What of the Guides in the Digital Age?

Posted on: February 14th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Hello and welcome to Fine Dining in the UK episode 11 – the podcast brought to you by www.finediningguide.co.uk

Today we discuss the Guides in the Digital Age, touching on the AA Restaurant Guide, Which? Good Food Guide and focus on a review of the Michelin City of London Guide 2009.

The challenge for all the Guides is that distribution of print media is facing a rapidly falling market while, at the same time, the opportunity presented from an exponentially rising number of digital (internet) visitors is hard to grasp.

The essential problem is that in the digital internet world knowledge is cheap. Not just cheap – free. As a knowledge base, the internet is the world’s first truly global – free to access – encyclopaedia; wikipedia is a symptom, a subset and a case in point.

Indeed, even where knowledge is classified as intellectual property, this too is expected to be free – be it photographs on your website (that get indexed by Google images), articles that are written through to stars issued by Michelin. There may be unwritten courtesies in the way certain information is acted upon – typically referrals – but by and large access is free. Intellectual property laws in the digital age are sure to get more complex before they get more simple.

Michelin have been quick to appreciate this trend and publish all their stars and star histories in their annual press releases. This is a smart move, the brand is so strong in the industry any impact on print copy sales should be negligible. Besides, the parent company may have different ideas about the value of this brand to their overall strategy – as a Trojan horse or even loss leader, this brand can only add value to the perception, marketing and sales of the Michelin Group’s products.

During this month, The AA Restaurant Guide have, lead by caterer, experienced a tough time in regard of their practices. It is alleged that inspectors are being trained and targeted on selling consultancy as well as having the job of inspecting. This has lead to some unsavoury mud slinging about the Guides’ integrity with accusations that conversations between inspector and chef could be parodied thus:-

Chef: So we got two rosettes

Inspector: Yes

Chef: But I thought we were worth three!

Inspector: (Sharp in-take of breath) Well you could buy some consultancy and find out how to get three.

Chef: So I can buy a rosette?

Inspector: err…

This is of course entirely unfair. We are yet to see statements from The AA about their current and planned modus operandi but one can assume that there is a transition period occurring at the Guide.

The corporate to corporate business world has been treading the fine line of integrity – best practice, best advice, competing solutions and fee paying consultancy – since the dawn of corporations.

Typically there is a complex matrix of management with dotted lines between departments that deliberately live in silos, each having their own objectives. An account manager or client manager sits above them as the interface to the customer and so long as he/she has their integrity in tact then the corporation’s integrity will look after itself. The different silos will compete for the attention of the account manager whose job is to look after the best interests of the customer and the corporation.

It’s slightly difficult to apply this to the AA example without the solution still sounding compromising but as a minimum the consultancy salesman, the consultancy provider and the inspector must be three different people and a glass wall must exist between departments.

Building on the concept that digital visitors are exponentially on the rise and that knowledge is cheap (or free), how can Which?, The AA and Michelin capitalise? Perhaps the answer is best explored by posing a different question – how can they add value to their intellectual property to turn it into a viable digital chargeable product?

One simple idea would be to combine maps, route planners and their guides. I think I would pay a subscription to Michelin (currently a sister company called Viamichelin, although for a separate debate, one suspects that may change) to plot the best route from A to B and at the same time show on a map all the recommended restaurants and hotels that were on the journey or worth a detour or worth a special trip.

According to the Michelin 2009 Press kit, Viamichelin had 10 million visitors last year, all of whom paid nothing at all, however this level of built up customer base demonstrates the potential. They also have the advantage of being pan European and this type of solution would fit with their corporate aim (stated in the Guide) as: to do everything possible to make travel, holidays and eating out a pleasure, as part of Michelin’s ongoing commitment to improving travel and mobility: This solution would certainly do that as well as help sell more tyres by encouraging the detours and special journeys.

The AA have the best and most well known Route planner and a very creditable internet version of their guide, all of which is – you guessed it – free to access. Were they to combine this into a single subscription product then scrapping this tricky consultancy banana skin may be a viable option.

Let’s move on and discuss the new 2009 Michelin City of London Guide.

The Guide was published on the same day as Michelin’s GB and Ireland Guide 2009 and contains the same list of addresses as the London subsection of the GB&I Guide. The idea, according to the editor, is to aim at a slightly different market – the tourist or business traveller that is looking for a dedicated city Guide.

In all over 450 Restaurants are listed; with the famous knives and forks, through bib gourmand to all the stars themselves. The key departure of the Guide lies in the descriptive text – 150 words per knives and forks or bib gourmand restaurants, each having a dedicated half a page and 200 words per Michelin Starred restaurant, each having a full page and a colour photograph. The 50 plus hotels listed too have a similar page format to the starred restaurants, with the selection chosen having something to suit every pocket.

With the restaurants themselves it is the descriptions that are the clincher. The style is different from the Which? Good Food Guide, which has had a concise, accurate, relevant, consistent and conservative style for decades. Take these two examples:-

The Ivy: …restaurant of choice for those ‘celebrities’ who appreciate their public so long as they don’t have to see them when they’re eating….if the restaurant knows you, you’ll get in, if they don’t then book well ahead and if you still haven’t got it then re- watch Ricky Gervais’ `’extras’

Or the opening line of Gordon Ramsay RHR: ‘Celebrity Chef’ may be the nebulous moniker now seemingly lent to anyone with a frying pan and a personality disorder.

This is akin to having Rory Bremner script the BBC News or like the kind of thing a foodie would read on a witty foodie’s blog. This is not Joe Blogger. This is Michelin!

The authors are immediately redeemed; here are three examples of those rare gems, nuggets or pearls of Michelin wisdom that foodies clamour for…a clue into the thinking of the Michelin Men!

Gordon Ramsay RHR: Clare Smyth, has added sparkle and an extra eye for detail, while the menu is a clever mix of the classic Ramsay dishes with newer additions

There has certainly been debate – from the internet to the broadsheets – on what Clare Smyth had brought to the table and Michelin’s thinking is clear in these words. Good luck to her and all the best to those at the mother lode.

Now Tom Aikens: He still may favour grandiose presentation but now appreciates balance and subtlety, in construction and flavour combination

In the earliest days of Tom Aikens’ eponymous restaurant one might have argued that there was too much happening on every plate with the palate occasionally bombarded with taste and texture….the words above could not put the current strength of Aikens’ cooking better. Perhaps he will regain the two stars he once held at Pied a Terre.

Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental: The cooking is still detailed and precise but has forsaken the precious tendency towards over elaboration and unnecessary experimentation.

Chris Staines held a star espoir a couple of years ago, exactly at the time when he changed the menu format from standard three courses to four courses, as the courses were smaller perhaps there was a tendency to over elaborate – which has now gone – is the espoir coming back?

For these insights and the excitement it generates trying to second guess Michelin for the future, the Guide is a snip at £9.99 (£6.67 at amazon). No, further than that, like the menu of the Ivy, there is something for everyone in this guide! A worthy addition to any restaurant goers collection.

That concludes Fine Dining in the UK episode 11 – the podcast brought to you by www.finediningguide.co.uk.

Until next time.

Happy eating!