The food on the table, the decor, the service – and the acoustics and music – all add to an experience, so when it comes to deciding what your guests will listen to when sitting down to dinner, it's time to listen up, says Ben Walker
Hospitality operators do not tend to put noise control at the top of their must-do lists. After all, a restaurant packed with customers, chatting and enjoying themselves is a sure sign of success. And isn't noise subjective anyway? What's painful to one person's ears may be lively and buzzy to another's.
The truth is, however, that if people have to raise their voices to carry out a normal conversation, it's likely that excessive noise is having a negative impact on both customers and staff.
Sound is like heat. Unless you open a window, the room will keep getting hotter. Equally, unless sound is absorbed, the dining room will keep getting louder as customers continue to raise their voices to make themselves heard.
Poor sound design is one of the main reasons diners don't return, according to research by acoustics firm Resonics, which unearthed thousands of TripAdvisor reviews complaining about noisy experiences.
"Shockingly, background noise in some restaurants can be louder than a lawnmower or a motorbike, which can really spoil your night out," says Ben Hancock, managing director of Oscar Acoustics.
Noise also affects a customer's tastebuds, making flavours more bland by reducing the perception of sweetness and saltiness.
For front-of-house teams, background music and chatter is motivating and good for productivity, but excessive volume can lead to more service errors and breakages. Quite apart from the potential of damage to their hearing, noise impacts health in other ways, says Hancock: "Nearly one-third of UK workers are stressed because of noise and 19% have poor sleep. For restaurant staff with unsociable hours and a cacophonous workplace, this is likely to be even worse."
For at least 20 years, modern design trends have contributed to the loudness of many F&B venues. Scandinavian simplicity and industrial, loft styles favour bare brickwork, concrete, timber, ceramics and metal surfaces, which are all acoustically reflective materials that cause sound to ricochet around a room.
Many restaurants designers dispensed with the soft materials that absorb sound altogether, although curtains, carpets and tablecloths are starting to appear again in some venues. Yet getting the acoustics right is not just about reducing noise. If the sound is too dampened, the restaurant will feel rather dead and lacking in energy.
Getting the right balance is down to three factors, says Donald Quinn, managing director at Hepworth Acoustics: appropriate noise levels, control of reverberation and privacy. He says: "A degree of privacy is important so that customers feel able to communicate within their own group without being overheard. This is normally achieved by appropriate noise levels so that the background noise and hubbub mask individual voices. This is one of the reasons background music is so often used."
In general, the layout of the restaurant will influence the level of ambient noise, with room dividers, banquettes and bays all helping to provide privacy. A restaurant full of tables for two will be quieter than one with several round tables for large groups. The size of the tables is also a factor: the greater the distance between guests within the same group, the louder they will need to speak.
For operators in expansion mode, good acoustics can be built into the design of new openings. For sites already trading where noise is recognised as a problem, there are various solutions.
Shockingly, background noise in some restaurants can be louder than a lawnmower or a motorbike, which can really spoil your night out
According to ALN Acoustic Design, in the past, acoustic absorption products were created without consideration for interior design aesthetics. Now operators can achieve good acoustics without compromising their decor. For example, special acoustic plaster systems look just like conventional plaster but are effective at absorbing sound, allowing designers to maintain an uncluttered, minimalist look. For venues with an industrial aesthetic, perforated sheet metal can be paired with an acoustic backing material, and slatted or perforated timber panelling with acoustic backing material can complement a Scandinavian-style interior.
There are different types of wall-mounted acoustic panels that are suitable as retrofit solutions. They can also be printed with photographic images, combining visual art with noise reduction. Another option is woollen sound absorbers, such as cloud shapes suspended from ceilings or wall panels, as provided by Somerset firm the Woolly Shepherd.
Change your tune
With the acoustics taken care of, it's time to turn on the music. Again, with so much else competing for a hospitality managers' attention, music often takes a backseat. But some see change. Kevin Turnbull, managing director of C-Burn Music, says: "Clients are now very attuned to the core elements of a venue's atmosphere – music, lighting and temperature – and how getting one of these wrong can throw off the whole customer experience."
Who should take care of your music? You may have a music-loving team member who wants to create some playlists. The main stumbling block here is the sheer volume of music required – even a single dining room will need at least 800 songs. A large hotel with numerous bars, restaurants and spa facilities needs vast volumes of music in order to create specific ambiences in each of its public areas.
The most obvious solution, perhaps, would be to use Spotify, but this is not legal. The Spotify website clearly states: "It's not possible to use Spotify in public places (such as bars, restaurants, stores, schools, etc). You may only make personal, non-commercial, entertainment use of the content." Users are directed to Spotify's subscription service for business, which is called Soundtrack.
Indeed, Soundtrack is just one of a new generation of commercial music providers. The Muzak Corporation dominated the supply of background music in the 20th century, but digitalisation has since opened up the market.
So what kind of music to play? Some music consultants warn against ploughing the mainstream. Sunflower Music's clients include the Exclusive Collection, Corinthia, Hand Picked Hotels, BA and Virgin Atlantic. Sunflower founder Paul Dimmock says: "On average, more than half of the current top 20 contains lyrics unsuitable for public use, so the requirement is to look beyond those."
Turnbull adds: "It's very easy for a venue to fall into the trap of allowing their own tastes, their staff's opinions or an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible to dictate their sound. The result is like blending all the vibrant colours on a palette and ending up with brown."
In the late 1990s, Café del Mar compilations were a trend in hospitality venues across the world, but the digitalisation of music means genres or trends are almost irrelevant today. Vast and instantly accessible choice has changed listening habits, especially among millennials, who are far less tribal.
Turnbull reserves special mentions for new British jazz, or artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Bradley Zero and Floating Points. But he adds: "Venues are much less likely to ask for ‘some indie' or ‘some soul', and more likely to be in search of a mood or atmosphere through music."
Hear the brand
After sight, hearing is our most information-rich sense, which means businesses can use music to emotionally connect with their guests.
"Guests want to be impressed and inspired by music," says Rob Wood, founder of Music Concierge. "They do not want to hear what they listen to on the car stereo every morning going to work. Hotel groups are really waking up to the importance of service culture and interior design – art on the walls, books on the shelves and the sounds. They want a coherent music strategy."
Music can subconsciously influence the behaviour of guests and make them more likely to return. Adam Castleton, chief executive of music provider Startle, notes more restaurants adopting up-tempo music in order to appeal to young adults who eat out more frequently than older age groups. Gradually increasing the volume and tempo of music throughout the evening in a London hotel bar resulted in an 8% uplift in sales, he says.
Dimmock remembers his time as a DJ in Mallorca: "I had complete control of the dancefloor and decided when to send the customers to the bars and increase the takings. Every 30 minutes I would consciously play a track that would ‘lose' a percentage on the dancefloor, send them to the bar and therefore create increased revenue."
Easy-going, relaxed music tells people to take their time, order another coffee or enjoy another course. Studies have found that playing classical music resulted in diners spending more, but a no-reservations, street-food venue would do well to keep turnover steady with a more urgent, upbeat soundtrack.
It's nice to have a great meal and discover a new track, too
Customers can participate and engage with a business via music. At Leeds-based kebab restaurant I Am Döner, diners can select tracks they want to hear from digital jukebox touchscreens. At Pizza Pilgrims, guests can do the same from their phones by accessing a digital jukebox app from the pizzeria's Facebook page. Both services are provided by Startle.
Music also creates an opportunity for brand extension. Dishoom, the Indian restaurant group, worked with Music Concierge to create ‘Slip-Disc' a compilation vinyl LP and CD that celebrates the cross-pollination of British and Indian rock music and culture in the 1960s. The album received glowing reviews in the music press.
The use of algorithms to create playlists is growing, but many music service providers prefer a hand-picked and human approach," says Turnbull. "I see a real move towards more grassroots music movements with a community feel. People seem to be looking for more of a tangible experience when engaging with music; something that correlates with the rise in tape and vinyl sales over the last few years."
Rehegoo Music Group distributes the work of up-and-coming artists, so it's unlikely that your guests or Shazam will recognise any of the songs played. Its client, the Rathbone hotel in Fitzrovia, London, is using Rehegoo's new streaming app. Hotel director Daniel Harris comments: "It's great that Rehegoo is representing independent artists and helping them to get recognised and that we are playing unique music within our property."
The need to stand out is driving a new generation of restaurant and hotel operators to view music as an increasingly important element of service and marketing.
"It's nice to have a great meal and discover a new track, too," says Mikey Vettraino, founder of MAV Music and former operations director of Soho House. And if the diner happens to be an influential restaurant critic, then all the better.
Vettraino points to reviews by The Times' Giles Coren and the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler of Brigadier and Nuala restaurants, both in London, respectively, in which they sing the praises of the music just as much as the cuisine.
Music in hospitality is becoming louder.
How to stand out with sound
1 Match music to your brand
Tailor your playlists to tell the story of the venue or concept.
2 Match the music to the experience
Develop a soundtrack that works with the style of dining/drinking on offer.
3 Inspire your audience
Select tracks that will delight and surprise your target clientele.
4 Curate the music around the time of day
Use tempo and rhythm to underpin the service patterns throughout the day.
5 Use music creatively
Avoid the obvious, the generic and the clichéd – there's a whole world of amazing music.
6 Get an acoustics assessment
Avoid dead patches, loud patches or sound bouncing off hard surfaces.
7 Invest in a premium sound system
Bad tech and poor speaker coverage means bad audio. Don't let the interior designer dictate where speakers go.
8 Implement a music-management process
Make sure your staff are monitoring and controlling the volume correctly.
9 Refresh your playlists regularly
Keep customers engaged (and staff motivated) by ensuring playlists are updated.
Byron and Oscar Acoustics
At the Byron restaurant in Piccadilly Garden, Manchester (pictured), the decor of tiled floors and walls would have resulted in extreme noise levels during service. To solve the problem, Oscar Acoustics applied a black acoustic spray to the ceiling, which controlled reverberation and also refurbished the space. The acoustic spray, which can be textured or smooth, also reduces noise from rain and acts as an insulator.
Oscar Acoustics supplies acoustic sprays, plasters, panels and building blocks for the control of noise reverberation inside buildings. Its hospitality clients include Ottolenghi, Hide in London's Mayfair, Dishoom, the Rosewood London hotel and 45 Jermyn Street in London's St James's.
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