The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered guests’ expectations and attitudes to loyalty. And in a consumer-focused session at CGA’s Big Peach 2020 Digital Experience, it became clear that some of the changes are going to endure well beyond the pandemic.

CGA’s research illustrates the challenge of generating return visits in a new-look and complex market. It highlights a breed of enthusiastic customers in pubs, bars and restaurants—around 20% of consumers have made up 80% of visits since the sector reopened in July—but a more conservative approach to going out, with an average of five brands visited compared to nine before the first lockdown. “There’s a core of guests we really need to engage,” said Rachel Weller, CGA’s head of marketing and consumer research. “There are no second chances—driving engagement, loyalty and revisit is more important than ever.”

Ever since July, operators have faced the task of delivering rigorous safety without compromising good experiences. Lisa Owen, head of marketing at Hickory’s, said: “We knew we had to take safety seriously and give that reassurance… but once people were seated at the table it was important to us that we gave them the Hickory’s experience that they had prior to lockdown.”

Gary Goodman, founder and CEO of Yumpingo, said operators had worked very hard to deliver safety—and as the We Hear You campaign has shown, those efforts have paid off in guest satisfaction. “The industry’s done a great job in very challenging times to stay adaptable, flexible and nimble.”

Brands used the spring lockdown to refresh their offer, he added. “We’re seeing a lot of innovation coming out of this, with people having the time to rethink the entire experience.” A good example of that is The New World Trading Company, where a menu revamp provided fresh focus ahead of reopening. “A new proposition for food and drink… gave us something to talk about other than COVID-19 and hygiene and safety points,” said Jonathan Townsend, NWTC’s strategic planning manager.

As people have become more comfortable going out, expectations have risen, he added. “Safety is still very important, but people want to get back to some form of normality—they want that experience and interaction.” With visit frequency reduced, this heightens the pressure to deliver consistently good experiences. Acting quickly on feedback and other data can help to drive return and recommendation rates. “Historically you might hear from guests a day or a week after their visit—but to be able to do it in real time and make reactive decisions that can change the course of a shift is really powerful.”

Lisa Owen said Hickory’s was using data to improve performance on consumers’ pre-visit touchpoints like bookings, where a reservations team spends time explaining safety procedures. “We’re giving lots of reassurance… so that when they get through the door they feel like we’re the right and safe choice for them.” She has also seen a trend for short-notice bookings at Hickory’s. “People are reluctant to plan—or they don’t want to tempt fate by planning too far ahead.”

Changes like these may well prove permanent rather than temporary, suggested Gary Goodman. “The market’s going to come back again… the challenge is how to adapt your brand to this new consumer.”

To watch the Big Peach 2020 Digital Experience’s consumer session in full, watch below or click here.


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