With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, you’re likely taking the time to take a step back and consider how you can best serve your students when campuses (hopefully) open in full force again this fall. If all goes well, you’ll be able to say a heartfelt “good riddance!” to some safety-inspired precautions like limited seating and shuttered dining halls.
But don’t expect a complete return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
Why? Because while COVID-19 accelerated the pace of change, many of the shifts we’ve witnessed recently were well on their way, pandemic or not.
Here are four trends that aren’t going anywhere:
1. Fewer Students On Campus
Long before the pandemic prompted many students to opt for virtual options or put off college all together, enrollment numbers were dwindling. In fact, between 2011 and 2019, student populations declined 11%. Of those who do enroll, the number who attend school remotely looks likely to grow. 80% of college and university presidents say their institutions are “somewhat” or “very” likely to reassess the long-term mix of in-person vs. virtual learning they offer, according to Inside Higher Ed. Together, these two forces have left on-campus populations in decline.
With a slimmer on-campus cohort, operators should expect to rely less on the guaranteed dollars of meal plans and throw more weight behind attracting and delighting one-off purchasers.
2. All-You-Care-to-Eat Goes À-la-Carte
Whereas large-scale, buffet-style dining halls once dominated the campus food scene, the pandemic-inspired move to grab-and-go models may well be here to stay. Even before campuses put a temporary halt to all-you-care-to-eat models, students were beginning to gravitate toward other options. In 2019, many foodservice operators reported rising sales outside the dining hall, including a 40% increase of business at convenience stores and 37% of campus coffee shops.
To meet this shifting demand, higher education foodservice providers will need to scale both their grab-and-go infrastructure and devote more attention to their full array of dining venues, from markets to cafés.
An unintended consequence of this growing penchant for non-buffet meals? Campus options have begun to look less distinct from their off-campus rivals. More than ever, operators will need to compete directly on quality and customer experience in the forms of speed and convenience.
3. Smaller Budgets
Dealing with budget cuts? You’re not alone. Funds were slashed from higher ed foodservice programs across the country, forcing more than half of them to cut 75% of their staff in 2020. Most programs are expected to regain a significant portion of their lost dollars, but there may be a shallower pot to draw from in the coming years. Nearly nine in ten college and university presidents are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the financial security of their institutions, meaning funding levels may not return to their full former force while schools work to replenish depleted cash reserves.
Of course, a decrease in resourcing won’t shrink the demands you’re expected to meet. As foodservice operations continue to grow more complex, operators will have to find ways to do more with less.
4. Preference for Digital
Many operators came to lean heavily on mobile ordering and other technologies to ensure students could come and go efficiently during the pandemic, but few students will want to give up the ease, convenience, and flexibility these precautions enabled. As digital natives, students are used to turning to their phones to get real-time information and place food orders from anywhere, anytime. In fact, a 2019 study found that nearly two-thirds of students want to order meals from their phones. We can assume that percentage has only continued to grow.
Operators should strengthen their mobile presence to keep up with student demand and compete with off-campus options.
By building a seamless digital presence, you’ll remain top-of-mind for students, even if they’re nowhere near your facilities when a craving strikes.
Even as the pandemic forced operators to upend normal functions and fundamentally change the way you served students, it also provided a sneak peek at many of the trends that will define the future. In the coming years, we’ll likely continue to see slimmer budgets and on-campus populations, while demand for more flexible, on-the-go options only grows. But if you continue to adapt and look forward to serve these needs, you won’t just meet the moment—you’ll build a foundation that will help your program to thrive for years to come.
Ready to tackle the future head-on?
Download our eBook, The Future of Higher Ed Foodservice, for a blueprint of what’s to come.