Tourists in the U.S. are spending more at restaurants than ever before, good news for quick-serve operators as summer vacationing enters its home stretch.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reported this year that tourism spending at restaurants in the U.S. is at an all-time high, with 15 percent of sales at quick serves stemming from tourist spending. Quick-service and fast-casual restaurants made up 34 percent of the total amount of tourism and travel restaurant spending in 2012.

The growth of the travel and tourism industry is also increasing faster than the overall economy, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce. The industry grew 6.8 percent, while the gross domestic product of the U.S. only grew by 1.8 percent.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s Research and Knowledge Group, says it’s “common sense” that quick serves would be the recipient of strong tourist spending. While travelling or visiting an attraction, families are bound to get hungry and quick serves are usually in these areas, he says. Families can enjoy an affordable meal in less time than it would take at a fine-dining restaurant and go back to exploring the attraction they are visiting.

“One out of every five restaurant dollars is spent at quick-service restaurants. At the National Restaurant Association, we try to emphasize how important it is to know about travel and tourism trends for restaurant owners,” Riehle says.

“I want a tourist to come back two to three times during their stay. It’s our job to build a sort of ‘micro-relationship.’”

Operators are experiencing that first-hand and even adapting their business to accommodate travelers. Ted Tsakiris, co-owner of Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, a Hawaii-based burger brand with additional locations in Washington, Iowa, and Japan, noticed a strong tourist presence at his Hawaiian outposts. He did a little investigating and found out that the number of tourists from Japan was declining, while Chinese and Korean tourism was increasing.

“You have to assimilate to your demographic,” he says. The chain is rolling out Chinese and Korean versions of its menu to accommodate this influx of tourists.

Riehle also says it is important for a restaurant owner to know his customer. “Understanding demographics and working with travel and restaurant associations” is a good way to make sure the marketing efforts that owners make can reach tourists effectively, Riehle says.

Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development for the Mall of America and a board member with the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, says restaurant owners should “ask themselves what the most cost-effective way to reach tourists is.”

She recommends that operators look at partnerships with other organizations, such as hotels, to increase their reach. “Just be visible,” Bausch says. “If you’re not top of mind, you’re not anywhere.”

The increase in tourism spending is due in part to an increase in international visitors to the U.S. The Department of Commerce reported that the amount of international visitors to the U.S. increased from 55 million in 2009 to an estimated 65.4 million in 2012. Paul Kern, branch chief on travel and tourism at the Bureau of Economic Analysis, says international visitors increasingly see the U.S. as giving them the most value for their money.

“There was a time when the U.S. dollar was very low and that drew in visitors from Brazil, India, China, and Russia,” Kern says. That set a precedent that continues today, he says.

Kern says the best thing restaurant owners can do to make sure that they are capitalizing on this trend is to know the demographics of the tourists travelling to their area. Several resources are available to help with this; U.S. averages and data from national agencies can be helpful, he says. Another resource that quick-service operators can use is the Survey of International Air Travelers, produced by the International Trade Administration. The survey shows data about international flights and passengers. Statistics about where the passengers are from and what airports they are flying into can help owners know how to market their brand, Kern says.

“International visitors are now at a record high in terms of visiting and spending,” Riehle says. “The ability to get a brand or establishment’s presence known is becoming more and more important. The competition remains fierce. The ability to stay on consumers’ minds is important.”

Tsakiris says creating a connection once a customer is in the restaurant is also important to building tourists’ spending.

“I want a tourist to come back two to three times during their stay. It’s our job to build a sort of ‘micro-relationship,’” he says. “If you don’t build that, they’re not going to come back.”

That also ensures that tourists are going to remember and talk about a restaurant long after their vacation is over.

“When neighbors travel, they tell everyone where they had a good time, and word of mouth generates more traffic,” Bausch says.

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