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Dining providers on meal plan trends and missteps

Campuses offering more flexible meal plans
University Business, December 2015
Students, faculty and staff at the University of Vermont can eat foods prepared in the certified kosher kitchen, which is operated by Vermont Kosher LLC. In addition, a line of kosher grocery items is available for purchase.
Students, faculty and staff at the University of Vermont can eat foods prepared in the certified kosher kitchen, which is operated by Vermont Kosher LLC. In addition, a line of kosher grocery items is available for purchase.

What do you see as the biggest trend in meal plan design?

“Meal plans are being designed to provide the greatest balance of convenience and value for the meal plan holder. You are seeing the addition of various types of unlimited access plans, meal plans with large balances of declining balance dollars for retail purchases, and ‘upgrade’ options. While having high-quality food offerings will always be the foundation of student satisfaction with a meal plan, it is becoming equally important to provide flexibility in how they can get those items to drive value perception.”

—Sue Bogan, district manager, Aramark, University of Delaware

“Many campuses are moving toward unlimited plans. This allows the meal plan participant to come and go as many times as they wish in the dining facility, basically removing time restrictions, allowing the students to eat when their schedule allows. Students today are busy and want to grab smaller meals with snacks in between. If they want to stop in for a quick snack and come back for a light meal later, they can without the worry of running out of meals.”

—Andrea Spandonis, strategic director account development, Sodexo

“The biggest trend I see in meal plan design is an increase in unlimited- and block-meal plans. They provide a feeling of greater value as students aren’t losing meals on a weekly basis as they do with the traditional meal plans that reset weekly. Combining these flexible meal plans with different amounts of dining dollars allows students to create their own plans, providing a feeling of ownership and satisfaction. The more flexible plans increase participation rates, which is one sign of student satisfaction.”

—Michael Ross, Chartwells resident district manager, University of Miami dining services

How can colleges avoid missteps in meal plan design?

“We often see a lack of holistic planning when it comes to meal plans, especially not keeping the meal plan options current to the offerings on campus.  Oftentimes, campuses increase the number of locations or brands they have on campus, adding popular food and beverage brands to meet student demands, but have meal plans with smaller amounts of flex dollars on them and a greater emphasis on dining hall meals. It is vitally important to evaluate your current meal plan any time you are making changes to your on-campus offerings.”

—Andrea Spandonis, Sodexo

“The biggest mistake that I see colleges making is creating too many rules. Meal plans need to be easy to understand and use. Students don’t read brochures and signs and so we end up with a customer who doesn’t know the plan and ends up getting frustrated at each turn. We try to get in front of the students any chance that we can, whether it be orientation or resident assistant training. Letting them know how to use the plan, what is available for them and where, increases our student satisfaction scores.”

—Michael C. Ross, University of Miami

“For community college administrators, it’s important to mandate at least a small minimum spend per student for campus dining.  This allows for budgeting and planning, and provides an opportunity to demonstrate quality and value. We work with our clients to create menus that change often but stay true to our ‘fresh food pledge.’ It works. Another mistake common at community colleges is not creating and marketing the daily specials. Our dining services managers work closely with the marketing department to continually get the word out—whether it’s a digital display, tweet or online portal.”

—Nathan Rigoli, District Manager, Unidine

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