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Technology Comes to theTable

The College of William and Mary wires the dining experience and connects students to healthy eating.

By Charles A. Maimone

For many students, mealtime plays an essential role in campus life in terms of enjoyment, nourishment, or socialization. College and university officials, then, must be creative in establishing financially and nutritionally sound dining programs while satisfying student preferences and lifestyles.

The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, wanted to find a way to use technology to enhance the dining experience and connect students with healthier eating. In partnership with food service provider ARAMARK, the auxiliary services department worked with William and Mary’s Mason Graduate School of Business to “wire” the dining program. The resulting team put in place several software tools and start-to-finish technology programs to promote innovative and healthy campus dining. These high-tech touches include a dining Web portal; informational kiosks; and an online, social networking system.

Go to the Source

We recognized that today’s students are much more astute than their predecessors when it comes to food trends, varieties, and brands. They want fresh and healthy menu options—while they request that we “hold the diet fads, please.” Not that students aren’t concerned about their weight. Our research indicates that the number of students watching their weight increased from 25 percent in 2005 to 37 percent in 2006. So, we’ve tailored our food offerings accordingly.

To reach those kinds of decisions and to better understand how members of generation Y (the “Millennials”) communicate and how they want to access information, we conducted extensive, proprietary research. Our planning team met with student focus groups to determine what nutritional Web sites participants were visiting; where they were dining off campus; and what type of information, products, and services they would want should they have access to a campus-dining Web portal.

Results from the focus groups were incorporated into the Nutritional DiningStyles Survey 2005–2006. Findings showed a demand for improved convenience in a variety of areas. Specifically, 72 percent of students listed “convenience” as “very important” among reasons to decide whether to use the on-campus dining program.

The team also researched higher education market trends and found that college-student spending was on the rise, especially online. This input, along with the research findings, confirmed for the William and Mary team and the food service provider’s technology professionals that a collaborative effort focused on online tools was the way to go. We would use the Internet as a way to better communicate with students and provide them with increased convenience and customer service. At the same time, these interactive elements would give students the chance to offer greater input into their campus dining program.

While some services would be available to parents, faculty, and staff, our hope was that the institution’s “by-students, for-students” approach would ensure that the new, start-to-finish program would especially resonate with students. We also intended for the plan to give traction to the dining program, attracting more meal-plan customers and encouraging existing customers to expand their plans. As a result, the institution could realize a return on its investment in the technology and food program enhancements and initiatives.

Give Them What They Want

We focused our efforts on developing a campus lifestyle destination, which we piloted in September 2005. (The program, which we later branded as “CampusDISH,” has been introduced at more than 200 higher education institutions.) The one-stop, dining-services Web portal features menus for on-campus dining locations, nutritional information, details on special dining events,  information on promotions, and specifics on healthy-eating options. The site (www.wm.edu/dining) is dynamic and colorful, with graphics, and photos that represent our institution’s students, personality, and program offerings. William and Mary’s portal provides detailed information on two campus residences’ restaurants, five retail venues that incorporate national franchises, four specialty coffee houses, and four convenience stores.

Also available are a number of other services that are proving to be popular. Students are able to do the following:

View and select meal plan options. Users can view and select from seven meal-plan options. The online, meal-plan wizard helps students determine the plan that best suits their lifestyle and dining habits. This interactive, survey module calculates the recommended meal plan and its cost based on answers to questions about dining habits, residence (on or off campus), and status (full- or part-time). A pop-up field suggests the top two plans that would give the best value. The meal-plan wizard has received more than 1,500 hits each month since its launch in May 2007.

Manage meal plan accounts. Students can check balances and record deposits into their meal plans or Flex Points accounts. Balances can be used like cash at any campus retail location and for local pizza delivery.

Order catering and gift baskets. Friends and family can order gift baskets, such as Something From Home, which offers baked goods from the William and Mary bakery; or a Hip Kit, which includes fun goodies for various occasions such as exams, birthdays, or graduation. The revenue from these programs is steadily increasing, demonstrating the overall trend toward ordering online rather than in person or by phone.

View upcoming events. Campus DISH also provides users with details for events, such as Love Your Body Week, a period designated to raise awareness about eating disorders and to promote a healthy body image. During this week, sponsored by Collegiate Awareness Regarding Eating Smart, our executive chef provides cooking demonstrations and tastings at various campus dining locations.

Access special services. The dining service offers several special programs, including one designed to help students who are not well enough to go to a dining hall. The student can fill out an online form that allows a friend to bring back a meal.

Provide feedback regarding campus dining. Student feedback is the cornerstone for our dining program’s future evolution. Traditional approaches—surveys, focus groups, food service committee meetings, comment cards, and a monthly “Dine With the Director” night—offer a barometer to help understand dining customers’ needs and preferences. Results from such follow-up efforts showed us that a large portion of the student population wanted even more vegetarian and healthy selections. As a result, we began serving a variety of freshly made sushi.

In addition, a tab on the site’s menu bar allows for input to the dining services division. When we receive several comments about the same issue, we can quickly respond. When customer concerns over trans fats began to mount, for example, we converted to zero-grams-trans-fat fryer oil at all of our food-service locations.

Adding to the Nutrition Network

We’ve continued to enhance our technology-based nutrition tools. In March 2007, during National Nutrition Month, we introduced Fresh and Healthy. This online education and awareness tool provides students with health-related resources and includes content from the American Dietetic Association. Fresh and Healthy offers information on healthy menu suggestions and recipes; health and wellness resources; and healthy lifestyle and nutrition tips, such as  incorporating whole grains into meals and taking simple steps to reduce calories.

Kiosks keep students connected. Walk-up nutritional kiosks in residential dining halls and the main food court are dynamically linked to the dining portal. With a simple touch of the screen, students can view nutritional information and menus for any day at any campus location. The kiosks also feature information on promotions and special events as well as advice from the college’s registered dietitians and nutritionists about healthy lifestyles.

Our research has also shown us that 20 percent of our students prefer to order from an electronic kiosk rather than from traditional counter service. Consequently, we plan to introduce the ordering service this spring. Kiosks located in front of the three main dining facilities will allow students to purchase food items, with the cost automatically deducted from their meal-plan accounts. They will then walk inside to pick up their orders. With these convenient service points at our largest dining locations, we anticipate heightened daily participation and an increase in voluntary meal-plan sales.

Nutritional Podcasting Is on the Menu

By Dominic Boffa

While associated most with music and news, podcasting is adding a new dimension to campus dining across the country. It is offering an easy and popular way for students to connect to information about nutrition, menus, and campus events.

ARAMARK Higher Education, Philadelphia, is working with a number of higher education institutions to develop podcast programs focused on healthy eating. At East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, nutritional podcasting incorporates students into content creation. ECU students provide scripts for the short audio recordings that can be downloaded free of charge from the university’s Web site or through iTunes.

The university’s podcast page lives on the dining site (www.ecu.edu/dining), where it averages 350 visits per month. The site features about 30 different 30–second to 2 1/2–minute podcasts, with topics ranging from “Trans Fat 101” to “Commuter Meal Plans.” ECU Campus Dining administrators look to the program to reach and educate more students while attracting them to dining programs on campus and at their favorite restaurants.

Similar to ECU’s program, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, worked with ARAMARK to launch podcasts in April 2006. The primary goal for the technology is to increase the availability of nutritional information on campus. Penn’s campus nutritionist records brief sessions that are posted on the nutrition page of its dining Web site (www.upenn.edu/dining).

A few months into its launch, Penn’s podcasting page (“PennCasts”) averaged 200 visits per month. The five most frequently downloaded podcast topics out of 222 offerings included “Eating Healthy in the Dining Halls,” “Portion Control,” and “Gluten-Free Diets.” In April 2007, the National Association of College and University Food Services recognized Penn’s dining Web site as its “Web Site of the Month” for its innovation and convenience.

A number of other universities are getting with the podcast program. In fall 2007, the following institutions launched nutritional podcasts: Arizona State University–Tempe; University of California–Irvine; Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. It’s all part of an effort to deliver nutritional news and updates via technology that suits students.  

DOMINIC BOFFA is chief information officer and vice president of information technology at ARAMARK Higher Education, Philadelphia.

An online dining community answers communication preferences. In a study by the Student Monitor research group, nearly three quarters of the 1,200 students surveyed said that iPods were “in.” This response placed the iPod higher in preference than any other item on a list that included text messaging and music downloads.

In response to this data, some institutions have made downloadable audio and video podcasts available to students. (See sidebar, “Nutritional Podcasting Is on the Menu.”) Such broadcasts may review daily menus and include information on nutrition, special events, promotions, and healthy-eating options—and can be an excellent resource to students.

We decided to offer what we believe is the next generation of communication: Internet social networking. We invite students to sign up as members of our online dining community. Staff provide information to the community via the Web, instant messenging, or information feeds. Unlike podcasting, delivery is automatic, and students choose their preferred method of communication. Dining service messages give details about upcoming events, promotions, programs, new menu items, changes in service hours, and so forth.

While technology simplifies and improves the dining experience, we recognize the importance of students having access to real people—especially when it concerns health and well being. Registered dieticians continue to consult with William and Mary Dining. They pay attention to dietary restrictions and food requirements, such as those related to food allergies, medical conditions, or religious guidelines. The dieticians also provide assistance to students seeking advice in areas such as sports nutrition and weight loss.

A Healthier Bottom Line

Seventy-five percent of our 5,700 undergraduates live on campus, but only the 1,350 freshmen are required to purchase a meal plan. To attract the upper-classmen on a year-to-year basis, dining services must keep up with what is an increasingly sophisticated clientele.

Our dining portal, along with other healthy-eating tools, has contributed significantly to capturing this market and growing the campus dining program. Our research and survey results indicate that since we introduced Campus DISH in late 2005, the site has received approximately 43,000 visitors and 224,000 hits. Many of the 4,400 students per semester who choose a meal plan take advantage of the Web portal.

In less than three years, the dining program has realized a 5 percent increase in voluntary meal-plan participants. In FY07, 58 percent of these members opted to purchase a full meal plan, increasing the contribution to the dining services budget by at least $238 per student per semester. Dining services enjoys strong student participation in special dining events, measured by a 75-percent market penetration among all meal-plan members.

We’ve learned that students with choices other than our meal plan are most attracted to the William and Mary plan if the menus include a variety of healthy, ethnic food options that are prepared in full view at open cooking stations. Our outreach through the dining portal and our other technology tools helps inform potential meal-plan users of our growing services.

>>> Conversation Starter
What dining service features do your institution’s students enjoy and use most? How do you gather input for improvements? E-mail: carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org.

Dining survey results continue to indicate that convenience is what compels students to eat on campus and become loyal to the dining program. Using this knowledge and coupling it with technology-driven communication tools has increased the college’s overall satisfaction scores, specifically in the categories of “availability of nutritional information,” “dining convenience,” and “food service.” In fall 2006, William and Mary’s satisfaction scores were 22 percent higher than the national average of the institutions serviced by our food services provider. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of students communicating to our staff through the portal and becoming more involved in the campus dining community.

By incorporating technology into the campus dining program, a college or university can increase convenience, functionality, and service for students. At the same time, wired meal services encourage customer loyalty, improve operational efficiency, and stimulate revenue growth. So, what’s on the menu? Something for everyone. Bon appétit!

CHARLES A. MAIMONE is associate vice president for administration and director of auxiliary services at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.