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On-trade operators should plan ‘relaunch', not ‘reopening’, ahead of 4 July

Published:  21 May, 2020

On-trade operators should “step away from emotion”, challenging themselves to think back to when they started their businesses and consider it a relaunch, not a reopening, when they once again open their doors.

This was advice given to on-trade operators during a webinar - What now? Resuming hospitality businesses in a socially-distanced world - organised by Soho hospitality members’ club Trade and Lux on the challenges posed to bar and restaurant operators looking ahead to rebooting their operations after restrictions ease on 4 July.

“The first thing is to go back to the start, how did you go about that, how would you relaunch it today… and I want you to think about it as relaunching, rather than reopening, a relaunching of your business,” said Paul Pavli, hospitality consultant and ex-MD of Punch Taverns.

“What would you change about that relaunch, how would you do it differently?” he asked.

The panel, which also included Yummy Pub Co founder Anthony Pender, Alchemist group MD Simon Potts and Kate Moses of KAM Media, plus host Jon Reay, CEO of Rewrite Digital, stressed just how much the landscape will have changed, posing big challenges and the need to plan for reduced customer footfall, while communicating clearly on health and safety protocols.

Pavli outlined how over the last three to four years optimism in the on-trade had been at an all time high, but subsequently plunged as the pandemic closed doors, with Moses also warning of the depth of the gathering recession, and the subsequent impact on consumer spend.

Citing a recent CGA survey of UK on-trade business leaders, where 37% responded that they would not reopen all venues (with 31% undecided), with around 10% of venues being the number that would remain closed.

This provided the backdrop for other recent surveys in countries that have moved further out of lockdown, looking at consumer behaviour and frequency of visits to recently opened on-trade.

In the UK, CGA findings suggest around two thirds of people are willing (or even gunning) to return to on-trade haunts, but with the remainder too cautious to go out to social venues.

However, CGA and Nielsen data from China, where some semblance of ‘normal’ activity has returned, reveals a ‘half-and-half’ scenario, with only half of customers returning to the on-trade.

A further note of caution was struck by another joint Nielsen-CGA survey focusing on the reopening US states of Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Texas, where just 21% of consumers have been out to eat in restaurants and bars since lockdown was eased, with only 10% venturing into bars and restaurants for drinks alone.

The takeaway here was that 48% of those that had not returned said “they need more time to feel comfortable”. And, although not reported in these findings, it doesn’t take a leap in logic to suggest that the widely reported rise in US jobless figures, along with cash-cautious workers, will have kept others away.

The lesson to be learned here, suggested Pavli, was that operators had reopened too early, and possibly without enough transparency and communication on the safety protocols they had (or should have) put in place.

“These stats, looking at Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Texas, show just 21% returning to the on-trade, because consumers feel they opened too early, so they’re not going out, [thinking it’s] not safe yet - so timing it correctly is crucial,” said Pavli.

Customers will also be cautious and the experience of that first visit back will be critical in terms of whether they may venture out again.

Planning, if not already underway, should start now, accompanied by use of social media and other channels to let customers know what you are up to and how you plan, as a business, to meet the health and safety expectations of the Covid-wary population.

Phased opening, too, would allow businesses to “iron out kinks”, and to do so while customers are “still forgiving… against the backdrop of a pandemic” advised Moses.

The Alchemist’s Potts and Pender of Yummy Pubs both said they have planned in phased reopenings of venues, with this period also acting – as Moses advised – as a learning period.

“We'll be looking first to open up two or three of our Manchester venues, to exercise that opportunity to take any learnings from that, how we are operating, under what sort of trading conditions we might be working, to make sure that the measures we put in place are working safely, that the consumers are responding the right way to those measures,” said Potts.

“We are just going to take the time, to take all that learning in, [and] my intention in that first week, really, is to be in the venues, pretty much 24/7, talking to guests and talking to staff and making sure that they're happy about what is in place. Once we're comfortable with that we'll be getting a fairly quick sort of phased rollout of the rest of the estate.”