The holiday season can be unpredictable for restaurants. Because of fluctuations in customer spending, changes in weather and customer and employee schedules, many restaurants need to make changes in staffing, inventory and more. One of the best things restaurants can do ahead of the holidays is implement new marketing programs to boost sales and learn from actionable insights to plan for the year ahead. Here are some programs restaurants can use, the best time to introduce them and questions to ask.

When to Launch Guest Engagement Programs for the Holiday Season

The best time to launch guest engagement programs ahead of the holiday season is in September (don’t worry if you missed it—October is the next best time)!

September is best for launching holiday programs because many people love to plan ahead, giving your programs a strong visibility. You want your brand to come to customers’ minds as a place they can go for holiday events and products, whether they plan ahead or last minute.

What Programs Should You Focus On?

Ahead of the holidays, people are looking to either eat at home or go out more. There are ways of reaching both.

Catering and large party events

Catering allows restaurants to reach people having social gathering and holiday events at home or a venue with family and friends. Ahead of this, here’s how to prepare:

  • Have staffing available for catering needs
  • Strategically plan content around your menu design
  • Make sure you’re budgeting correctly for catering
  • Making sure you have food options for vegan, vegetarian and omnivore guests
  • Make it easy to place the catering order or schedule an appointment with your catering specialist for events that need to feed 8 or large numbers (up to 2000) of people


In addition to these, make sure you’re marketing correctly by understanding your target demographic. If you’re in a neighborhood with young professionals, for instance, events will center more around things like birthdays, graduations, engagements, and game day parties (when in season). Marketing should include communicating through email, sms using first-party data and social media channels for awareness and discovery where your target audience is already active online.

In 2021, 29 percent of US consumers planned to order catering for holiday celebrations, and 39% planned to host parties at a restaurant. Another 31% planned to host a work event at a restaurant.

Gift Card programs

People buy gift cards for others as well as themselves when you have a special offer. Just last year, US consumers planned to spend over half of their gift budget on gift cards, and more than 80% of people spend more than the gift card value when they redeem it. You’ll receive immediate revenue for the card, followed by additional visits from the guests who use the gift cards. Then, you can invite them to your loyalty program.

Holiday dining experiences (selling VIP tables with dining packages)

For people looking to dine out more, especially with large groups, full service restaurants should implement a more robust reservations dining strategy and programs that give an elevated experience. Decide if you’re going to have walk-ins only or require reservations, especially for large groups for specific times and special holidays. One way to elevate this experience is to sell VIP tables with dining packages.

Retail sales for products and subscription sales 

The holidays are a great opportunity to start selling retail products, and to add themed holiday products in-store and through e-commerce sales online. This can look like a seasonal label for wine or olive oil, or specific gifts like kitchenware or even accessories, for instance. Subscription services can be something like a coffee subscription, where you pay to join a loyalty program and receive unlimited coffee for a set amount of time, for instance.

Know your target audience for each program

For every program you roll out for the holiday season, you’ll need to know your target audience. Different audiences will buy different retail products, for instance, so it’s necessary that you have audience activation and engagement programs in place at the beginning of the year so you’re ready for peak dining season during the holidays. 

Some questions to answer include:

Do you have a large enough core audience to target for each program?

Make sure current customers fit into your target audiences for each program you plan to test and implement. Reaching your current customer base, loyal customers and demographic is the best way to boost sales, rather than trying to reach an entirely new audience. You can plan for acquiring new customers in your target area and implement ways to gather first party data from visits, WiFi sign-ins, first party data from your POS and loyalty programs.

Ask yourself how big each audience is, which will help you narrow down which ones to target, as well as knowing how to design your holiday menu based on the popularity of specific dishes or combinations of dishes in previous years.

What is the best way to reach your audience, and which guest engagement channels are the most effective?

Plan guest engagement channels where people can interact with your business and where it fits into their everyday lives. Great channels and touchpoints include email and sms messages where you can remind them to order their favorite meal, or announce holiday menu items or offers, for instance, at a time when they normally visit anyway.

Social media is an effective avenue to introduce your programs. Different audiences will see you in different places, so know where to reach yours. If it’s Gen Z, you can get on TikTok and do things like UGC (user-generated content) or paid ads to get some visibility and trust. If you’re looking to reach millennials, Instagram may be the way to go.

How can you personalize communication and offers to current and new guests?

Fifty six percent of social media users will exchange their profile info for a customized brand experience, making personalization a great way to reach guests. First, personalize offers to existing customers based on past purchase patterns. Then, encourage first-time guests to sign up for a birthday program, loyalty program or for special frequency offers, and start gathering their data for communications for the holidays and beyond.

How much marketing budget should you spend?

Decide what percentage of your Gross Annual Revenue to spend on marketing. This number will be determined by restaurant size and ROI to begin with, and then on other factors like if you’re a new or established business, if you’re growing or not, and more.

Is your retail and operations team set-up to support an influx of orders?

Make sure you have the staff and operations to support growth. If you’re understaffed, people might not visit as often, and your efforts may not pay off as well. Incorporate the proper training, but also make sure you’re paying and treating employees well so they’ll want to stick with you through the holiday season.

Be Ready Ahead of the Holiday Season

The best way restaurants looking for growth can prepare for the holiday season is a mix of preparing ahead of time and implementing modern methods of customer service programs like up-to-date loyalty programs and delivery services, while also increasing in-store value for those looking to dine in again. With a bit of strategy, your restaurant can use this time for growth and reaching new customers.

Jessica Valenzuela is the CEO and co-founder of GoGoGuest, a first-party data guest engagement platform that helps restaurants and hospitality brands create emotional bonds at every point of the shopper’s journey. GoGoGuest is built to personalize every step of the guest experience, in-store and online.

Outside Insights, Story