Potential Growth of Restaurants in University Districts & Towns: Is This a Hidden Opportunity?

How are you leveraging increasing student populations to grow your restaurant?

International student enrolments in Canada have tripled over the past decade, with much of this growth in recent years. Restaurants near university hubs in the Greater Toronto Area have an excellent opportunity to capitalize on this growth as they look to create a sustained customer base.

It’s no secret that Canada has become an attractive option for international students, which can translate directly into increased revenue for restaurants. Modifying marketing, dining, and operational practices can help restaurants make the most of this critical trend.

Let’s examine the statistics behind this trend and discuss what restaurants can do to capitalize on it.

International Student Growth Continues to Skyrocket

Canada’s reputation for offering a high-quality education, combined with other geopolitical factors, has made Canada a desirable option to many international students. Increasing enrolment numbers at some of Canada’s top schools are a testament to this fact. The impact of this growth has been felt throughout most industries in university districts in Toronto.

According to data published by Statistics Canada, the enrolment of Canadian students in formal programs grew by 10.9% from 2008/2009 to 2018/2019 academic periods. During that same time frame, the enrolment of Canadian students went from approximately 100,000 to over 300,000. The Globe and Mail reported that the vast majority of international students are located in Ontario in 2017.

Businesses throughout Toronto, especially those in university districts, have the opportunity to embrace this astounding growth. While the above numbers reflect all of Canada, plenty of that growth has taken place in Toronto. Toronto Global reports that Toronto has the second-largest food and beverage industry in North America.

It doesn’t seem like the growth of new international students is going to go away. There has been a consistent increase of international students for several years. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there was an increase of 13% of international students in 2019. What has contributed to this growth in international students?

Larissa Bezo, the President and CEO of CBIE, stated, “The new data demonstrates the continuing attractiveness of Canada as a study destination. Our research shows that international students choose Canada because of the quality of the Canadian education system and our reputation as a safe and tolerant country.”

Additionally, many of Canada’s top schools offer a classic, picturesque college experience; international students are drawn to the images that mimic what they’ve already seen in films. With an implied promise of helping students create lasting memories, international students are drawn in.

Why This Trend Is Setting Restaurants Up for Success

This trend is providing a fresh supply of new customers to restaurants operating in university districts. However, despite more potential customers, they are still discerning consumers who will need to be persuaded to try out a given restaurant. Intelligent marketing tactics are still required, despite the high number of international students.

Restaurants need to start going above and beyond to take advantage of international college students’ growth truly. Handing out free samples, giving out swag, or using geofencing alerts to showcase deals are ways that Toronto restaurants can appeal to the growing population of international students.

Forming relationships with schools within the university districts in Toronto and surrounding towns will greatly serve restaurants in these towns. There are several benefits to developing these relationships, such as having their restaurant included in the material provided to new students. There may also be an opportunity for partnering to cater school events.

However, a formal relationship with a university isn’t necessarily required. Restaurants can offer a discount if a student ID is presented. Advertise this discount to college students on social media and restaurants can further capitalize on the growth of international students.

Restaurants can also approach student groups to collaborate. Many student groups have regular fundraisers, and having a restaurant on their side will help them succeed. Not only will the restaurant have an “in” with that group, but they’ll also be exposed to countless new potential customers and other student groups during the fundraiser.

One tried, and true method for creating repeat customers is offering a loyalty program. These types of programs reward customers with points for making purchases. Once enough points are earned, students can redeem them for free food and other prizes. Even small restaurants can offer loyalty programs by using third-party providers of loyalty programs.

Restaurants are being presented with an opportunity to create a regular customer base, but nothing is guaranteed. Owners and managers will still need to put in the effort to take advantage of this opportunity to grow their restaurants truly.

Sustained Growth for University Restaurants

Restaurants that truly capitalize on the influx of international students will create sustained growth. An individual student might visit their favorite restaurant for their entire time in school. Beyond that, a loyal student may spread the word to other students.

New students will continue to arrive, but restaurants will need to keep innovating and exploring ways to stand out from the competition. While unique social media marketing campaigns can do plenty for getting students in the door, restaurants need to keep them coming back. There is no guarantee that more students will mean more customers.

For new restaurants or restaurants opening a second location, picking a place close to campus is a great way to secure a steady flow of foot traffic. Many college students don’t own cars or don’t want to drive too far to eat.

Restaurants Need to Stand Out With a Memorable Experience

What should restaurants do once the students have arrived? Providing outstanding service is essential, as well as offering delicious food. What else can restaurants do to stand out?

A college student is typically a different type of customer than the rest. Speaking in generalities, students and staff will be in a hurry and need on-the-go options or will want to relax with friends. Restaurants need to learn typical times for both types of customers and be ready to cater to both.

An ideal restaurant will offer comfortable seating, plenty of power outlets, and excellent WiFi. With the popularity of social media outlets such as Instagram, having photo-worthy decorating can also help spread the word about your restaurant to the student population. Providing customers with a memorable experience will keep them coming back more than any loyalty program. Restaurants should consider the experience they are currently providing and expand upon what customers now enjoy.

A Unique Opportunity for Toronto Restaurants

How will restaurants take advantage of the growing population of international students? Based on all available data, it doesn’t look like the flow of international students will stop anytime soon. It’s up to restaurants to attract these new students and create a new replenishing customer base.

Canada will continue to offer an exceptional opportunity for an excellent education to international students. This means new opportunities to capitalize on the influx of international university students.

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