Many restaurant customers are families with children under 12. Still, it’s often easy to overlook this demographic as vital parts of a restaurant’s service and marketing strategy.  Why should you be sure to pay attention to this segment?

Because nearly six out of 10 consumers say they take into account a restaurant’s family or child friendliness when choosing where to dine, according to Association research.

“Parties with children under 12 account for $17.7 billion in annual restaurant spending,” says Ian Davidson, brand insight senior manager for C3, a marketing agency that specialized in children and family promotions.

“The degree to which kids are considered depends on the brand,” says A.J. Mesalic, general manager of Las Vegas-based The Family Hospitality Group, which specializes in children’s premiums and ways to engage and entertain kids. “When they are considered, they can boost the bottom line. Bob Evans is just one good example. By revamping their kids program, they increased their revenue by 30 percent in that segment.”

Mesalic also maintains a long-term view of children at restaurants.

“Beyond being customers, children are the future of the restaurant industry. The positive experiences they have at your establishment now can attract them to the profession – and even to working for your restaurant – later on. It’s important to always create comfort and familiarity between families and your brand.”

Here are six ideas to help you enhance your appeal to families:

  • Designate a family night. Create one night, such as Monday, as a “kids eat free” promotion. Those promotions often are successful at casual-dining restaurants and can help boost dinner sales.
  • Aim your marketing at Mom. Moms want their kids to be treated special, so you’ll win them by how you make their kids feel, says mom blogger Julie Casey, known as the Restaurant Mom.
  • Develop a coupon strategy. Although many restaurants have robust coupon strategies to encourage repeat visits, many overlook families, says Ian Davidson, brand insight senior manager for C3, a marketing agency that specializes in children and family promotions. Create coupons that allow patrons to bundle low-priced individual items for combination meals. Such promotions are particularly successful at quickservice operations.
  • Stand out from the crowd. Offering memorable presentation will encourage children to ask their parents to revisit your restaurant regularly. “Presentation is a must for children, and marketing/promotional materials should reflect that,” says Jennifer Bilbro of consulting company Out to Eat with Kids. “Variety is essential.”
  • Engage young guests through interactive activities. Casey encourages operators to offer a variety of games and interesting content on take-home menus and update them regularly. “If kids like the restaurant’s play materials, they’ll take them home.”
  • Consider digital entertainment. “Kids as young as 12 months are playing games with their parents’ technology,” Casey says, noting that many children are using their parents tablets or smart phones on the way to or from the restaurant.

“Kids are irresistibly drawn to mobile devices and games,” says Richard Hart, digital director at Kidzsmart. “In fact, 75 percent of kids under the age of 8 own and routinely use at least one mobile device. Restaurant brands have a unique opportunity to engage with children via educational digital content. Today’s kids’ programs can be quite sophisticated given that we can now bridge print and digital elements fostering fun both in restaurant and at home.”

An example of digital gaming is the Legend Hunters game for Texas Roadhouse. The program features an ongoing story with characters discovering legends such as Blackbeard. A QR code on children’s menus activates a downloadable application for their parents’ iPhones, smartphones and tablets. Kids can then color scenes from the story, save or print them, upload them to their Facebook pages or e-mail them to family and friends.

Mesalic of the Family Hospitality group says digital entertainment is the future. He recommends designating at least six tables for kids’ entertainment, depending on the restaurant’s concept and size. “This engages kids in a branded experience that can occupy them for a good part of their restaurant visit.”

By understanding and adapting to children as profitable and influential customers, you have great potential to grow your business well into the future.