Like many in the hospitality industry, I was cheered by the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday. Reduced VAT on meals and mini breaks from next week, coupled with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme during August, certainly get my vote – professionally and personally.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I haven’t been back to the pub since the great reopening last weekend, but that all changes this Friday, with a family lunch in London. We didn’t go to this pub before lockdown, but their website had all the right messages about social distancing and hygiene and when I phoned to book a table their tone struck the right balance between welcoming and responsible. I’m reassured they’ll do their best to serve a damn fine pub lunch AND avoid our party being taken down by COVID-19. In these strange times, I’m not sure we can ask for much more.
There aren’t many silver linings for operators in the cloud that is trying to run a pub or restaurant in a post-COVID world, but here are a few that I think are worth latching onto.
- Gathering customer data: as if operators didn’t have enough to deal with, along comes the Government’s advice for hospitality businesses to take guest contact details in case they’re needed for Track & Trace. But once the logistics of this are overcome, it is surely a golden opportunity to collect valuable customer data? The Track & Trace solution from sector technology specialists Airship has been taken up by a number of operators including Pret, Leon and Roadchef and, of the 17,000 customer check-ins so far, 28% have opted in to receive marketing emails. Factor that by however many months this is going to be a part of hospitality – which must surely be until we have a COVID vaccine – and it’s a serious addition to any business’s marketing armoury.
- Table service: this will be heresy to some, but I’ve never been a fan of waiting to order at a crowded bar. All that worrying about whether you’re going to inadvertently jump the queue or miss your turn, while trying to hold your party’s drinks order in your head. Staying at your table while a waiter takes and then delivers your drinks seems a more civilised approach and for smart operators it must also be a route to upselling. I’m more likely to say ‘yes’ to the offer of another glass of something lovely brought to me than to bother getting it myself. And upselling is surely easier done through a leisurely chat at the table about the merits of, say, the wine that’s just a notch up or two from the house, than at a busy bar where frazzled bar staff serve customers what they ask for just to keep things moving.
- Alcohol-free drinks: yes, it’s disappointing that the VAT reduction isn’t including alcoholic drinks, and it does mean that wet-led pubs aren’t getting the same help as those where food is the focus. But does it present an opportunity for pubs to up their game on drinks without alcohol? I’m not going to pretend I’m planning a series of completely alcohol-free trips to the pub this summer, but the experience isn’t all about the drinking, as testament the growing number of younger drinkers in particular who are choosing to give up alcohol completely. And with the range of no-alcohol beers, ciders and other drinks now better than it’s ever been, nobody’s sacrificing taste or flavour.
The hospitality industry, and its customers, are still learning about what going out looks like post-COVID, and there are many tweaks to be made to improve the experience on both sides of the bar. The challenges of trading profitably under the new rules and regs may seem daunting, but it’s worth remembering that the pub has been adapting to a changing world for centuries. I’m confident that ultimately, pubs, and pubgoers, will be ok.