By Peter Martin

If the Government wants to save our city centres, it will need to do more than just urge people back into their offices.

Domestic transport may be running on a skeleton service as commuters prefer to stay home, but international travel is near paralysed. UK airports stand largely deserted as foreign tourists and business travellers stay away too.

The impact of this double, if not treble, whammy, on our major conurbations is plain to see. It is not just London feeling the pain either, but the likes of Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham too. The fact that so much of the country’s commercial, cultural and political life focuses on the capital just magnifies its current problems.

Hospitality is in the front-line, but is not alone. The aviation sector is urging more effective Government action in the form of airport COVID testing for all arrivals to ease the need for quarantine so that it can start to get back towards something like normal operations

The events industry has yet to reopen, with most major international conferences or exhibitions looking to the middle of next year at the earlier to reschedule. Sport remains crowd-less and our theatres are yet to raise their curtains. There’s not a lot to tempt people into town, apart of course from the pubs and restaurants that have reopened.

It’s a grim picture, even without the many white-collar workers, not to mention their employers, preferring the work-from-home option for the immediate future. As a BBC survey of 50 of the biggest UK employers, from banks to retailers, discovered, none had plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future. While 20 had opened offices for staff unable to work from home, another 24 firms said that they did not have any plans in place to return workers to the office.

Even with a concerted and unified approach from all arms of Government and business, the job of re-energising our big cities looks like being a long haul –there’s no guaranteed quick fix, and what emerges is unlikely to be the same as the pre-pandemic landscape. It will be different.

That will also mean some hospitality operators won’t make it, or may decide to move on and ply their trade in other locations or in other ways – and we are already seeing that it what the Financial Times this week dubbed the end of the Pret economy.

While working from home has been a nightmare for many, for others it has offered flexibility, an improved family life and freedom from the three-hour daily commute – and there is evidence to suggest that for some productivity has improved. Hybrid working patterns are likely to be the new reality, not least because many would welcome them. There is no hard and fast rule.

Among the beneficiaries of this shift, even if it’s only partial, are already those operators out in the more affluent commuter belts – pubs, hotels, in fact any hospitality business with space. Everyday activities that used to be the preserve of inner-urban coffee shops and the delivery moguls have been transported out-of-town.

Location is always going to be key, and if people are more likely to stay close to home for some time to come, Britain’s suburbs, market towns and villages, and that includes the urban villages of our big cities, are the places to be – especially if they can escape the worst effects of the expected lay-offs and redundancies that will fuel unemployment.

Operators that are agile and able to adapt to the new trading reality will have a good chance of prospering with the right sites and style of operation.

Back at the start of lockdown, we highlighted the five main areas that we thought would determine survival and success in the sector: Government support and restrictions; the financial strength of individual businesses; the creativity and resolve of management and their teams; the willingness of customers to return; and the wider economic and business climate.

Focus is increasingly shifting to the last of those as the area of most uncertainty and greatest potential impact on the health of the food and drink sector, whether you are in the city or suburbs.

So, an interesting question remains. Where will all those financial institutions, the banks and business advisers, that fund and counsel companies and that are also among those now thinking about moving out of their big city office blocks going to be placing their bets?

     

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