Minimising plate waste at hotel breakfast buffets: an experimental approach through persuasive messages

Claudia Cozzio (Department of Economics and Political Science, University of Valle D’Aosta, Aosta, Italy)
Oksana Tokarchuk (Faculty of Economics and Management, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy)
Oswin Maurer (Faculty of Economics and Management, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy)

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 14 September 2021

Issue publication date: 30 September 2021




The purpose of this study is to investigate how hotel guests can be nudged for more active engagement in hospitality plate waste prevention and moderation at buffets, through designing effective persuasive interventions. Plate waste is a main sustainability challenge, and it is considered one of the major drivers of food waste in the hospitality sector, whose operations generate excessive amounts of waste. The hospitality industry, featured by all-you-can-eat buffet-style settings, is somehow encouraging consumers to increase the amount of food ordered or taken and not been eaten.


This study reports a field experiment conducted in a real hotel setting, where persuasive interventions were targeted to consumers at the croissants buffet, when guests were making their selections. The research tests the persuasiveness of functional and experiential appeal messages to nudge hotel guests towards a more active engagement in avoiding plate waste. Each single treatment was carried out for three weeks in varying sequence.


The findings are based on 63 rounds of data collections and show the superiority of experiential appeal messages in positively influencing guests’ behaviour. This implies that appropriate messages can persuade tourists to avoid plate waste in buffet-style settings, especially if these messages are grounded in participatory cues with an emphasis on altruistic values.


This is one of the few studies that empirically tests the effectiveness of different persuasive interventions in a real consumption setting, thus measuring actual behaviours which have been rarely studied. This study further contributes to the identification of concrete communication tools that can help to mitigate plate waste generation.



Cozzio, C., Tokarchuk, O. and Maurer, O. (2021), "Minimising plate waste at hotel breakfast buffets: an experimental approach through persuasive messages", British Food Journal, Vol. 123 No. 9, pp. 3208-3227.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Claudia Cozzio, Oksana Tokarchuk and Oswin Maurer


Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

1. Introduction

The primary role of tourism in actively contributing to sustainable development has been emphasised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) that set the agenda for global development to 2030 by addressing challenges such as poverty reduction, gender equality, long-term maintenance of the ecosystem, responsible production and consumption (Boluk et al., 2017). Against this background, eating behaviour is a relevant dimension of a sustainable transformation of tourism, as not only food production and consumption have a significant ecological footprint (Poore and Nemecek, 2018), but it also represents an essential element during vacations (Gössling et al., 2011). In addition, between 78% and 92% of food waste is considered avoidable (Betz et al., 2015).

The purpose of this study is to investigate how hotel guests can be nudged for more active engagement in hospitality plate waste prevention and moderation at buffets, through designing effective persuasive interventions (Barnett et al., 2017). Plate waste is a main sustainability challenge (Thyberg and Tonjes, 2016), and it is considered one of the major drivers of food waste in the hospitality sector, featured by all-you-can-eat configurations (Matzembacher et al., 2020).

The largest share of food waste occurs in the final phase of the food supply chain (i.e. at the consumption level), thus explaining why household food waste has been a prime object of academic interest to date (Aydin and Yildirim, 2020; Katajajuuri et al., 2014; Schanes et al., 2018). Although in Europe, household food waste represents the primary source of food waste generated at consumption level, food waste associated with the hospitality industry holds the second position (Monier et al., 2010). For example, in Italy, household food waste accounts for 54% of all waste at consumption level, followed by food waste generated by hospitality providers amounting to 21% (Coldiretti, 2017). Whereas tourist food consumption is a key driver of food waste generation within the hospitality sector, the magnitude of food wastage by tourists alongside the determinants of tourists’ wasteful behaviour has been overlooked to date (Wang et al., 2021; Filimonau and De Coteau, 2019; Gretzel et al., 2019).

By means of a field experiment conducted in a real hotel setting where persuasive interventions were targeted to consumers at the croissants buffet, this study advances the understandings of the UN SDG n. 12 “Responsible Consumption and Production: Reversing current consumption trends and promoting a more sustainable future”, thus contributing to the achievement of responsible consumption in tourism.

First, the field experiment approach adopted in this study is characterised by a high external validity and contributes to address the “attitude-behaviour gap”, whereby tourists declare their willingness to be involved in sustainable practices, but with their actual behaviour frequently differing from what they declare (Juvan and Dolnicar, 2014). Sebbane and Costa (2018) unveil a huge discrepancy between stated and actual wasteful behaviour with regard to food consumption in restaurants, calling for more observational measures in order to avoid misleading results and interpretations provided by self-reported surveys about food waste. Hence, this study addresses the call for much more suitable approaches to generate a more robust understanding with regard to tourists’ sustainable behaviour.

Second, relatively little is known about the magnitude of food wastage by tourists alongside the determinants of tourists’ wasteful behaviour, as a very small number of academic studies have dealt specifically with hospitality food wastage (Filimonau and De Coteau, 2019; Matzembacher et al., 2020). Hence, this study is one of the very few that aims at defining clear operational guidelines on how to design effective communication campaigns that are able to trigger guests’ behaviour towards zero plate waste.

2. Literature review

2.1 Strategies for minimising plate waste in the hospitality industry

The hospitality industry with its all-you-can-eat buffet-style settings usually encourages the generation of food wastage, due to an increased consumer anonymity and a perception of abundance of food (Dolnicar and Juvan, 2019; Juvan et al., 2018). Despite its magnitude, the food waste problem seems to be underestimated by hospitality providers (Filimonau et al., 2021; Vizzoto et al., 2020), as they appear skeptical towards adopting measurement activities to quantify the amount of food left over (Kasavan et al., 2019; Sakaguchi et al., 2018). This is somehow disturbing, as measurement activities are critical for involving staff in the fight against food waste and for raising customer awareness to prevent a mismatch between food taken from a buffet and food actually consumed (Principato et al., 2018).

Although the implementation of strategies to reduce food leftovers is relatively infrequent (Filimonau et al., 2019; Kasavan et al., 2017; Sundt, 2012), some attempts have been made which are mainly focussing on the creation of messages that evoke consumers’ awareness towards plate waste prevention. Social marketing activities based on informational campaigns (Kallbekken and Sælen, 2013; Stöckli et al., 2018), normative-connoted messages (Ellison et al., 2019) and how-to actions for reducing plate waste (Pinto et al., 2018) show some contradictory effects in sensitising consumers to do their best to avoid food leftovers.

While motivating people to change their behaviours through persuasive interventions appears to be a common approach (Pelletier and Sharp, 2008), testing the messages’ persuasiveness relative to the behaviour of taking food from a buffet while not eating it all remains understudied (Juvan et al., 2021). Dolnicar et al. (2020) conducted one of the few field studies, unveiling that presenting a flyer or a stamp collection booklet is increasing hotel guests’ awareness about plate waste and has a beneficial impact on the amount of food wasted. However, adding a pro-environmental appeal to the flyer, or the stamp collection booklet, does not reduce average plate waste significantly. Similarly, Kallbekken and Sælen (2013) illustrate the positive effect of providing social cues that encourage patrons to visit the buffet more than once, instead of taking all food desired at once. This has a positive impact on the amount of food left over in hotel restaurants.

Other strategies relate to hospitality providers’ internal logistics, such as offering the possibility of smaller portions/kids' menu (Berkowitz et al., 2016; Freedman and Brochado, 2010) or making take-home bags available (Hamerman et al., 2018; Mirosa et al., 2018). In addition, buffet-style settings appear to encourage plate waste, due to psychological factors (e.g. the fear of missing out, people's reluctance to return to the buffet several times) which potentially enhance the probability of food leftover (Dolnicar and Juvan, 2019). Only a small number of academic studies confirm a few effective solutions to avoid plate waste in buffet-style settings: reducing plate size prevents up to 20% of food waste (Kallbekken and Sælen, 2013), as does limiting the number of buffet service stations (Juvan et al., 2018) or avoiding live cooking at the buffet (Pirani and Arafat, 2016).

Despite the significance of food waste in the hospitality industry (Wang et al., 2021), field work on the topic is hardly ever undertaken (Filimonau et al., 2021). This study aims at investigating how hotel guests can be nudged into more active engagement in hospitality plate waste prevention and moderation at buffet-style settings through different types of persuasive messages. Persuasive messages represent stimuli that allow individuals to evaluate them (Levin et al., 1998) and to generate a response which affects behaviour (Vakratsas and Ambler, 1999).

Broadly speaking, a persuasive message can be described in terms of its functional–rational or emotional–experiential components (Heath, 2011). Authors have assigned different labels to these appeals (“informational” vs “transformational”: Rossiter and Percy, 1987; “utilitarian” vs “value-expressive”: Johar and Sirgy, 1991; “hard-sell” vs “soft-sell”: Okazaki et al., 2010; “functional” vs “experiential”: Zarantonello et al., 2013). In this paper, the latter terms are used.

Typically, functional appeals contain accurate product descriptions with an emphasis on specific features (Kotler and Armstrong, 1994), while experiential appeals are grounded on emotions consumers experience when consuming the product (Bagozzi et al., 1999). Thus, the persuasiveness of functional appeals focusses on a rational information process, whereas the persuasiveness of experiential appeals relates to emotional reactions. Advertising literature (De Pelsmacker et al., 2007) underpins that appeals are not mutually exclusive, as communication can adopt either one or both at the same time. However, their effectiveness is still a matter of debate as there is a current lack of understanding on how to design effective sustainability messages (Tölkes, 2018).

2.2 Persuasion through functional appeals

The functional appeal of a message focusses on emphasising utilitarian product features (e.g. attributes, applications, performances), as well as benefits associated with these features (Zarantonello et al., 2013). Thus, functional appeals are eliciting a cognitive consumer evaluation and response (Abernethy and Franke, 1996).

In the context of sustainable consumer behaviour, functional appeals are the most frequently used types of interventions (Stöckli et al., 2018). Functional interventions are based on the idea that information about the negative consequences of an undesired behaviour (e.g. wasted resources) and the positive consequences of a desired behaviour (e.g. saved resources) sensitises consumers to change their behaviour (Chen and Jai, 2018). Only a few field implementations of persuasive functional messages are documented: Whitehair et al. (2013) report that a simple print message (i.e. All Taste No Waste – Eat What You Take, Don't Waste Food) reduced food waste by 15% in a university dining facility. An informative poster (i.e. Clean dish, Clean conscience! Ask for the right amount of food!) displayed in strategic areas of a university canteen caused a reduction in the waste index of 15% (Pinto et al., 2018), and a written prompt with normative-connoted messages (i.e. Food waste is a global problem. Dining works hard to reduce waste. You can too.) contributed to changing students' beliefs related to food waste, which may be a first step towards achieving behavioural change (Ellison et al., 2019).

While the implementation of informative campaigns reported in the literature was mainly conducted in university canteens, interventions in the hedonistic context of hotels, restaurants, resorts are still limited and inadequate. Kallbekken and Sælen (2013) report that an informative written prompt (i.e. Welcome back! Again! And again! Visit our buffet many times. That's better than taking a lot once!) placed at breakfast buffets enhanced hotel guests to reduce food waste by 20%. Stöckli et al. (2018) found that diners who were exposed to informative prompts about food waste have asked to take home their leftovers more frequently than diners who were not exposed to such prompts.

In the context of preventing plate waste while on holiday, portion control can further aid hospitality enterprises in obtaining reputational gains, as people often look for guidance in eating situations (Wang et al., 2021; Wansink and Van Ittersum, 2013). Functional appeals, displaying caloric and nutritional values, support self-regulated eating behaviours and facilitate healthy eating (Kergoat et al., 2019; Hwang and Lorenzen, 2008). While some studies reveal a positive influence of reporting nutritional and caloric properties of food products (Cozzio et al., 2021; Howlett et al., 2009; Yamamoto et al., 2005), others show fewer evident findings (Cowburn and Stockley, 2005; Josiam and Foster, 2009). Prior studies have primarily analysed consumers’ feelings about nutrition and caloric information displayed on a menu, without exploring if consumers consider them when choosing food (Filimonau and Krivcova, 2017). Other papers report that displaying nutritional information in the form of “traffic lights” (green, amber, red) and indicating more or less healthy food products are often triggering orders of lower caloric meals (Filimonau et al., 2017; Osman and Thornton, 2019).

Against this background, a persuasive functional message with an emphasis on utilitarian food product features can be an influential prompt for portion control guidance, thus generating less plate waste. Hence, the following hypothesis is proposed:


The use of a functional appeal with an emphasis on utilitarian food product features has a favourable influence in minimising plate waste compared to no appeal.

2.3 Persuasion through experiential appeals

Experiential appeals with visual, emotional and participatory cues evoke sensations, feelings, sentiments and imaginations, thus leading to affective consumer response, such as liking (Brakus et al., 2009). For example, visual cues and pictures able to trigger visual processing of product consumption generate more attention in advertising than purely text-based approaches (Underwood et al., 2001; Wehrli et al., 2017).

Evidence shows that experiential appeals using participatory cues can trigger sustainable behaviour in the tourism context. Goldstein et al. (2008) showed the effectiveness of a towel reuse campaign that encourages guests to be active members of the hotel guests’ community. Similarly, Warren et al. (2017) reported the success of an interactive persuasion campaign that sensitises guests to save water and energy while on vacation. This persuasive effort was based on the integration of interpersonal communication and sequential influence that included a daily eco-feedback, thus allotting a sense of shared responsibility between hosts and guests (Warren et al., 2017).

Calls for action encouraging receivers to do something resulted in increasing ethical behaviours towards paying visitor fees (Steckenreuter and Wolf, 2013) and picking up litter (Brown et al., 2010) in protected areas. In addition, choosing a relevant story line, such as a sequence of interrelated actions people can perform to mitigate a particular environmental issue, constituted the foundations of a green communication strategy (Jameson and Brownell, 2012). This gave guests the opportunity to play an active role through participation (Cialdini and Goldstein, 2004; Kachel and Jennings, 2010).

Moreover, persuasive efforts that provide a chance to experience sustainability prompted the emotional aspects of tourism consumption, thus enhancing customer engagement (Villarino and Font, 2015). Messages with pictures or real stories helped to activate customer engagement, generating a behavioural response among receivers (Kotler and Lee, 2011). For instance, Liu et al. (2019) showed that handwritten typeface in menus instilled a sense of care at the receivers' end. Zhou et al. (2019) reported that restaurant meals are more likely to be consumed when advertised with intense adjectives (e.g. traditional, grandma’s) that can stimulate joyful memories.

Hence the following hypothesis is proposed:


The use of an experiential appeal with an emphasis on participatory cues has a favourable influence in minimising plate waste compared to no appeal.

2.4 Egoistic appeals, altruistic appeals and credible sources

Holidays are a pleasure-seeking activities (Malone et al., 2014), and tourism is traditionally perceived as a “non-essential, hedonic, aspirational consumption activity” (Font and McCabe, 2017, p. 870) in which a mixed form of selfish altruism dominates (Miller, 2003). Although tourists may prefer products that are of benefit to them as well as to the external environment, rather than products which mainly benefit the rest of world (Miller, 2003), they hardly compromise on comfort for sustainable consumption (Baker et al., 2014).

According to White and Peloza (2009), these benefits (i.e. individual vs collective) may be defined as egoistic and altruistic appeals. Persuasion is commonly realised by self-centred messages that communicate the benefit for the individual self and by altruistic messages that emphasise the benefit for other people or for collective goods (White and Peloza, 2009). While the former focus on personal and egoistic values (e.g. health concern), the latter are grounded on something beyond the individual self, such as environmental protection (Green and Peloza, 2014).

In this study, functional messages emphasising the utilitarian food product features have a markedly egoistic appeal (i.e. personal health), while experiential messages emphasising participatory cues have an evidently altruistic appeal (i.e. support the hotel in its sustainability efforts). Altruistic appeals primarily refer to the environmentally friendly production and distribution of a product. Therefore, they seem to be more consistent with collective goals, such as to protect the environment for everyone’s benefit, rather than with personal goals associated with health or economic savings (Kareklas et al., 2014). However, despite some initial work on the effect of these two appeals, it is still debatable which one is more effective in influencing tourists’ behaviours (Choi and Lee, 2020; Gao et al., 2020).

Moreover, following the theoretical underpinnings of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), tourism provides for a setting in which people are pursuing happiness and enjoyment (Gössling and Buckley, 2016) and, consequently, they are more likely to be distracted (Petty and Cacioppo, 1984; Sanjari et al., 2017). In such a context, people tend to process information via a peripheral route that involves little cognitive elaboration (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986). Thus, consumers might be greatly persuaded by the presence of credible information sources (Hanks et al., 2016). This form of persuasion is based on the credibility of the source that conveys the message (Grewal et al., 1994). The conveyor of the messages and her/his positive reputation increase the information's credibility and reliability with the addressee (Bolchini et al., 2004; Metzger, 2007).

Against this background, Villarino and Font (2015) suggested the use of sustainability logos, awards, ecolabels and memberships in sustainable alliances as credible sources. Although research on sustainability logos in the tourism literature appears scant (Fairweather et al., 2005) and shows little influence of ecolabels on tourists’ motivation and behaviour (Chong and Verma, 2013; Kim and Kim, 2014; Reiser and Simmons, 2005), it is expected that they may play a role in complementing an appeal’s ability to persuade. In fact, the display of sustainability logos that connect the company to a wider framework of environmental evaluation can provide explicit evidence of the enterprise’s environmental commitment, thus avoiding receivers’ confusion (Lowry et al., 2007). Sustainability logos, as manifestations of perceived objectivity, can help in addressing skepticism (Alexander, 2010), as they allow a company to display its participation in a wider credible programme.

Overall, this informs the following hypothesis:


The use of an altruistic appeal with an indication of a credible source has a greater influence on minimising plate waste compared to an egoistic appeal.

3. Method

3.1 Research design and treatment messages

The study is based on a between-group experimental design and was carried out in an Italian four-star holiday hotel during the summer season 2020. The hotel can accommodate up to 650 guests. The hotel's room rate includes full board, and the length of stay is fixed at seven days (one week). Guests were not informed about the field experiment.

Two experimental conditions targeted at the breakfast croissants buffet were formulated as follows.

  1. Functional appeal

The nutritional values related to a single croissant [40 gr] are:

Energy Kcal: 178 Kcal (20 min running)

Saturated fat: 5.5 gr (going up 10 flights of stairs)

Protein: 3.2 gr

Sugar: 6 gr

For a healthy and balanced breakfast, the recommended quantity of consumption is one croissant. Please take only the quantity you are about to consume in order to avoid leaving uneaten croissants on your table. Thank you!

  1. Experiential appeal

[Ecolabel Legambiente] In 2020, this hotel has obtained Legambiente ecocertification for its direct and constant commitment in achieving sustainability. Investments in electric shuttles for transportation to the beach and the creation of an organic vegetable garden are some examples. Minimising food waste is a new goal that the hotel wishes to accomplish this summer season. Starting from breakfast, you can actively contribute to achieve this goal by avoiding leaving uneaten croissants on your table. Your cooperation is really appreciated and truly relevant to the hotel's green philosophy, thus supporting the Legambiente ecocertification for the present time and the upcoming years.

The experiment lasted for nine weeks, from Monday, 29th June 2020 to Sunday, 30th August 2020, a period that corresponded to the hotel opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Each single treatment was carried out for three weeks in varying sequence: baseline-no appeal, baseline-no appeal, functional, functional, experiential, experiential, experiential, functional, baseline-no appeal. Assignment of participants to the respective treatment was not random and was determined by the week of their respective stay. Data was collected daily, resulting in 63 rounds of data collection.

For breakfast, the hotel offered a croissants' buffet with three options: plain, chocolate, custard croissants. Guests were exposed to the treatment messages directly at the buffet, when making their selections (Plate 1).

Due to COVID-19 regulations, croissants chosen were served by waiting staff to each guest individually. Guests could ask for additional croissants without any limitation and revisit the buffet anytime. Treatment messages were displayed in a clearly visible manner at the croissants buffet.

3.2 Measures, variables and follow-up survey

To assess the impact of the different persuasive messages on hotel guests eating behaviour, the number of croissants left uneaten on plates were registered by waiting staff and reported to the maître who recorded the data on a daily basis. For reporting simplicity and clarity, each waiter was instructed to report any full or almost full leftover croissant as “1” and any half or less unit of leftover croissant as “1/2”.

Additionally, a short questionnaire aimed at investigating food waste habits at home and during vacation was displayed at the reception and available for download via a QR code at checkout. In total, 137 valid responses were collected.

From the survey it emerges that most guests (90%) were aware of the hotel's ecocertification.

Guests in functional (N = 47 respondents) and experiential (N = 22 respondents) treatments noticed the messages and most of them declared that they paid more attention to their food consumption at breakfast, due to the message displayed. Regarding the statement “I believe that the message at the croissants buffet had a positive influence on my consumption behaviour”, average responses on a seven-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree) were 6,42 for the functional treatment and 6,40 for the experiential treatment, supporting the assumption that both interventions had a positive influence on guests’ behaviour. No significant differences were observed between guests staying in different weeks of experimental treatments.

Following Qui and Roe's (2016) framework, several questions on food waste behaviour at home were asked. No significant differences between responses to different treatments emerged, except for respondents who stayed in the third week (week 3) of the functional treatment. They were the only group in which the degree of feeling guilty from throwing away food was significantly lower compared to all the other groups of guests. Hence, it appears that they have paid slightly less attention to food waste than all other groups of guests.

3.3 Statistical analysis

This study compares the number of wasted croissants according to varying treatments, based on croissants left uneaten by guests on the plates after breakfast. Given that guests stayed for one week, comparisons are done on daily waste produced by guests in different weeks. It has to be noted that each daily observation reflects the average of wasted croissants generated by 98 (minimum) – 597 (maximum) guests staying at the hotel during a specific week. More specifically, fewer guests stayed at the hotel at the beginning of the season, whereas in the peak season (August) the hotel reached its full capacity, accommodating up to 597 guests at a time. For instance, with regard to the baseline treatment (no appeal), daily observations reflect the average of wasted croissants generated by 122 guests per day in week 1 and 199 guests per day in week 2, corresponding to the initial opening period of the hotel (29.6.2020–12.7.2020), and by 546 guests per day in week 3, the peak summer period (24.8.2020–30-8.2020). Overall, our study is based on the individual behaviour of 6.069 guests in the baseline treatment, 8.057 guests during the functional treatment and 11.396 guests throughout the experiential treatment, thus accounting for a sample of 25.522 guests whose individual behaviour at the breakfast buffet has been observed and reported.

Since hotel guests, as well as treatment messages, changed following a weekly rhythm (Mon-Sun), the use of Student's t-test for independent samples appears to be the most appropriate approach to determine whether guests' daily average amount of plate waste differs according to the varying treatments (Box et al., 1978). This approach is also one of the most commonly used methods in experimental research in tourism (Fong et al., 2016).

4. Results and discussion

Table 1 reports the average weekly number of croissants baked and wasted per person. Only guests of 3 years of age or older were considered.

Data indicates that in the baseline treatment (no appeal), the number of baked croissants decreased gradually, starting from 0.94 units baked per person in week 1 to 0.64 units offered in week 3. It must be noted that week 1 of the baseline treatment corresponded to the first week of the opening period of the hotel (Week 29/6–5/7). This week was dominated by uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. In week 3 of the baseline treatment, the last week of the whole experimental period (24/8–30/8), the number of baked croissants significantly decreased due to a routinisation in setting the breakfast buffet, as the summer season progressed. This is further confirmed by the number of croissants baked during the last five weeks of the experimental period, with a range of 0.63–0.66 units per person.

The number of wasted croissants in the baseline treatment followed the same trend, depicted by the number of croissants baked (Table 2). The number of wasted croissants generated in week 1 of the baseline treatment was the highest observed during the whole experimental period. It progressively decreased to 1/10th of the baseline treatment in week 3. This reduction in leftovers is statistically significant and in accordance with the reduction of croissants offered at the buffet.

A similar pattern was observed in the functional treatment (Table 3), where a significant decrease of the number of croissants baked in the last week (week 3) corresponded to a significant reduction in the amount of wasted croissants during the same period (week 3).

During the experiential treatment, there was a significant difference in the quantity of baked croissants in week 2, compared to weeks 1 and 3 of this treatment (Table 4). This difference was −3.7% and, in turn, only detectable by statistical analysis and not noticeable by guests. The number of wasted croissants was stable at 0.02 units per person for the whole duration of the experiential treatment.

Overall, numbers provided in Tables 2–4 support the assumption that larger quantities of food offered per person at the buffet generate larger amounts of waste, that is, food left uneaten on plates.

Table 5 shows the effectiveness of the functional appeal with respect to no appeal (H1). Out of nine weekly comparisons of the number of croissants wasted, six of them outline the superiority of the functional treatment, thus showing significant reduced number of wasted croissants during this treatment.

The remaining three weekly comparisons between the last week of the baseline treatment (week 3) and the whole duration of the functional treatment reveal the following: Weeks 1 and 2 of the functional treatment were conducted during a time of greater food offer (0.87 and 0.83 croissants baked per guest, respectively) compared to week 3 of the baseline treatment (0.64 croissants baked per guest). Remarkably, the number of wasted croissants in week 1 of the functional treatment and in week 3 of the baseline treatment were similar, even if not statistically significant (0.04 and 0.03, respectively). This supports the effectiveness of the functional treatment further, even in the presence of excessive provision of food. Instead, the number of wasted croissants was significantly greater in week 2 of the functional treatment, compared to week 3 of the baseline treatment. However, the underlying excessive provision of food (0.83 vs 0.64) should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, no significant differences emerged between week 3 of the functional treatment and week 3 of the baseline treatment, in which a very similar number of croissants baked and croissants wasted was reported.

All in all, H1 is partially supported. Despite what happened in week 2 of the functional treatment, where a greater number of croissants offered led to a higher amount of waste compared to week 3 of the baseline treatment, the remaining weekly comparisons of the amount of wasted croissants decreased significantly during the functional treatment.

Table 6 shows that the number of croissants wasted in the experiential treatment was significantly lower than in the baseline treatment, thus fully supporting H2. The experiential treatment with its emphasis on participatory cues outperforms any no intervention setting.

Table 7 shows that the number of wasted croissants during the experiential treatment (altruistic appeal) was overall significantly lower than the quantity wasted in the functional treatment (egoistic appeal). Out of nine weekly comparisons, eight highlighted the effectiveness of an altruistic appeal, thus confirming the powerful role of the experiential treatment with an emphasis on collectivism and participatory cues to reduce plate waste. The only exception was reported in the comparison between week 3 of the functional treatment (egoistic appeal) and week 3 of the experiential treatment (altruistic appeal), where a very similar amount of croissants baked (0.63 and 0.66, respectively) and wasted (0.03 and 0.02, respectively) was registered. Overall, H3 is partially supported.

Results have a high validity, due to the field experiment conducted in a real hotel breakfast buffet setting. They markedly suggest that creating persuasive interventions is a valuable means for nudging hotel guests towards minimising their plate waste, compared to no interventions. While an experiential message significantly outperforms a no-message setting, the effectiveness of its altruistic appeal over an egoistic appeal can only be partially inferred. Findings show that out of nine weekly comparisons of croissants wasted, eight weeks reported the superiority of the use of an altruistic appeal compared to the use of an egoistic appeal in significantly decreasing food leftovers.

The effectiveness of a functional message with respect to no message can be partially supported, too. Out of nine weekly comparisons of wasted croissants, six showed a significantly reduced amount of waste during the functional treatment, whereas one of the comparisons indicated a significant increase in waste, but in the presence of an excessive number of croissants offered.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Theoretical implications

This research has several theoretical implications. First, the study contributes to recent expectations of the potential of persuasive communication in reversing current consumption trends and making the tourism and hospitality industries more sustainable (Shahzalal and Font, 2018; Tölkes, 2018). It is broadening the body of research on framing strategies that might enhance sustainable behaviour in a tourism context (Grazzini et al., 2018; Thaler and Sustein, 2008). In addition, it shows that nudging interventions that deliver accessible information to hotel guests play an important role in increasing guests’ awareness toward zero food waste, contributing to the achievement of responsible consumption in tourism.

Second, to the best of our knowledge, this is one of the few studies that empirically tests the effectiveness of different persuasive interventions in a real consumption setting, thus measuring guests’ actual behaviours which have been rarely studied (Juvan and Dolnicar, 2016). In addition, this study responds to the call for developing interventions to increase food waste awareness, particularly in a holiday context where guests not only pay full price for their meals but also engage in the pursuit of pleasure. Hence, incentivising sustainable behaviours appears challenging (Dolnicar, 2020).

Third, the experiential treatment with its emphasis on participatory cues leads to a significant decrease in plate waste, thus corroborating the fact that a key priority lies in engaging tourists to be active partners in reducing their environmental impact (Kachel and Jennings, 2010; Warren et al., 2017). Results also substantiate the fact that in the context of minimising plate waste, consumers appear more sensitive to collectivism, thus leveraging more altruistic appeals (i.e. support the hotel in its sustainability efforts), rather than egoistic appeals (i.e. benefit for personal health). Moreover, this study shows that the use of credible information sources (i.e. sustainability logos) may complement a message’s capability to persuade (Villarino and Font, 2015). Broadly speaking, when consumers perceive the source of the message to be credible, they are more likely to change their behaviour (Bergkvist and Zhou, 2016; Erdogan, 1999).

Fourth, the functional appeal with its emphasis on tailoring portion consumption size appears effective in managing food intake and, in turn, in decreasing waste. These results enrich the literature on healthy dining and menu psychology (Gao and Mattila, 2017; Hsiao et al., 2016), thus supporting the role of caloric and nutritional value information in eliciting self-regulated eating behaviours (Kergoat et al., 2019; Hwang and Lorenzen, 2008). Prior research shows mixed results on the role of reporting nutritional and caloric values of food product in a dining out context: while some studies revealed some positive influence (Howlett et al., 2009; Yamamoto et al., 2005), others reported less clear findings (Cowburn and Stockley, 2005; Josiam and Foster, 2009). Pointing at the relevance of a message’s clarity and customer appeal, this study confirms the effectiveness of communicating nutritional values that indicate the benefits of food for personal health (Filimonau et al., 2017; Osman and Thornton, 2019; Wansink and Love, 2014). In fact, displaying nutritional and caloric values shows an appreciable persuasive power, substantiating the idea that personal health goals tend to have an influence on food choices (Cozzio et al., 2020; Vega-Zamora et al., 2019).

Fifth, this study provides initial findings that consumers, in the context of plate waste prevention, tend to activate the collective level of self, thus focussing more on collectivism than on individualism (White and Peloza, 2009). Therefore, they seem to value an altruistic appeal with its emphasis on collectivism (i.e. support the hotel in its sustainability efforts) higher than an egoistic appeal (i.e. benefit for personal health). These preliminary results contribute to the current debate of which type of the two appeals is more effective in influencing consumer behaviours (Choi and Lee, 2020; Gao et al., 2020).

5.2 Managerial implications

This research stimulates strategies to formulate effective persuasive appeals able to minimise plate waste in a real-world eating environment. As responsible consumption in tourism is one of the UN SDGs for the tourism industry, it is becoming increasingly important to enhance customers’ awareness about sustainability (Xu and Jeong, 2019; Warren et al., 2017). Fostering guests’ sustainable behaviour through effective communication is of paramount importance to reduce costs and to preserve natural resources.

Specifically, hotel practitioners will need to design messages grounded on participatory cues, where guests are prompted to be active members of a credible sustainability programme. In this way, the use of sustainability logos may reinforce guests' willingness to participate in the programme. Consumers appear often sceptical towards green marketing activities as sincere efforts, as they are unable to directly verify their reliability (Bech-Larsen and Grunert, 2003; Giannakas, 2002). In that light, the use of credible sources as conveyors of messages appears to be relevant.

This study also shows that starting waste measurement activities represents a first step towards achieving responsible consumption in tourism. Measurements enable hotel managers to set specific goals in term of food waste minimisation (Filimonau et al., 2021). This is a requirement to allow for further actions, such as offering rewards for the achievement of specific goals. In that context, this study sheds light on the quantification process of food waste that has been scarcely investigated to date (Vizzoto et al., 2020).

5.3 Limitations and future research

This research is a pilot study and hence subject to several limitations. First, as the study focusses on a single hotel, caution is required with any generalisations of the findings. Repeating this research across different type of hotels in terms of category (e.g. upscale, luxury), as well as target clients (e.g. business, leisure), and in various tourism settings (e.g. cruise ships, aircrafts) would further increase the generalisability of the results. In addition, future studies should include different cultural contexts for comparison, as this study focusses on Italy by almost exclusively investigating the behaviour of Italian hotel guests.

Second, the functional message with its emphasis on portion control guidance lacks the monitoring of the amount of food prepared for consumption (i.e. uneaten croissants left at the buffet). Further research needs to focus on investigating if less discretionary food is consumed under functional messages that emphasise positive health implications for consumers (egoistic appeal).

Third, measuring the persuasive strength of different types of credible information sources (e.g. sustainable awards, celebrity, experts) would also represent a valuable stream of research.

Fourth, according to Construal Level Theory (Liberman and Trope, 2008), food waste provides for a context that is highly construal in which people tend to process information more abstractly and are looking at the big picture (Aggarwal and Zhao, 2015). Deepening the understanding about the effectiveness of different persuasive interventions, either functional or experiential, in other sustainable contexts with low level of construal (e.g. towels’ reuse, Grazzini et al., 2018) would be a further promising stream of research.

Fifth, the experimental approach used in this study might be applied to different food waste settings, besides plate waste (e.g. food storage, food preparation) in order to adopt an all-embracing perspective. Moreover, it could also be applied to food categories with high environmental impact (e.g. meat) in order to prioritise waste reduction (Beretta and Hellweg, 2019).


Photograph of experimental set-up with treatment message at the croissant buffet

Plate 1

Photograph of experimental set-up with treatment message at the croissant buffet

Average number of croissants baked and wasted per week

Baseline treatment (no appeal)Functional treatmentExperiential treatment
Croissants on buffet (unit per person)Waste on plates (unit per person)Total guests (weekly average)Croissants on buffet (unit per person)Waste on plates (unit per person)Total guests (weekly average)Croissants on buffet (unit per person)Waste on plates (unit per person)Total guests (weekly average)
Week 10.940.301220.870.042890.660.02534
Week 20.790.141990.830.063010.630.02562
Week 30.640.035460.630.035610.660.02532

Student t-test: baseline treatment (no appeal)

Croissants on buffet Waste on plates
Week 1(0.94)Week 2 (0.79)Week 3 (0.64)Week 1 (0.30)Week 2 (0.14)Week 3 (0.03)
Week 1 (0.94) t = 4.20
p = 0.001**
t = 8.66
p = 0.000***
Week 1 (0.30) t = 5.14
p = 0.000***
t = 10.36
p = 0.000***
Week 2 (0.79) t = 8.12
p = 0.000***
Week 2 (0.14) t = 5.43
p = 0.000***

Note(s): **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

Student t-test: functional treatment

Croissants on buffet Waste on plates
Week 1(0.87)Week 2(0.83)Week 3 (0.63) Week 1 (0.04)Week 2 (0.06)Week 3 (0.03)
Week 1 (0.87) t = 1.85
p = 0.11
t = 10.33
p = 0.000***
Week 1 (0.04) t = −1.03
p = 0.31
t = 2.19
p = 0.07*
Week 2 (0.83) t = 10.26
p = 0.000***
Week 2 (0.06) t = 3.97
p = 0.009**

Note(s): *p < 0.1, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

Student t-test: experiential treatment

Croissants on buffet Waste on plates
Week 1 (0.66)Week 2 (0.63)Week 3 (0.66)Week 1 (0.02)Week 2 (0.02)Week 3 (0.02)
Week 1 (0.66) t = 3.30
p = 0.006**
t = −0.28
p = 0.78
Week 1 (0.02) t = 0.77
p = 0.45
t = −0.38
p = 0.70
Week 2 (0.63) t = −3.82
p = 0.002**
Week 2 (0.02) t = −1.17
p = 0.26

Note(s): **p < 0.01

Student t-test: baseline vs functional treatment

Functional treatment
Week 1 (0.04)Week 2 (0.06)Week 3 (0.03)
BaselineWeek 1 (0.30)t = 9.53
p = 0.000***
t = 9.13
p = 0.000***
t = 9.80
p = 0.000***
Week 2 (0.14)t = 4.49
p = 0.002**
t = 3.95
p = 0.002**
t = 4.86
p = 0.001**
Week 3 (0.03)t = 1.48
p = 0.17
t = −2.86
p = 0.01*
t = 1.06
p = 0.31

Note(s): *p < 0.1, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

Student t-test: baseline vs experiential treatment

Experiential treatment
Week 1 (0.02)Week 2 (0.02)Week 3 (0.02)
BaselineWeek 1 (0.30)t = 10.71
p = 0.000***
t = 10.92
p = 0.000***
t = 10.74
p = 0.000***
Week 2 (0.14)t = 5.94
p = 0.001**
t = 6.32
p = 0.000***
t = 5.95
p = 0.001**
Week 3 (0.03)t = 1.90
p = 0.08*
t = 1.93
p = 0.08*
t = 1.96
p = 0.07*

Note(s): *p < 0.1, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001

Student t-test: functional (egoistic appeal) vs experiential treatment (altruistic appeal)

Experiential treatment (altruistic appeal)
Week 1 (0.02)Week 2 (0.02)Week 3 (0.02)
Functional treatment (egoistic appeal)Week 1 (0.04)t = 2.63
p = 0.02*
t = 3.24
p = 0.007**
t = 2.64
p = 0.02*
Week 2 (0.06)t = 4.45
p = 0.001**
t = 4.54
p = 0.001**
t = 3.90
p = 0.002**
Week 3 (0.03)t = 2.94
p = 0.01*
t = 2.46
p = 0.04*
t = 1.41
p = 0.19

Note(s): *p < 0.1, **p < 0.01


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