Food & Beverage - February 2017

Sample Success

Offering guests a taste of what’s new whets their appetites for more

by Jodi Helmer

When Frontier City introduced s’mores funnel cakes at the start of the 2015 season, Revenue Manager Peetie Place knew guests would love the sweet treat—if he could get them to try it.

“People know what a traditional funnel cake tastes like, but with a new product, even if it looks delicious, there is a lot of apprehension,” Place explains. “There is the thought, ‘What if I order it and don’t like it?’”

To tempt taste buds, team members handed out samples to guests at the Oklahoma City park and, as Place suspected, the s’mores funnel cakes were a hit.

“We handed out samples and immediately saw the impact [on sales],” he recalls.

Giving guests a small taste of the foods served in an attraction introduces them to new menu offerings and helps influence purchasing decisions. A study published in the British Food Journal found almost three-quarters of shoppers who were offered a free sample, accepted; those who sampled the products were more apt to make a purchase.

Successful sampling involves more than setting out a plate of small bites and a stack of toothpicks, though. To translate samples into sales, attractions must have a plan.

Emphasize New Offerings

It’s rare to see attractions offering free samples of popular items like chicken strips, French fries, or soft-serve ice cream. The reason: Guests don’t need to be convinced to order these items. Instead, sampling works best for new items that guests aren’t familiar with, according to Place.

“We’re going to sell these tried-and-true items on our menu even if we don’t offer samples,” he explains. “It’s best to sample new items that guests are not familiar with and might not order, especially when those items are an upsell.”

At Frontier City, introducing guests to s’mores and Turtle funnel cakes via free samples helped drive demand and increase sales. Both flavors were such a hit they went from test products in 2015 to popular—and permanent—menu items the following season thanks to the park’s sampling strategies.

Sampling also works well at Dorney Park, where team members working in the Sugar Shack and Good Time Gifts shop offer free fudge samples to guests. The shops are not filled with plates of bite-sized pieces of the confections. Instead, the park takes a proactive approach to tempting guests, putting up signs in the sweets shops encouraging them to ask for samples; staff reinforces the “please sample” approach, offering all guests a taste of the fudge.

“Giving them a sample lets [staff] slow down enough to show off the quality of the product and the flavors,” says Chris Stoltzfus, director of games and merchandise for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, park.

Although guests can request a sample of any of the 16 flavors of fudge, the signage and staff emphasize new and seasonal offerings; in 2016, the focus was on a newly added cotton candy-flavored fudge. The interaction between the staff and guests while samples are being cut is an essential part of the experience.

“We don’t want people to just walk past a plate of free fudge and take some,” Stoltzfus explains. “We want our employees to engage guests and open up a conversation that leads to a sale. Samples generated more interest and led to greater revenues.”

(In one survey, a supermarket found 68 percent of customers said free samples persuaded them to make a purchase.) 

Timing Matters

For sampling to be successful, Place recommends sending staff out into your facility early in the day. Handing out samples in the morning gives staff time to cut up small bites before opening, which lessens the disruption during peak hours. It also whets guest appetites for later in the day.

“Guests like to plan out what they are going to eat at the park; if you let them try something at the beginning of the day, they are more likely to come back and order it later,” he says. “Later in the day, people have already made up their minds.”

Regardless of the timing, Frontier City will oblige if a guest asks for a sample—even if samples of the food they want to try are not being offered. Place considered these one-off sample requests an important part of customer service.

“If someone is unsure and needs to try something to make up their mind, we’ll offer them a taste,” he says.

A Twist on Traditional

Knott’s Berry Farm takes a different approach to introducing guests to new foods: The Buena Park, California, park launched an entire festival to let guests taste new menu items.

As part of the Boysenberry Festival, which started in 2014, guests can purchase a tasting card for $25 that lets them try six different berry-flavored foods like boysenberry short ribs, boysenberry meatballs, boysenberry-filled churros, and boysenberry Icees. The boysenberry-flavored items are featured on menus throughout the park; the festival allows guests to sample several small portions and pick their favorites.

“A lot of times, guests try the item at the festival first,” says Russ Knibbs, vice president of food and beverage for Knott’s Berry Farm. “They end up finding a new favorite and ordering it when they come back to the park.”

The Boysenberry Festival also introduces guests to the boysenberry-flavored products like boysenberry jam and boysenberry BBQ sauce that are sold at California Marketplace and The General Store.

“It was our food and beverage that started this place; not a ride, not a theme,” Knibbs says. “Our guests expect us to be cooking up new things all the time and the tasting card is our way of letting them try a little bit of everything.”