The International Rail Catering Group (IRCG) is the industry trade association for professional rail caterers. Among its corporate members are major train companies with large in-house catering departments, plus international and regional independent rail caterers and a number of specialist suppliers.
Despite the Covid19 Pandemic, IRCG has just marked its 55th anniversary by launching new branding and a new on-line identity, designed in partnership with Zurich’s Out of The Box Digital. The updated website includes a member only area, as well as regular news and up to date information about the rail catering industry and the wider food travel market place.
Roger Williams, IRCG’s Chairman, explains; “Our association is in a unique position to help colleagues to learn and develop by sharing of best practise, encouraging innovation and promoting new concepts. We organise member networking events such as conferences, dinners, rail tours and exhibitions, as well as providing specialist advice, mentoring and operational audits. However, 2020 was very difficult for our member activities due to Covid-19 restrictions and we missed not being able to meet at WTCE in April 2020.”
“Our new website and social media services have offered important links for rail caterers during the Covid disruption and helped highlight the added value of catering services that have been badly missed by so many people. These catering services will be vital for rebuilding customer confidence when the recovery in long-distance train travel begins.”
Williams continues; “Helping train companies to recover passenger volumes will be critical for everyone involved in rail catering – with the future of many suppliers literally hanging in the balance. It is so important that rail operators make best use of the immense experience of rail caterers at this time, building on the great customer service they provide and the positive effect in terms of passenger growth and satisfaction.”
Indeed, if long-distance rail is to return to pre-Covid levels, Williams argues that it is contingent upon a continued investment in catering and hospitality in order that intercity trains can compete with cars and airlines.
He said; “Obviously, during the last year, the travel market has been devastated by the pandemic and our members and their respective customers have all suffered. One of the hardest things was trying to cope with the constant changes to service levels, as well as putting in place PPE and processes to protect staff and customers.”
“No sooner had some services been put back on-board in the summer, other more stringent national restrictions were applied. With differences between each country’s rules too, international operators suffered added complexity.”
“Presently, though, we hope that catering services will be back on board in the late spring or early summer, driven by an increase in customers and the desire to grow passenger numbers. That provides an opportunity to prepare now for what will be a very different looking market in the future, helping to attract back customers who may only feel safe travelling by car in the near future.” added Williams.
A good example of this is where companies are developing apps for order at seat, such as those already in place in various airport and station restaurants run by SSP. On-board trains in the UK, for instance, the two largest inter-city operators Avanti and LNER, have recently trialled new digital apps for ordering products to be delivered to seat. LNER also have one for car parking and it’s rumoured their digital transformation team is looking at creating a combined app for all aspects of the journey.”
Williams continues; “Catering in the high street has become more immediately accessible and so the use of technology in stations and on-board is vital. Customer confidence will be low and, with many changing from traditional purchasing in shops to online, offering services such as order at seat makes perfect sense.”
“But customers also need a confidence boost and at our recent IRCG Virtual Rendezvous (online conference), it was obvious that the operators saw it like this too. For example, IRCG member Deutsche Bahn announced it is planning its own campaign to bring the love back on-board.”
“It includes a special train travel catering motto for their seasonal menu concept, plant based alternative dishes, new digital ordering of their food and drink offer, delisting of disposable packaging, prototyping of reusable systems and even new train designs. All this is part of their vision for the next ten years.”
“Likewise, Austrian rail caterer Don Travel’s approach has a similar theme using a tailored taste of local provenance, greater selections for vegetarian and vegan tastes and digital ordering.”
Williams concludes; “This pattern of our members looking to develop services suited to their local markets, but using the most effective methods based on international best practice, was a theme repeated across the IRCG conference. The lessons were shared for a common cause – one of making sure that the whole rail catering industry continues to deliver best value for its customers. It underlines how success comes from being able to follow the right trends so you can implement effective policies to drive customer satisfaction and sales. That’s the value of IRCG membership 55 years on and shows it is still important to meet, talk and share.”
“Certainly, all IRCG members are looking forward to the time when we can meet again face to face and we are hoping that will be at the World Travel Catering Exhibition on 31st August. It will be great to see everyone again and share some more of the exciting new concepts and products that have been developed ready for the recovery post-Covid. “