What’s next for the night-time industry?

The coronavirus pandemic has taken over British headlines since the start of this year. 23rd March marks a particularly dark day on the 2020 calendar. It is the day the hospitality and leisure industry were advised by the government to close.

Now there seems to be a very dim light at the end of this tunnel, as venues have been advised they can reopen on 4th July. But will “Super Saturday” really bring the glimmer of hope the industry truly needs?

The financial implications across the sector so far have been severe. Establishments have folded, jobs have been lost and the industry as a whole is on its knees. Though the possibility of re-opening is welcome for many, the prohibitive rules and regulations are making a safe re-opening an almost impossible task for many.

It’s time for the British economy to get back on its feet sooner rather than later. So now’s the time for the industry to grow and learn together as we enter the next stage of recovery.

COVID-19 and its impact on the industry

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, has aptly referred to the trauma experienced by the entire industry as a grieving process.

  • Denial – disbelief that coronavirus could affect the UK. The first death in our country on the 5th March set off a chain reaction that resulted in pubs, clubs and restaurants being forced to close less than a month later. We all believed it would “all blow over” in a few weeks, another clear sign of denial.
  • Anger – as it became clear the lockdown was set to continue for many months, the industry responded with anger and fear from the uncertainty.
  • Bargaining – the industry whirred into action as campaigns were raised and debates continued to rally the government into providing additional support. The industry is still battling to redress the balance between concern for public health and economic impact.
  • Depression – the pandemic has caused reports of misery across the country, from thousands of job losses through to increased crime rates and domestic violence incidents. The industry felt hopeless in the face of so much negativity. Business owners want clarity on what support is available and how best to access it.
  • Acceptance – there was renewed confidence in the industry as businesses got creative. We saw restaurants and bars diversify to begin offering takeaways or delivery services, remodelling their business in a way that did the industry proud.
  • Hope – 4th July is the day the industry can reopen. But that’s not the end of the story. The industry still needs operational guidance and help to rebuild customer confidence.

The industry is on the back foot

Though the 4th July has been dangled in front of the industry for many weeks, it was only confirmed less than a fortnight before the big date. Though most venues have been prepping for reopening, a week and a half simply isn’t long enough for businesses to thoroughly read and implement such complex guidelines.

It is unacceptable that consulting bodies and associations within the night-time industry didn’t receive the final guidance documentation ahead of public release. Industry leaders could have provided invaluable insight and advice to help shape this guidance and make a positive impact to the re-opening plans.

The guidance is, at best, restrictive. This will lead to many business’s having to operate at limited business capacity, particularly if 1m distancing is to be maintained.

Another consideration is that enhanced cleaning regimes, safety measures and customer signage is costly. And many venues simply don’t have the money to be able to put the government’s guidance into place. Whilst our big chains and group pubs may be able to reopen with a fanfare, independents may struggle, and it’s predicted a large proportion of businesses may remain closed for the foreseeable future.

The biggest issue for the industry is how different sites interpret the guidance. Wishy-washy terminology will cause chaos for businesses that simply want to do the right thing. Different venues will have different rules. Customers won’t know what’s expected of them. It makes the experience unknown and uncertain.

Without direct, clear guidance with little room for interpretation, it’s possible some venues will flounder and this could have a knock-on impact for the industry.

The solution must be to work together. Share best practices with one another, listen to customers and be flexible when it comes to adapting and developing these changes.

Managing risks

As an industry, we are confident our business owners and managers will do everything possible to ensure both staff and customers are safe. After all, the whole industry is built around serving and looking after people. It’s quite literally what hospitality is.

Frankly, at this stage, it’s patronising to treat the British public and our business owners like children.

Legal restrictions as to whether we can see groups of family and friends have had a significant impact on households up and down the country, yet we’re able to flock to beaches and beauty spots at the first sign of sunshine. Of course this highlights the quixotic nature of past lockdown guidance, but what else does this tell us? Most people are happy to take considered risks.

It’s infinitely more sensible to give people the choice to take the risks they’re comfortable with, than continue to hammer home widespread restrictions. While someone in their late seventies may still feel hesitant heading for a pint at their packed-out local, it’s a reasonable risk for someone in their thirties to enjoy a meal in a restaurant with increased hygiene measures in place. If someone has genuine concern about contracting coronavirus, they will self-monitor their own isolation. Surely we don’t still need laws in place to enforce common sense.

The vast majority of us will keep our distance from others, be respectful and follow guidance. We’ll all follow hygiene etiquette and regularly wash our hands. The hospitality industry is doing all it can to ensure social responsibility too.

Businesses must ensure they are putting the correct measures in place to ensure safety, without going overboard and destroying the customer experience.

Social challenges facing the industry

Hospitality businesses don’t just face a finishing line towards reopening. They face a much bigger hurdle: encouraging customers to return.

Studies show that Brits are more scared of coronavirus than people in other countries are. We’re concerned for our health, our finances and our overall wellbeing. The proportion of people feeling high anxiety levels has increased by over 20% compared to late 2019.  As we hurtle towards 4th July, the industry faces a real possibility that customers simply won’t be ready to venture out.

Shying away from the outside world is likely to have untold impact on our mental health and the way we interact as a society. Socialising helps us maintain a good level of wellbeing. Being out and about keeps us physically fit. It’s good for us to see more than the four walls so many of us have become accustomed to.

Lockdown restrictions have increased our boredom and loneliness as we’re avoiding seeing our friends and loved ones. This inevitably is causing isolation and apathy across the nation. It’s time now to get back up and running and find motivation again. We need to join together, regroup and learn to bond once again. The hospitality and leisure industries have a huge part to play in this.

When we reopen our pubs, our restaurants and our leisure activities, we’ll inevitably see people beginning to emerge from lockdown and embrace “the new normal”. But this will take time, and certainly for the moment businesses should expect to experience lower footfall. This will be yet another financial hit for the sector, and one businesses should prepare for when planning to reopen.

Focus on the experience

Customers can sample great food and drink from home now more than ever. But they’re looking for an experience.

Clinical cleaning regimes, expectation on customer behaviour, restricted and regimented service… restrictive guidance has ripped up the rule book when it comes to providing great service.

The industry has always been led by what customers want, yet now we’re telling customers how they must behave before they even enter the establishment. It establishes a dynamic in which venues are the authority – something which has never been the case before. Customers are the industry’s friend and businesses will want to welcome them with open arms – not an awkward smile at one metre away before asking them to please use the hand sanitiser before entering.

Of course, government guidance must be followed. But businesses must go over and above to ensure customer experience is not lost. Exceptional service should not falter, with clear and transparent information ensuring customers know what’s expected without being militantly told how to behave.

Adapting and diversifying

Businesses within the industry are getting ready to reopen. Some businesses will need to adapt and diversify, such as offering a takeaway or collection service in addition to “service as usual”.

The sooner we get going, the easier it will be to learn on the job. But businesses should be prepared to make changes and be flexible. Discover what works, and respond when things don’t. For example, you may find you need more or less staff to cover certain shifts. You may find a decrease in takeaway orders, but you’re consistently booked out on-site. Juggling these changes might be tough at first, but businesses will soon get into the swing of things.

It’s tempting to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude, and hope things get back to normal. But it’s likely things may never be the same again. If there’s a way to diversify your offering permanently and add another string to your bow, then now’s the time to do so.

Reconsider your offering and ensure you have a strong USP in place before re-opening. There has to be a very strong reason for customers to choose your venue over another, so make sure you’re promoting your venue in the best way possible. You may need to invest some time in retraining your staff and ensuring the team feels equipped and ready for re-opening. Venues must be at their top of their game to encourage customers to return and continue supporting the business. Now is not the time to be complacent.

Embracing technology

We’re still a long way off being able to host events or mass gatherings, leaving certain businesses within the industry well and truly in the dark.

However, there may be a way forward as the market for virtual experiences grows. Will VR allow the night-time economy to thrive as businesses look to develop a virtual experience that encompasses real-life elements such as food and drink delivery?

Streaming may give businesses the opportunity to reach a wider audience, particularly as many businesses aren’t able to fully reopen just yet. But going forward virtual events could be beneficial for the bottom line. After all, operational costs are much lower for a virtual event and businesses could amplify the reach of their event by hosting both a virtual and physical event on the same night.

Customers are prepared to re-engage, but many may prefer to enjoy experiences from the comfort of their own sofa just a little longer.

Leading the conversation

NDML and the NTIA have been driving conversations with leading figures within the hospitality industry. There are strong opinions coming out of these discussions, and it’s important as an industry we all share our views and communicate our concerns.

The industry and the businesses within it must continue to communicate both during the next (and hopefully final) stage of the pandemic and beyond. Together, we’re making the industry’s voice heard.

The government and key stakeholders are beginning to realise the value of the night-time industry, both economically and culturally, and we must ensure this does not lapse as things return to normal.

We can be trusted

The industry can be trusted. Business owners can be trusted. Our customers can be trusted.

Collectively, the industry is going to conquer this steep learning curve. We’ll all make mistakes and learn from one another. Our approach must be positive. The hospitality and leisure industry must be prepared to trial new things, adapt, grow and move forward with a bright future in mind.

It’s only by doing this that we can save an industry worth £66bn to the UK economy, whilst protecting the mental and physical health of us all.

For more information and guidance on re-opening your premises safely, download our Re-Opening Handbook.