Watch it again

On the day that restaurants, pubs and bars in England were given the green light to reopen from 4 July, a CGA and Atlantic Club webinar set out what the new landscape might look like. Chaired by CGA vice president and Atlantic Club founder Peter Martin, industry leaders looked at experiences of opening up in the US, China and Europe and what we might expect here. These are ten of the top messages.

1. A cautious return

Nielsen CGA’s research indicates that 41% of US consumers went out to eat or drink at least once in the first two weeks of June—and three quarters (75%) of them were satisfied with the health and safety precautions they found. Even with extra measures, 74% were also satisfied with the experience and 73% with the atmosphere.

While that’s a positive sign, it does leave a majority who are not going out, usually because they don’t feel safe enough to be in close proximity to others, or simply because they need more time to feel comfortable. While US sales are picking up, they are still some way off pre-lockdown levels.

It’s a similarly mixed picture on this side of the Atlantic, where a fifth (18%) of consumers are ready to return to hospitality as soon as they are able, while others have varying degrees of hesitancy. “It’s clear that consumer appetite is there to return… but it’s going to be key to understand what will give them that confidence to get back out there,” said Nielsen CGA’s US retail services director Alexandra Martin.

2. Localised eating and drinking

Having stayed very close to home during lockdown, many consumers may well continue to eat and drink locally when restrictions ease. That’s confirmed by CGA’s research in China, where a quarter (25%) of consumers say they are visiting nearby bars and restaurants more frequently than they did before the pandemic. For UK operators, it’s a positive sign for some, but worrying for others. “Local venues have a real opportunity to capture consumers… but city centre venues may find themselves struggling with capacity restrictions, higher overhead costs and consumer caution,” said Alexandra Martin.

3. A laser focus on hygiene

It’s clear that ultra-high standards of care and hygiene will be needed to convince wary British consumers that it is safe to venture out after lockdown. New research from UKHospitality and CGA reveals that table spacing, ample hand sanitiser and contactless payment are their top priorities, but there’s much more to consider besides. It will take a comprehensive and clearly communicated package of precautions to address concerns.

But the good news is that consumers are willing to be convinced about safety, with two thirds (64%) agreeing that they’ll visit venues more if they make them feel safe during the first visit. It is a reminder that initial impressions are going to be hugely important in reassuring consumers—and prompting them to tell others that it’s safe to go out too. Visual clues to measures being taken – like staff with stickers showing they had been health checked that day - and signposting around sites were going to be vital, the webinar heard.

4. Consumer goodwill

If there was any doubt whether consumers’ affection for restaurants and bars would survive lockdown, it was settled by The Great American Takeout campaign in the US. Co-creator Sarah Grover told the webinar that the grassroots campaign to support the industry by buying takeout instead of eat-in had reminded people of the value of restaurants in everyday life. With 100,000+ social media mentions, 174,000 website visits and 36% national awareness of the campaign in just a week—not to mention $310,000 raised for industry charities—it sustained thousands of group and independent restaurants over April and May. “People literally ate it up,” said campaign adopter Stacey Kane. The success of a follow-up promo, Plant-based Party for the Planet, has generated huge exposure too, showing the power of cross-industry collaboration.

5. Flexible space

As operators work out how to reopen sites, the watchword will be flexibility, said Philip Harrison, founder of international design specialist Harrison. Restaurants, pubs and bars will first have to adapt their spaces to meet social distancing guidelines—and if government requirements change, as they may well do, then more adjustments will be needed. “Flexibility and being able to increase or decrease capacity, and introduce and take out measures, without hurting the ambience of your space… is going to be very important.”

6. Operational ‘pivoting’

The pandemic has led many US operators to make significant changes to their operations, said top US menu trends expert Nancy Kruse. From The Cheesecake Factory trimming 40 menu items to Chick-fil-A moving into mealkits, big brands have been changing direction to shore up sales, while others have been trying digital activity like online cooking or mixology classes. Yavuz Pehlivanlar, COO of the Miami-based 50Eggs group, said face-to-face interaction had to move online. “I think digital is the way to go… we need to reinvent the consumer experience.” Kruse added: “Pivoting is the buzzword of the era… we’ve seen an extraordinary upturn in creativity.” More of it will be needed in the months ahead in the UK as well.

7. A need to reassure teams

Like most people, teams across hospitality have been unsettled by the pandemic, and they will need careful management when venues reopen, said Luke Fryer, New York restaurant owner and founder of the Harri platform for hospitality workforces. “There’s a great degree of anxiety, and a sense of displacement and uncertainty… A lot of people are wondering where they fit in the hospitality industry… [and we need to] keep everyone assured, especially the career-minded people who want to know that there’s a long-term future here.”

8. Credit for pandemic support

Brands that have helped their local communities and good causes during the pandemic could well be repaid in customer loyalty when they reopen. Washington DC-based KNEAD Hospitality, with brands including Succotash and Mi Vida, has supported charities and turned a restaurant into a grocery store during lockdown, and CEO Jason Berry said: “I really believe that’s going to pay off for us—we wanted to stay top of mind and part of the community [during lockdown].” David McDowall, group COO at international brewer and bar operator BrewDog, said it had been an opportunity to spotlight the culture and ethos of his brand. “Our premise has been ‘don’t do marketing, do good’, and I think that will stand us in good stead as we open.”

9. A desire for escapism

Many of the consumers returning to restaurants, pubs and bars will be seeking an escape from the concerns of the pandemic, and a change of scene after being at home for so long. For operators, the challenge will be to deliver that without compromising the health of guests and staff, said David McDowall. “Escapism is more important than ever. It’s going to be a balance of making sure that people feel safe… and giving them that moment of escapism and magic that they’re craving.”

10. Optimism

The webinar ended on a positive note, emphasising consumers’ desire to eat and drink out again. “People are ready to come back to restaurants… they’re going to adapt to the new norm quickly,” said Terry Varner, president of US-based construction business Herman/Stewart. Jason Berry agreed there was “a pent-up demand,” and David McDowall pointed out: “What’s been consistent across the board is that hospitality is important to people.” Nancy Kruse said: “The big question will be safety… but ultimately I’m very optimistic because I believe in the creativity and relevance of the sector.”

The Rebooting Restaurants and Bars: The Global Experience webinar was hosted by CGA and Peter Martin’s Atlantic Club. It was partnered by Harrison, Harri and Herman/Stewart.

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