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Fri 24th Jul 2020 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The numbers game, how to stop no-shows, and as much hay…
Authors: Paul Chase, Amber Staynings and Glynn Davis

The numbers game by Paul Chase

I’ve been saying for years that so-called “public health” is a left-wing racket. It’s a racket that depends on problem-inflation to maintain a permanently alarmed public opinion that, in turn, distorts political decision-making. At the heart of this is the deliberate misuse of statistics – whether by commission or omission.

In the UK, the mother ship of what I term the New Public Health Movement (NPHM) is Public Health England (PHE). PHE is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care and is semi-autonomous of government control. It was formed in 2013 with an annual budget of £300m. Its budget for 2018/19 was £4bn and it now employs about 5,500 people. More than £3bn of this enormous budget is given to local authorities in ring-fenced grants but of the remaining £1bn PHE spends just £52m on infectious disease prevention. The rest is spent on its pet obsessions – financing campaigns against alcohol, sugar and preventing the non-existent childhood obesity epidemic. It’s little wonder when a real epidemic struck PHE was ill-prepared.

The most recent PHE screw-up concerns how it records deaths from covid-19. During the past three months we’ve had government press briefings in which an ashen-faced minister has announced the daily death toll. It turns out these numbers have been inflated because of PHE’s counting methodology. Here’s how it works. PHE collects information on who tests positive for covid-19 but doesn’t keep a record of who recovers. Anyone who has previously tested positive for coronavirus and then dies, no matter the cause, will be recorded as a covid death.

As Yoon K Loke and Carl Heneghan, from the Centre For Evidence-Based Medicine, explained in a blog last week: “By this PHE definition, no-one with covid in England is allowed to recover from their illness. A patient who has tested positive but has been treated and discharged from hospital will still be counted as a covid death, even if they have a heart attack or are run over by a bus three months later.” On this basis the disease could peter out but people would still be recorded as dying from it for decades to come. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the numbers look better because they only count those who have died within 28 days of a positive test for the infection as a covid death.

No-one knows the extent to which this has distorted the overall mortality statistics but, as the death toll subsides, the distortion effect will become more pronounced and this in turn may affect how quickly government feels able to lift lock-down. Health secretary Matt Hancock has rightly ordered an enquiry into how PHE compiles its numbers and it’s hard to see how Duncan Selbie, PHE’s hapless chief executive, can survive such a basic mistake.

Hancock might also like to review past governments’ decisions to establish and oversee the expansion of such an agency in the first place. It is a left-wing Trojan horse at the heart of government and politicians need to understand the NPHM isn’t really about public health, it’s about morality. As one of their leading intellectuals, Christopher Tigerstedt, put it: “Only too seldom do moral and political assumptions underlying different public health activities become subject to analysis. If this is done, however, we may end up with a specific discourse that treats public health as a way of governing society rather than as a field devoted to promote gradual health progression.”

Therefore, when this government tries to find the delicate balance between protecting public health and protecting economic health, the instinctive reaction of public health officials was always going to be the government was moving too far and too fast in opening up the economy, just as they complained the government was too slow to shut it down. For the NPHM and denizens of PHE, business is a conspiracy against public health while businesses that produce or sell alcohol are seen as vectors of disease. It’s useless to try to get them to see there must be a trade-off between controlling covid-19 and getting businesses and people back to work, such a balancing act just isn’t in their DNA.

The political problem for government will come when the blame game starts in earnest. The public don’t understand the distinction between the NHS, PHE, the cabinet or the experts who advise on the science – to them it’s “all the government, innit?” It may be that if the government is blamed for the cretinous ineptitude of PHE it will want to abolish it or at least refocus it on doing what public health has historically done very well in this country – managing and suppressing outbreaks of infectious diseases. If the experience of this pandemic brings about that refocusing and ends this obsession with lifestyle diseases, at least some good will have come from it.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

How to stop no-shows by Amber Staynings

Ah, the old no-show debate. In reality we’ve had a problem with no-shows in hospitality ever since I can remember. I’ve conducted sales audits on businesses and in most cases it uncovers an incredibly high no-show rate with few processes in place to minimise the impact. We all know the repercussions for our sector when this happens. For me, it’s obvious. I’d rather have 50% fewer customers who all turn up than overinflated pre-booked sales where I’m lucky if 30% show up. To put a more positive spin on it, minimising no-shows means more cash, accurate financial forecasting and – more importantly – a far better guest experience that encourages loyalty and repeat business.

I understand nervousness around introducing deposits amid fears of putting customers off – but that was before covid. It was before we’d seen, in my view, the most rapid change in consumer behaviour in such a short space of time. Do I really believe a customer would book elsewhere because they were asked for £5 per person or £20 per table to secure a booking when it’s redeemable? No I don’t – not any more – especially when competition is so high and margins lower. We need to ask customers to make a conscious decision to support our sector by deciding in advance where they want to go rather than booking two or three places and only turning up to one.

If the whole sector agrees to tackle no-shows in the same way and to implement a deposit system, the issue will resolve itself to everyone’s satisfaction. We must all agree to offset the financial damage caused to our industry by social distancing and limited capacity by taking deposits. This action alone would go a long way to reassuring staff, protecting revenue, and providing confidence to upsell packages and experiences. By all means allow the undecided to walk in where feasible but protecting our advanced bookings will have a beneficial impact on everyone involved. It will bring the best of our hospitality service to increasing numbers and allow us to forecast staffing and other resource levels for maximum efficiency.

Our sector prides itself on providing customers with wonderful memories and experiences with friends and loved ones. We are there to serve them and, as such, we are givers, now more than ever. We must remember the impact covid has had on everyone, with devastating results for many. This goes for staff working in the industry too, who feel vulnerable but are still expected to deliver a first-class service to others. Building confidence and loyalty among staff feeds through to your customer base, for which close working relationships need to be built and sustained. Now more than ever my ingrained philosophy of building these relationships over the long term will be critical to success. 

Systems and processes have an important part to play but, for me, securing sales and improving guest loyalty requires the quality of your relationship to be scrutinised and put centre stage. Our customers should be treated as close friends or family. Treated in this way all customers, even newly acquired ones, would consider you a friend and phone ahead if necessary to apologise for being unable to maintain their booking commitment. There’s no reason why any venue, large or small, couldn’t adopt this approach. 

My job at Bums on Seats has become increasingly about helping established sales teams or individuals acquire the skills to build and capitalise on these important relationships, without which hospitality can’t substantially reduce no-shows and grow the bottom line through repeat business, new revenue streams and customer loyalty. It’s perfectly feasible with the right guidance, training and support to achieve a no-show rate of less than 10%, followed by accurate pre-bookings and more advance spending through upselling packages and bolt-ons. This investment is needed – and justifiable – now more than ever.

A summary at this juncture might be helpful. Start to invest now in the right booking system for online payments, pre-orders and packages. Rewrite your terms and conditions to reflect your brand culture and language, and include a commitment to refund the deposit if a customer cancels within 24 hours of the booking. Use SMS texts (where affordable) or personal calls, which are proven to work by prompting customers and helping to avoid no-shows while building a crucial relationship that encourages loyalty. By treating your customer as a friend and making it easier for them to cancel if they have to, you’ll put your business back on the front foot and look forward with increasing confidence. I will now set out the Bums on Seats approach to these challenges.

Systems
– Effective booking system for online payments/deposits integrated with your tills

– Reminder SMS texts with easy-to-use cancellation link

– Website booking journey kept simple, clear and decisive

Process
– Decide your deposit amount and think differently. £20 or £25 per table/area or £5 per person. My preference at the moment is for table deposits 

– Deposits all refundable with no quibble unless cancelled within 24 hours

– Transparent and clear terms and conditions in your tone of voice. Why do we take deposits and how, as a customer, do I get my money back when I turn up?

– Consistent messaging and approach

Skill
– Focus on customer relationships to drive loyalty

– Provide excellent customer service during booking

– Confirmation and follow-up calls to maintain personable interactions with customers 
Amber Staynings is chief executive and founder of Bums on Seats – bumsonseats.org
Bums on Seats is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member

As much hay… by Glynn Davis

Wandering past Italian restaurant Giaconda during the latter stages of lock-down I was taken aback by the sight of a temporary beer dispenser. It had been rigged up at the front of the restaurant for draught Moretti lager to take away in plastic pint glasses.

Having not seen a pint of beer for many weeks, this was a revelation. The next day I took my family along and, while we waited for our takeaway pizza, we sat on the grassy verge and enjoyed a couple of pints in the sun. During the next few weeks the grass become home to a growing number of people enjoying their first pints of draught-dispensed lager for some time as they soaked up the evening’s rays.

A short time later The Prince pub close to my house launched a takeaway service of its great selection of beer. Grabbing some freshly drawn-off craft beer and supping it on the vast expanse of parkland alongside the pub while enjoying the evening sun proved incredibly popular with locals. I understand The Prince ended up selling more beer during those latter weeks than before lock-down.

Another local favourite of mine is the Earth Ales Brewery bar – based on a double-decker bus in a courtyard that’s a lovely suntrap. It proved the perfect environment to enjoy the brewery’s locally produced beer when restricted to takeaway only. A couple of visits during lock-down for a beer on a balmy evening provided a lovely end to the day.

Now lock-down has ended, many of the pubs and restaurants that have reopened are overcoming the social distancing restrictions enforced on them by utilising outside space. There has been a noticeable relaxation on outside drinking by the authorities. Formerly strict lines were drawn on a venue’s allowable space for external eating and drinking but this has thankfully eased since 4 July.

This has been most noticeable in central London, where cars have been blocked from certain streets in Soho – although in reality central London has virtually no traffic running through it right now! This has allowed bars and restaurants to effectively decamp on to the streets. Many venues have simply shifted their tables and seats on to the road, with artificial grass providing a nice touch.

It has created a lovely buzzy space for drinkers and diners, who have been attracted in decent numbers during the past couple of weeks to enjoy some lovely sunny afternoons and evenings. What would have been gridlocked streets before covid-19 now resemble the Continental European piazzas we’ve all enjoyed in the likes of Italy and Spain. 

We’ve never been able to authentically replicate such experiences in the UK because our narrower city centres haven’t been designed for such activities. A key reason is we simply don’t have the right weather for it. The British weather is too uncertain and inconsistent for such spaces to make sense.

This worries me because the consistent theme through the experiences I’ve enjoyed in recent weeks is it has been sunny. We’ve had an incredibly sustained period of warm weather with only the odd brief interruption during the past four-plus months.

Businesses have been able to take advantage of customers preferring to be outside on warm days and nights. Operators with cramped indoor space will have been especially grateful. The Ypres Castle Inn in Rye, East Sussex, has decided to only open as a beer garden for the foreseeable future – weather permitting – but operators will have to plan for when the weather invariably turns. During these fallow times the obvious advice would be to make as much hay as you can while the sun continues to shine.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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