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Fri 12th Jun 2020 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: ‘Safetyism’, it gets closer, let’s get digital and hospitality at home
Authors: Paul Chase, Alastair Scott, Richard Carter and Andrew Whiteley

‘Safetyism’ by Paul Chase

One of Margaret Thatcher’s more memorable quotes is: “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” This was, of course, her ringing endorsement of the virtues of free market capitalism as opposed to the vices of big state socialism. More prosaically Boris Johnson, commenting on lifting the lock-down, reportedly said to his cabinet: “It turns out to be a lot easier to take peoples’ freedoms away than to give them back.” And it is remarkable how the legislation that enacted the lock-down and took away some fundamental freedoms, passed through our parliament in just one day; and equally remarkable how reluctant many people are to welcome those freedoms back. 

The lock-down took away our freedom of movement, of association and of worship. It severely restricted or took away our freedom to trade and whole swathes of the economy including hospitality and licensed retail remain closed. The lock-down also limited our private property rights – both in terms of how we use business premises and access to second homes. And all of this happened with broad public support.

HL Mencken, one of the 20th century’s most acerbic essayists and satirists, observed: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Well, the covid-19 pandemic is not an imaginary threat but a real one. But the techniques of “project fear” that have been used to generate public support for the lock-down have been hugely effective and have generated an ideology of “safetyism”. This explains why the message of “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has been so effective – it is simple and clear cut; it appeals to a basic human instinct – the desire for safety and security. 

The government in trying to lift the lock-down must now deliver more nuanced messages. It seeks to persuade the public there are no risk-free options as we return to normal; that we must strike a balance between the risks to public health of a second wave of infections, and the risk to economic health if we stay in lock-down for a prolonged period of time. The pseudo-science and magical thinking behind the “R number” reflects the tortuous task of disguising political decisions as “led by the science”. The idea of such a balance is antithetical to many in the modern public health community who see it as putting profits before people. I have been saying for years “public health” is a left wing racket and certainly the obsession of Public Health England (PHE) with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is one of the reasons why the UK was so woefully unprepared for the covid-19 pandemic. Consider this quote in February 2016 from professor Kevin Fenton, MD, PhD, FFPH, Public Health England national director for health and well-being: “In high-income countries such as the UK, NCDs and chronic disability are responsible for a much greater proportion of the burden of disease than infectious diseases, and much of our work at PHE is aimed at tackling related risk such as tobacco use, physical activity and high salt intake.” So, that aged well didn’t it?

The founding chief executive of PHE is Duncan Selbie. His appointment in 2013 was not entirely expected, and he admitted at the time public health was a new area for him. “I am that well-known international expert”, he joked. “You can fit my public health credentials on a postage stamp, but this is what I want to do for the next number of years because it matters so much.” 

Given the preoccupation of its leadership with NCDs, is it any wonder we didn’t have sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment, or an infrastructure to engage in track and trace? After all, how many hidden teaspoons of salt there are in a microwave spaghetti bolognaise is clearly so much more important, isn’t it? I have no brief to defend the government or its handling of this pandemic, but I do think we need to refine our understanding of what “government” means. To me it means the cabinet and the ministries of state in Whitehall. Public Health England, while publicly funded, is a quango – a quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisation. It’s not part of the government. This is an important distinction when we come to play the blame game because PHE is kept at arms-length from government precisely because it is meant to be comprised of experts whose health judgements shouldn’t be infected with political bias. But political bias is what defines PHE and how it spends its £6bn annual budget. 

The slow journey out of lock-down, and the tortuous attempts to balance public health with economic health, reflect the difficulty of reconciling pragmatic politics with public health purity. Extending the lock-down beyond the period needed to buy time for the NHS by “flattening the curve” was a strategic mistake. It has probably cost more lives than it has saved and has done untold damage to the economy and to our sector. The debate about social distancing – two metres or one metre – is not about science but about balancing “safetyism” with economic realism. I hope the latter wins out, but I’m not holding my breath. 
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

It gets closer by Alastair Scott

We have been very busy in the past few weeks trying to do all the things we want to do. This week is no exception as we get things as final as we can for reopening. Our seven-point plan still gives us the focus we need and the energy to crack on, and some obvious changes such as our new paint colours will give that feel to the customer we haven’t been idle. Here’s what we have been doing:

Sales
As I have said before we are blessed with some big outdoor spaces, or at least car parks, we can utilise. Of course, we don’t know whether it will be sunny, how nervous customers will be, and what everyone else will be doing but we have assumed we are opening outside and two days a week will be rained off. On those wet days we will do takeaway but trade will be next to nothing. We have plumped for £16,000 of sales in the opening week across all our sites as our minimum, but of course we are hoping for a lot more. We will reforecast every day.

Staff social distancing
We have had a real internal tussle on social distancing. Part of the debate in truth surrounds what looks good, what works, and what is a risk that we will just need to accept. For example, I have never seen any wiping of card machines in the supermarkets for non-contactless transactions – we just accept we and others have used this for our PIN number and manage the risk, but should we do the same? The role we are introducing to give the customers the most confidence is our sanitiser role. The sanitiser will have no other job other than to go around cleaning to make sure potential cross contamination points are cleaned as frequently as we can. This will give customers more confidence as well as of course performing a useful safety role. To highlight even further our commitment to hygiene and sanitation we have even debated putting them in a yellow jacket! As another example we have had a big debate about what to do at the pass, where we have the biggest potential for staff to face each other. In the end we have decided not to use screens but to run with an operating policy of the expediters turning away to avoid facing each other at any time. In reality they should be getting on with another job anyway!

Customer social distancing
As we have relatively big gardens and big car parks we have enough space to run the business from outside if the weather is okay. We therefore can easily socially distance our customers and we just hope they don’t feel too much like they are in a car park. We have sent our first e-mail to customers and we are now sending an e-mail a week (as well as other social media) in order to generate confidence and support for what we are doing. We have decided all drinking will be seated with waitress service to avoid any issues at the bar, and the drinking customers will have to book slots in the same way as food customers. This might be interesting but we think it is the right thing to do. We are one of the few pubs in the area with decent outside space so Alastair the optimist thinks we may well be full until the rules change.

Menu
We have chosen to run a very small reopening menu. Fish and chips, burgers, pizzas and steak are all we are offering. We can run these with a defrost process (we still buy fresh fish) that will mean we are able to cope with fluctuations in demand when it rains. We are not running a Sunday menu when we start – it doesn’t work as well outside and we want to keep things simple. Nor are we doing starters so we can really make a social distancing kitchen work, but of course we will add on as quickly as we can once our confidence builds. Because we will be booking only we should though be able to plan and prepare a little better for the level of demand we are facing.

Spic and span project
Our modest spic and span project is now almost finished. We have painted, bought more jumbrellas, bought more outside chairs and tables, sanded and oiled all the tables, labelled everything to death (I always wanted to do that anyway), bought more pictures, repainted all the blackboards and written them beautifully. Drills have been out and electricians have fixed everything. Floor polishers have sanded and polished and everything now looks as we wanted it to. We hope the customers notice and they feel they are in a really clean and professionally run environment. It hasn’t cost us much, I have been amazed at the quality of jumbrellas you can get for £150, but I know it will be worth it and it means we have also completed a load of tasks we might not have got around to in normal circumstances.

Right-sizing the team
Staff are of course the most important part of the jigsaw. We have advertised for new team members and hoping to get some pretty high-quality applicants. Think of all those good agency chefs who are desperate for work and some security going forward. And sadly those businesses who won’t be back up and running in a meaningful way this year will probably have staff looking for jobs. So we think we can upgrade where we need to, and we want to have done this by the time we open so we have the right team, with the right attitude, which is trained superbly.

Team training
The structure of the furlough scheme means we have a golden opportunity to train our teams very cheaply during the furlough process. In effect all we need to do is top them up to the minimum wage for the hours they are trained. This is an opportunity too good to miss, and therefore with the cost of a days’ training less than £10 per person we want everyone to be better trained than they have ever been. Whether that is wine, coffee, or attitudes, we are determined to set off with the best team and have designed training plans to make that happen in the run up to the expected opening date. We are also doing a load of management training too, because this is free, other than the training cost. Top of our list is training on forecasting, labour management, and menu management because we have to make big changes to how we work.

If I had one worry three weeks ago it was whether the staff would be up for the job. I have seen many people who are enjoying furlough too much and would seem to be happy to stay like this for a while. I have seen people who are nervous about emerging from their shell and exposing themselves to the risks of other people. But having started the staff retraining process I am much relieved. Our teams want to work; they want to deliver great service and most of them, admittedly young people, are a bit fed up with a blanket policy applied to them when their risks are low. 

Making money
The one thing we can’t afford to do is to lose money on a consistent basis once we reopen. When I talk to anyone about buying any of the distressed assets around at the moment they are not as concerned about the purchase price but rather the ongoing losses until normality resumes. As a small operator we simply cannot afford to run at a loss for any long period of time so we are focusing on three areas to make sure we can at least break-even:

1. Rent: We do feel our landlords have to share our pain, and while we aren’t making money nor should they. We have proposed a turnover rent to our landlords that brings us back up to full rent as our sales grow. We feel this is very fair and of course would open up all our books and systems to allow them to see this.

2. Food margin: With uncertain sales and massive potential volatility we have to operate on a menu that can come out of the freezer every day when we know the weather forecast. Our food margin is normally 67% and we want to at least achieve this in the opening days, as well as using up what we had to freeze at lock-down, so we will need to stay tight and manage well.

3. Labour: What is the cost? Labour is as always the biggest number on the page. With the complexities of the furlough scheme working out what the P&L cost is could be a nightmare. In effect, once August hits, you still have a P&L cost for the days any staff are furloughed (National Insurance and employers pension and then part salary as we progress). You can also remove the time allocated to training because that can be charged to the furlough bucket. And then finally you have the cost you would normally see on the P&L. So, for a permanent member of staff with 20 hours furlough, five hours training, and 15 hours working, just calculating the cost for that staff member will not be easy, and keeping track will be hard too. And we of course always want our managers to see the true P&L cost as they are constructing their rota. I am very proud of my S4 team in finding a way to deliver this complexity to our customers in such a short space of time. Which of the above costs companies include will be a challenge because we will all want our managers to make the right economic decision, but the first and most important point is to be able to see what the cost is.

And how do you manage it? And that is just knowing what the cost is, before we try and manage it to deliver service and safety. We are treating role segregation as more important during this period so the float role disappears. We are introducing a sanitiser role and the role of host in order to ensure guests are handled effectively. All these will introduce extra costs. And while we expect to be open outside only at the start we could be very busy or dead; the recent weather has reminded us of that. 

So making money will be hard, and the time taken to review sales, adjust labour, change menus, change operating model as the social distancing and other rules change will be a real challenge. Those companies who have become very centrally controlled will find this environment hard as the speed of decision making will be faster than we have ever known it before, and training for our teams in how to think will be a challenge.

But I can’t tell you how excited I am about reopening. It will be something like the excitement of first opening all over again. I won’t know which site to be in first! I am so looking forward to seeing the team, and almost all the customers (can the grumpy ones stay away a little longer or will they be back early to complain again?). If we can deliver great service and not lose money I will feel we have done our jobs well.
Alastair Scott owns Malvern Inns as well as the labour management system – S4labour
S4labour is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

Let’s get digital by Richard Carter

The covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly placed a renewed emphasis on the use and value of technology. It has also, in theory, given operators the time to overhaul and enhance capabilities that put them in the best position to understand and communicate with their customers.

Adaptation has been the watchword for the majority of businesses over the past few months. The physical form of providing hospitality has been replaced by the digital, with operators finding new ways of enhancing established channels to remain close to their customers. Many were already moving toward digital evolution but covid-19 has accelerated these strategies. A strong e-commerce presence, digital loyalty programmes, and robust CRM systems have become lifelines for hospitality businesses. As a result, levels of digital engagement among consumers have soared with numerous surveys showing consumers will remain more digitally engaged in the post-crisis world. Off-premise dining habits, whether that is click-and-collect, delivery, meal kits or subscription-based models, will most likely stick for time to come.

A frictionless customer experience will be critical to retaining current customers and capturing next-generation loyalty. But firstly, it’s about having the right digital tools in places, used in the right environments and at the right times to win back customers and make the experience as seamless as possible. 

Unsurprisingly in a world that is set to be dictated by the operational challenges of physical distancing for the foreseeable future, and with increased talk of government reopening blueprints involving app-based ordering, there is a great clamour for order-and-payment solutions that can assist with safe reopening, customer convenience and speed of service.

Invariably, with the nature of their business model, quick service restaurant (QSR) and food-to-go operators have been leading the digital charge. Last year we were thrilled to work with Pret A Manger as the company started on what its chief executive Pano Christou described as its “digital journey”. We were able to help the business trial a number of innovations, including a “tap and go” functionality enabling scanning and payment for a product off the shelf and a payment solution via our OrderPay mobile app. The trial was underpinned by our technology that leverages beacons with the app automatically identifying where customers are sat in a venue, facilitating easy ordering and table service and, crucially, minimising person-to-person contact.

While this seems an obvious technological route for food-to-go, QSR and fast casual to go down, and which was further enhanced by the use of digital menus and ordering kiosks, the covid-19 crisis has sped up the adoption of this technology by all corners of the hospitality sector – from more formal dining venues where interaction between staff and guests is key to the whole experience, to community pubs and bars.

One of the major challenges, if not the biggest, is consumers’ usage of apps. There is plenty of research showing people use only a very limited number – and only keep newly downloaded apps for a short period. So while some operators have gone down the route of launching their own app, faced with this reality, it seemed obvious to us there was a need to build an app that not only services one brand, but a whole suite of others. Our thinking is consumers will download and keep an app they’d use at least once a week, or once a fortnight, at a range of different venues, if the right functionality and experience was available in the palm of their hand.

This is where we are able to help with OrderPay. On the outside of a venue, our platform takes the form of an aggregator app, able to list restaurants, pubs and bars by geographical location, but once customers walk through the door of a specific venue, the technology “reskins” the app, so only that brand’s menu is accessible, eliminating the requirement for consumers to download numerous native apps.

While the initial focus for many in the coming weeks will be on order and payment solutions, shortly operators will be able to benefit from a multitude of features such as customer reviews, delivery, voucher management and loyalty schemes. Choosing the right solution will be critical to offer a range of engaging services to customers, and deliver a powerful platform that facilitates guest communication, helps to drive and control customer footfall and engages a community of people returning to eating and drinking out venues.

There are, and will continue to be, immense challenges around safely and successfully operating in our new socially distant world, but technology will continue to play a central role in helping the sector restart and rebuild. We’re delighted OrderPay is in a position to help these brilliant businesses and aid the sector’s recovery.
Richard Carter is co-founder of OrderPay

Hospitality at home by Andrew Whiteley

If innovation and ingenuity are what it takes to survive the covid-19 pandemic, there are plenty of hospitality operators that deserve to come through the other side of lock-down with a thriving business and a band of loyal customers who they’ve continued to engage with, despite their doors being shut. 

Once lock-down was announced, smart operators were quick off the blocks to find new ways of keeping themselves relevant to their customers and bring in much-needed cash during closure. Many have sold gift cards, which allow customers to buy a round of drinks for themselves or a friend, redeemable on that happy day when the pub’s doors reopen. The success of these schemes is testament to the customer loyalty inspired by some pubs; The Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire, for example, has sold £25,000-worth of vouchers, using the Toggle platform that allows pubs to create gift cards for free. 

However, as the closure carried on, it became clear customers couldn’t be expected to keep buying what was effectively a goodwill gesture with no immediate benefit to them. Operators realised to keep their customers engaged, while their doors remained closed, they needed to offer them a “lock-down version” of the food, drink and, most importantly, experience they’d enjoyed in their pub, bar or restaurant before closure.
 
At Toggle, we’ve seen many great examples of how operators have turned their in-venue offer into an in-home one, and been involved in bringing several of them to life. The secret to success lies, we believe, in a number of factors, demonstrated by some of the best lock-down marketing:
 
Understand the core of your offer: At first glance, The Beer House in Sheffield wouldn’t appear to be well placed for the lock-down – a small micro-pub, it had never sold beer for takeout or delivery before closure. However, owner John Harrison realised the reason customers visited The Beer House – to explore a wide range of craft beers, guided by the pub’s expert staff – could be recreated. The Beer Box, a weekly-changing selection of beer as nine-litre “bag in box” from companies such as Beatnikz Republic, Marble, Roosters and Arbor Ales, was born. 

Create a virtual community: The Beer House created a WhatsApp group for its customers, which gives them an exclusive six-hour window when they can access the weekly beer box before it goes live on the website. The first time it did this it sold £500 of beer boxes in an hour. It has developed an online beer box community since, with hints and tips about enjoying the beer. John even researched the thorny issue of how to put a head on the ales at home, testing a whisk, cafetiere and even a child’s Calpol syringe! Now, group members wish each other a “Happy Beer Box Day” and post videos of themselves with their home-poured pints. 

Recreate the complete experience: If cask ale is challenging to recreate at home, then so too are cocktails. According to CGA data, only 4% of people have enjoyed cocktails since lock-down, compared with 22% before. Revolution Bars has created two cocktail kits – sold through Toggle – containing all the ingredients needed to make them at home. Just as importantly, it realised what customers crave as much as their favourite cocktail is the atmosphere of a Revolution bar, so it has populated its social media channels with a steady stream of engaging content, from charismatic bartender Dimitri conducting cocktail tutorials to a DJ set or a “hangover high-intensity interval training” session on Facebook Live. A competition inviting people to tag a friend at #RevsDate and win a DIY cocktail kit attracted hundreds of entries from customers, reminiscing about their times enjoyed in a Revolution bar and looking forward to the fun ahead after lock-down. 

Stay true to your brand: Côte is all about high-quality authentic French food, which it has continued with its Côte at Home offer, promising “freshly-prepared, restaurant quality meals; effortless cooking with no skill or washing up required”. As well as ready prepared meals, it also has a butchery section with steak, sausages and prestige burgers, and a selection of unusual French cheese. It’s a perfect translation of the in-restaurant experience to the at-home environment and has allowed thousands of Côte customers to enjoy a genuine taste of France. 

With reopening hopefully on the horizon, it will be interesting to see to what extent consumer behaviours may have changed during more than 100 days of closure. Let’s hope those operators who adapted their offer and kept their customers engaged through social media are rewarded with returning guests who appreciated the “lock-down version” of their favourite pub, bar or restaurant, and can’t wait to experience the real thing again!
Andrew Whiteley is chief experience officer at digital marketing agency Airship, whose Toggle platform allows operators to create online gift cards, and was made free during lock-down – www.usetoggle.com 
Airship is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

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