Dining alone

How do I handle single diners?

The single travelling diner presents a good potential, if you know how to handle them. Some tips from a constant traveller.

A long time ago, I used to love travelling for work. In the late 70’s, when I was first sent interstate as a trainee manager in the fast food industry, I was like a kid in a candy store. The ride in an aircraft and the luxury of a hotel room were like a tonic, and the sights and smells of new cities and towns made me crave exploration further afield. The fact that someone else would pay to indulge me this way seemed too good to be true. Imagine your first experience with an expense account — I have to tell you, it left me puffed with self importance.

Travelling alone can be lonely

My how things change. As anyone who travels a lot will probably tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be — lonely nights in sterile surroundings, far from your family and the little things that make life comfortable — unless you are very disciplined you can very easily find yourself miserable in luxury. After 25 years of constant travel I’m pretty much over it. I know this will sound strange to a person who is bound to a particular location, but after about five years the novelty wears off and you start to examine the experience with objective assessment.

Most of the places I stay are quite nice, but they all seem to lack soul. Designer furniture and a view out the window do not make warmth or hospitality on their own. Despite the best intentions of management, the human touch is often lacking and you walk away from the front desk or the restaurant feeling like you have been ‘processed’.

beware the single diner
Beware the single diner; they see everything.

Dining alone, in particular, can be a disconsolate and empty experience. Without the benefit of human company you are more often than not left to stare at the walls and the table setting while waiting what seems an eternity for your food to arrive. Many a time I have walked away from what would normally be a reasonable dining experience with a negative impression simply because I didn’t particularly enjoy myself.

I’ve sussed out the eateries that get it right in the cities I regularly travel to and tend to return to them time and time again. For example, there are a couple of little restaurants in Sydney (my second city) where I think I pay for the owner’s annual holidays in instalments by my unfailing loyalty. Like a lot of travelling businesspeople, I do not eat in the place that I stay because it doesn’t seem to meet my needs. In my experience very few corporate restaurants run with the same dedication or attention to detail as the better privately run establishments. I suppose it’s all a matter of commitment.

Dining alone is more that just food

The good places seem to understand that you need more than food and beverage when you are dining by yourself. A brief bit of warm conversation, a newspaper or magazine while you are waiting, a sample of something you haven’t tried off the menu or wine list, a table with a view, good wines by the glass — little, thoughtful touches like this can transform the necessity to eat into a more pleasant experience, notwithstanding the unfamiliar surroundings.

Despite the potential for repeat trade you may represent as a single diner, you sometimes find yourself being treated as a second class citizen by restaurant staff. Looking at it from their perspective, it’s understandable to some extent — you are probably not going to order from the premium end of the menu or wine list and you are sometimes occupying a valuable table for two while couples who would spend considerably more than you are cooling their heels in the foyer.

Corporate travellers potentially come regularly

To make matters worse your tips are probably not going to bring the Porsche any closer — but you may just come five or six times a year, or every second week. You may, as I make a habit of doing, even tell all your business associates in the city you are visiting about your positive experience.

I guess its all a matter of putting yourself in the mind of the single traveller. Go to a restaurant by yourself if you can’t identify with what I’m talking about. Most people go to restaurants with company and are blissfully unaware of what goes on around them. Good company can turn a very mediocre experience into a pleasant evening, but no company has the potential to yield a poor perception of even a polished performance.

I travel by air and often do the sums to while away the time. Thousands of travellers on many, many flights pour into our major cities each day — a lot of them stay overnight — have a look at hotel occupancy across any of our major cities if you want to quantify the potential. Interestingly, many choose to travel early in the week, presenting an opportunity for those of you looking for ideas to boost takings from Monday to Wednesday. They all have to eat, and they’ll go where they’re comfortable. Think of it this way: they will each spend about $40 on average for their evening meal; that’s a lot of money on any given night.

How do you reach them? Well try the airport for a start, then the taxis and buses — follow their journey in by plane from the airport to your CBD — look for opportunities for creative signage, anything you can think of, but most importantly have a look at what you are offering and make if user friendly for the traveller.

Have credit card, will spend . . .

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