by Deanna Ting | May 22, 2013
Regardless of the economic situation or dining trends, the experiences cultivated from a memorable meal have the power to motivate. "There's a strong emotional value attached to dining and food-and-beverage gift cards because just about every company has employees who love to eat out," says Christopher Krohn, president and chief marketing officer of Arlington Heights, IL-based Restaurant.com. "It's not just that tangible value we're talking about, but the emotional value of going out to eat, which is a social and rewarding activity in and of itself."

According to the National Restaurant Association's "2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast," 79 percent of adults surveyed said they would like to receive a restaurant gift card or gift certificate on gift occasions.

For many companies, dining gift cards are being used regularly as on-the-spot rewards. "Managers are finding small ways to say 'thank you' more frequently, rather than giving the big annual gift of a crystal pen set or a plaque," Krohn explains.

More employers and employees alike are also showing a desire for digital gift cards. Adam Van Witzenburg, president and CEO of Elgin, IL-based National Gift Card Corp. says e-codes are NGC's "fastest-growing service." He notes, "Many businesses are putting a higher load on their gift cards, or trading up to a high-end type of restaurant or other option."

Gift card providers in this space are also seeing shifts in the types of gift cards being redeemed and, subsequently, the types of epicurean experiences that recipients are having.

Restaurant.com, which offers gift certificates to more than 18,000 restaurants nationwide, says that while U.S. diners still prefer Italian cuisine, steaks, and burgers, they are also developing a penchant for sushi and Mexican food, as well as favoring restaurants that offer regional cuisines. "Even at lower price-point restaurants, we see a great emphasis on locally sourced ingredients," says Krohn. He also says that more restaurants are making efforts to provide "nutritional transparency" for diners, telling them exactly what kind of nutritional value is in the food being served to them.

This emphasis on healthier eating and local foods is also having an effect on what employees are buying to eat at home. NGC's Van Witzenburg says that its new Whole Foods gift cards for the corporate market have become very popular. Overall, however, casual dining is still "a sweet spot" for diners, especially when it comes to nationwide chains, he says.

At Glendale, CA-based DineEquity, the parent company behind Applebee's and IHOP, Frank Medina, assistant brand manager, says that both brands recently began to offer corporate gift cards, and are beginning to see a lot of interest. IHOP, which has more than 1,500 locations throughout the U.S., was ranked the No. 1 family dining chain in America by Nation's Restaurant News, and sister restaurant Applebee's is the world's largest casual dining chain, with 1,900 locations in the U.S.