Weathering the Lockdown Storm Within the Hospitality Industry


There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has struck every industry in one way or another – but one industry that’s had a particularly difficult time is the hospitality sector.

Temporary closures have become the norm with 84% of hospitality businesses closing their doors during the lockdown. By comparison 71% of construction industries did the same, followed by 60% of manufacturing businesses.

Furthermore, 69% of hospitality staff have been furloughed, relying on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) as their employers wonder what their next move will be.

What comes next could very well be a bleak too. Catering Scotland conducted a digital forum recently, asking restaurateurs for their opinion on what the future held. The responses were clear: if the lockdown restrictions continued, most pubs and restaurants across the UK would be looking at company liquidation by the end of 2020.

There have been calls from industry leaders such as Nick Nairn and Tom Kitchin for the government to increase its support for the hospitality industry during this difficult time. With the unique nature of the hospitality sector, the pair have asked for the government to recognise that CJRS will need to be extended beyond the end of October — with “further flexibility and phasing to support businesses until at least Q1 2021”.

As well as this, calls have been made for the government to create a 12 month rent-free period with reductions for businesses“for as long as social distancing is required in our premises” until well into next year.

These proposed measures aside, another intriguing suggestion is for restaurants to be subject to a government-backed “Covid Quality Assurance Scheme”. The scheme would act as a reassurance to customers that the premises and owners had taken steps to protect them from the coronavirus.

“Put very simply, social distancing simply does not work in most restaurants, bars and hotels,” said Kitchin and Nairn in their proposal. “People visit to enjoy a memorable experience with a high level of service and personal interaction, and this could never be achieved if staff had to maintain strict social distancing and wear PPE.

“Hospitality already operates on a high cost base. In recent years we have faced additional spending including rent hikes, increased food and beverage costs, the new National Living Wage and higher business rates. Social distancing will result in revenue drops that will make most businesses unsustainable.

“There is also worrying evidence suggesting that many people don’t feel it’s safe to eat out and will avoid visiting us even after lockdown is lifted. Against this background, if furlough ends and restaurants, bars and hotels are allowed to reopen but with social distancing enforced and no income from major events and festivals, the result will be a tidal wave of business closures and mass redundancies, increasing unemployment and the strain on the welfare system.”

At the time of writing, Saturday 4th July appears to be the earliest date in which hospitality establishments (in England) can hope to reopen, although the situation is always changing.

Some franchises have been working a staggered roll-out of their reopening, albeit drive-thru only.

Chains such as McDonald’s, KFC and Costa Coffee are operating a limited drive-thru service, with PPE and contactless payments a must.

These won’t be the only long-term changes witnessed when the hospitality industry starts to reopen in earnest. UKHospitality, the industry trade body, has submitted a 75-page document to the government to outline an approach to reopening the sector.

Some key changes include removing salt and pepper shakers from tables, ending the tradition of customers standing at bars, and stopping staff tips. The document supports UKHospitality’s #FAIR4Hospitality campaign designed to raise recognition of the industry’s struggle.

“The non-negotiable principle when it comes to reopening is that the safety of our staff and our customers is paramount,” said Chief Executive Kate Nicholls. “When the time is right for businesses to reopen safely, it’s essential that clear and helpful protocols are in place to help them get back up and running as safely as possible.

“The size and diversity of the hospitality sector means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reopening.

“Across our industry there are many sub-sectors and widely different business models. The practical challenges in reopening faced by a pub or a bar will be different from those faced by a holiday park, for instance. Even within the same sector, there’s bound to be a huge difference in the size, shape, location and layout of similar businesses.

“We’ll be ready to restart in England on July 4th and other parts of the country when allowed, but for the whole country to come together again after lockdown, governments must invest in a fair and timely return for hospitality and all those who rely on it.”

No amount of outlines and campaigns can predict one major variable to the hospitality industry: how the coronavirus lockdown will permanently change customer behaviour. Lockdown has created and reinforced new habits, such as cooking from home every day and relying on the likes of Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

Will customers even want to return to an eating-out experience now they have managed to do so for weeks? Will they be too nervous to return to their old favourites?

With the convenience of home delivery allied to health and safety concerns, going out for a meal might just not feel worth the risk.

Some businesses clearly feel this might be the case, with the Casual Dining Group, owners of Bella Italia, Las Iguanas, and Café Rouge, recently filing notice to appoint an administrator.

So, what can businesses do to embrace the impending “new normal?”.

Delivery services seem to be the key here, a once under-appreciated part of an eatery now rapidly becoming a key part of their profits and recovery strategy.

Open-air street food services could also see a rise, removing the worry of multiple people being inside a cramped venue or basement bar. Again, if a business has been built upon the “old normal”, there’s no shame in realising this model may not work in the future and closing the doors permanently to design a new hospitality venture that is prepared with social distancing in mind.

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