How Time Out is using food halls to diversify its revenue base

Five years ago, Time Out Group launched a Time Out-branded food hall in Lisbon, Portugal to further diversify away from advertising revenue. Starting this month and through the rest of 2019, the events and culture news publisher will be putting that market concept at the center of its business.

On Friday, the company’s third Time Out Market opened in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, less than a month after launching its first U.S. location, in Miami’s South Beach. Over the next two months, additional locations are expected to open in Chicago and Boston, and by year’s end, Time Out Group expects to have six markets running in three countries. Two more Time Out-owned markets are scheduled to open in the next two years, as well as an additional two owned by third-party developers, which Time Out will run via operating agreements. All told, Time Out will have nine markets operating in six countries by 2022.

Time Out has been on a yearslong mission to develop new lines of revenue, such as commerce and live events, while managing losses in print advertising. In 2018, Time Out Group generated $61.6 million in revenue. On the media side, digital advertising accounted for $18.8 million and e-commerce $7.9 million, compared to $19.4 million in print ads revenue. The Lisbon market, which had revenues of $11.4 million, accounted for 18 percent of the group’s revenues. Those changes haven’t been enough to get the company back into the black, but they pointed the company in the right direction: Time Out Group lost $10.2 million last year, compared to an $18 million loss in 2017, according to public company filings.

To return to profitability, the market concept should provide the momentum: The four U.S. markets Time Out is supposed to open this year are expected to generate $15 million in revenue in 2019, and become solidly profitable by 2020, with an estimated $11.2 million in EBITDA on estimated $55 million in revenue, according to research released by investment bank Liberum in March. That same research projects that Time Out Group will turn a profit in 2020.

“The obvious catalyst for the shares over the next 12 months is the opening of Time Out Markets across North America,” Liberum analyst Andrew Bryant wrote in a spring note. “The markets’ roll-out finally accelerating not only helps underpin the move into group profitability, but more importantly, should evidence the sum-of-the-parts equity value of Time Out.”

Though they will vary in shape and size, the concept for each Time Out Market is the same. Time Out recruits the restaurants it deems best in a given city and works with them to come up with a small, reasonably priced menu they can cook and serve on-site out of small stations positioned throughout the market. The Brooklyn location features 21 restaurants and three bars spread out across two floors of space located in a shopping center.

Restaurants sign contracts for a minimum of one year, with Time Out taking a 30% cut of each restaurant’s revenues while shouldering most of the restaurants’ costs: Time Out supplies equipment such as pizza ovens, front- and back-office operations, plus a steady stream of free publicity for the restaurant’s food and owners.

Done right, Time Out Markets can attract a lot of foot traffic. Time Out’s Lisbon market had 3.9 million visitors in 2018, which made it the most-visited attraction in the city that year, said Time Out Group CEO Julio Bruno.

While Time Out Group operates its media and markets teams as separate lines of business, they work together continuously, Bruno said. Editors in each city identify which restaurant owners should be in the market, for example, and play key roles in determining whether a restaurant should stay involved in the market.

Though participating restaurants lock into long-term commitments, editors keep an eye on the food and the performance. In Lisbon this spring, Time Out replaced the burger restaurant in the market there on editors’ advice.

Editors also help sustain interest in the markets. In addition to the food stalls, each market has space for events and entertainment, with a dedicated marketing and events manager who collaborates with editorial staffers not just to help plan promotions but to book events and people; each weekend features multiple days of events programming.

In addition, Time Out’s editorial teams create photo and video content about the restaurants participating in the market, a content strategy that appeals to the restaurant owners and has had a positive effect on the size of Time Out’s social footprint. Time Out New York’s Instagram following has grown more than 30% over the past 12 months, according to Crowdtangle data.

“For us, it’s the evolution of Time Out,” Bruno said. “These are big bets, but they fit together. Time Out Market does not exist without the Time Out brand.”

The physical spaces themselves provide an additional surface for driving Time Out’s other revenue streams. At the Dumbo location, large video monitors spread across the market periodically display Time Out editor-curated event listings that include QR codes. If a visitor scans the code to buy a ticket, Time Out takes an affiliate commission on the sale.

Pursuit of new revenue streams has driven several food-focused publishers, including Tastemade, Vice’s Munchies and BuzzFeed’s Tasty into branded food retail environments; for instance, a Munchies-branded food court is scheduled to open in New Jersey in the summer of 2019.

An earlier version of this story said that Time Out Group, rather than Liberum, projected Time Out Group would return to profitability in 2020.

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