Food-sharing platforms like Paris-based Vizeat are expanding their operations into the lucrative meetings and events sector, based on demand among conference delegates craving a more locally immersive business travel experience.
Other peer-to-peer platforms offering alternative room- and ride-sharing services, such as Airbnb and Uber, are actively developing group-specific business services for conference organizers.
For attendees who are comfortable with booking those platforms, they’re typically more naturally inclined to participate in a home-cooked meal at a local resident’s house or apartment.
Since officially launching in July 2015, over 12,000 Vizeat hosts have prepared meals for over 20,000 diners in more than 60 countries.
Founder Jean-Michel Petit says the company is still in its early growth stages, or where “Airbnb was around 2009,” with the bulk of business in Europe to date. The most popular U.S. cities on the Vizeat site at present are New York and Boston.
Petit adds that the company is doing about 20-30% growth month-over-month, spurred in part by the continuing rollout of language-specific Vizeat portals in countries like Spain and Italy. The demand is clearly there, he says.
“We commissioned online market research across many different cultures in Europe, and we discovered that 72% of French people say they would like to share a meal with people,” he explains. “And 53%, and this was a surprise, said they would be willing occasionally to host a meal at their table, provided they could choose the time, the people, and the price, etc.”
Vizeat’s early adopter success, and that of others like San Francisco-based Feastly and EatWith, and Rome-based BonAppetour, is driven by the idea that the dining room table is the original social network.
“Now we’re seeing people taking control of the platform proposing all kinds of things like outdoor picnics, roof top parties, market tours, cooking courses, etc.,” says Petit.
That has a business outcome as well for corporate and association planners who are always looking for new ways to get delegates to look up from their devices and engage face-to-face more.
However, while these platforms might be a natural fit for large events (both Feastly and EatWith also promote corporate group bookings), the food-sharing experience has not gained any real traction with the meetings and events industry at large.
That could be shifting.
Group Dining, Airbnb-Style
In November 2015 at the annual Airbnb Open conference in Paris, Vizeat hosted over 1,000 out-of-town Airbnb hosts for dinner at 170 private residences following the first full day of the event.
Petit asserts the event was the largest activation for the food-sharing industry worldwide in one city to date.
To start the process, Vizeat reached out to all of its Paris hosts to see who was available on the date in question. A month before the Airbnb Open, the 170 hosts were all listed on a Vizeat microsite with a description of themselves and the type of food they like to cook.
Participants then entered their dedicated conference code to access the listings and search through all of the different dining options.
One of the primary challenges, a large percentage of Paris residences require visitors to enter a code to enter the building, but Vizeat does not give that information out. So that compels people to begin engaging with their hosts digitally before the event itself, much like Airbnb guests would do with their hosts.
There’s no sharing experience in travel without a social experience.
“The social fabric is very important because sharing food is an emotional connection,” says Petit. “This isn’t OpenTable, where you just book a restaurant online and then show up.”
Another one of the challenges putting the group dine-around together was explaining to the hosts that they needed to be patient. Unlike hotels and flights, generally, travelers will wait to the last minute to book a dinner, even though the listings were ready a month in advance.
All participants were guaranteed payment in the event of no-shows. But Petit said he and Airbnb were both confident that 1,000 visitors out of the 5,000-person attendee list would show up.
Based on that success, Petit is now working with the organizers of the UEFA Euro 2106 football tournament coming up in June. He is also speaking with a large European food services company who wants to give Vizeat experiences as gifts to its employees and suppliers.
“We expect to host over 2,000 dinners for the football match, but to be honest, this is still very much in the early days,” says Petit. “So far, we have not really been going after conferences as part of the platform, but in 2016, we’re going to be going after this segment very aggressively.”