer precedents have done). As they walk down the street texting, tinkering with iPhone apps and updating their Twitter feed – how else will today’s restaurateurs reach them?