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Fri 23rd Oct 2020 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Sunnier in the suburbs, ideas welcome on a desperate situation, smart staffing is key to Christmas trading
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Conor Shaw

Sunnier in the suburbs By Glynn Davis

On leaving the Royal Academy last Sunday after viewing this year’s Summer Exhibition it felt like a much more airy and less frenetic experience than previous year’s, with the art seemingly less crammed together on the walls. 
But then I realised it was nothing to do with the art at all. It was instead all about the fact we weren’t packed in like sardines with other visitors all craning our necks to get a half-decent sighting of the works. At times, we had whole rooms to ourselves, which would have been unthinkable any other year, and it made for a much more enjoyable experience. 
This turned out to be an all-too-rare escape from the troubles. I’m unable to think of any other positives to be drawn from the current situation. Certainly for central London, the ongoing restrictive measures being enforced and the continued ambivalence towards hospitality by the city’s mayor has created an environment of slow death for far too many businesses. Tier two added to the misery and resulted in massive cancellations of bookings. When you have a progressive operator like Jonathan Downey calling time on all parts of his business, and liquidating the company, you know things have turned very bad indeed.
With ever-diminishing reasons to journey into the capital – for either work or pleasure – the dearth of people in central London is increasingly painful to experience. Many of them are now ensconced in the suburbs and commuter belt towns. There seems little doubt the suburbs are having their moment in the sun and the negative connotations of suburbia have been largely forgotten. The action has moved from the metropolises and into the towns and villages outside these major cities where there are, thankfully, some bright spots.
Even house prices are proving buoyant. During 2020 they have increased in 16 out of 20 of the “villages” around London with Balham up 7.4%, Banstead 7.1%, Kingston 6.9%, Kew 6.2% and Twickenham 5.8%, according to Hamptons International. It’s a similar story around the country.
This shift of focus has been very clear to the ever-lucid David Page, chairman of Fulham Shore, who has seen a complete reversal in the fortunes of his estate. Some of the suburban restaurants are currently breaking trading records whereas the previous high flyers in the West End of London and central Manchester are the laggards. “Our policy of opening in London villages has borne fruit, as many commuters are now working from home. These Franco Manca sites are busier than they have ever been,” he says. 
It is a similar story at Peach pub company where even the negative hit from the 10pm curfew has not detracted from management’s view that the estate of 19 pubs is in as “good a place as any hospitality business” and that it will be close to break even over the winter period to April 2021. Loungers is also trading extremely well with a recent statement revealing like-for-like sales growth of 25.1% for the 13 weeks to October 4 as it benefits from its exposure to more suburban locations. Its strategy is in contrast to other groups that might have deemed some of its openings to be in areas insufficiently fashionable. Loungers has been cleverly picking Sittingbourne over Soho for some years.
Another operator that is flying on the back of its commuter belt market town locations is Oakman Inns. For the 13 weeks to October 4, its 24 pubs and restaurants recorded an impressive like-for-like sales increase of 45.5% for food and 12.7% for drinks. It has also benefited from its chunky-sized sites with large, open-plan configurations and extensive gardens that have given confidence to nervous customers. This is what your cash buys you out in the sticks. 
Needless to say Oakman’s food and drink offer has also very much hit the spot. And for the winter period, the company is to install modular glazed garden pods to keep its customers warm through the season’s cold, dark nights. It’s great to see these businesses battling through these tough times and enjoying some success. 
It presents an altogether different image compared to Central London – and other large city centres – where even the Royal Academy’s key event of the year has been renamed the Winter Exhibition. The fact that even the summer turned into winter does not, very sadly, bode well for the chilly months ahead.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Ideas welcome on a desperate situation by Ann Elliott

I went to have my legs waxed last week – not something I look forward to in the slightest but at least I don’t have to wear a mask while its being done. While working away (it’s a long job), Vikki said she was now earning £200 less per week than she had been earning this time last year. That loss in income far exceeded the monthly rental on her house, she said. A very sobering thought.

Her usual clients have either stopped coming completely or are coming less often than they did 12 months ago – some because they just don’t need to any longer (not working and not going out as much) but most because they have lost their jobs or their usual level of income. It’s a (painful) luxury they can manage without.

Of course, there are huge swathes of the population whose income has not been affected by the pandemic. I imagine though that for every person who feels OK financially now, there will be one who doesn’t; that for every person who feels safe in their job now, there will be many who don’t; and for every person who is looking forward to Christmas at the moment, there will be many who are dreading the thought of its financial burden. 

Our sector, thanks to Kate Nicholls and many absolute heroes working with her, has punched above its weight with government. Many sectors, including retail and travel, have not been so lucky. Despite these efforts, thousands will still lose their jobs in the next three months all along the sector’s supply chain: farmers, manufacturers, food suppliers, distributors, printers, designers, agencies, cleaners, maintenance teams, gardeners, chefs… the list goes on. 

We will all know people who have lost their jobs, maybe even experienced it ourselves. The shock, the disbelief, the anger, the worry, the despair and the feeling of being totally and utterly out of control and not knowing where to turn, or what to do, next. It can be a truly horrendous experience to go through.

But this industry is incredibly good at looking after its own. No board ever makes the decision to make redundancies lightly and they work hard (in my general experience) to ensure that those who are made redundant are supported and helped to handle the highs and lows of finding another job. There are resources they can use and often people they can turn to for help.

Our customers though are not always as lucky. Some, like Vikki, are self employed and hopefully have built up savings to help them through but some will be only one (or maybe two) pay packets away from having to give up their home and everything they have worked for – through no fault of their own. 

I wonder if there is more we can truly do to reach out to these people using our role and position in our communities and neighbourhoods? Even though we are now suffering perhaps more than we did in the lock-down? Do we have the time, energy and strength ourselves to help those who used to be our customers (and maybe will be again one day)? 

There were some truly outstanding ideas developed from March and beyond by companies and individuals alike – can we dust these down and go again? It’s hard and we are drained and exhausted. What’s the quote? When you're up to your neck in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp?

There has to be light at the end of the tunnel but it’s not going to be a vaccine that sorts it all out by Easter. Perhaps, we are going to have to live and adapt to this situation for a very long time. So will our customers. If we help them, we help ourselves too. I want to help. What can we do?
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser

Smart staffing is key to Christmas trading by Conor Shaw

Perhaps the only thing we know for sure about Christmas 2020 is that we don’t know what it’s going to look like – and we won’t know for sure until nearer the time. With coronavirus cases on the rise and growing numbers of local lock-downs, predicting what will or won’t be allowed in the hospitality sector during December is next to impossible.
What is clear is that we won’t be back to anything approaching “normal” by then, presenting an unprecedented challenge to the hospitality sector, and especially the many operators who cater for larger groups and parties during the festive season. Can they create memorable Christmas and new year celebrations for their customers this year despite constantly changing rules and regulations around coronavirus? 
Unsurprisingly, the changed hospitality landscape is bad news for those employees who would normally be hoping for a seasonal uplift, with additional shifts over the festive season. Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures for the UK show the number of vacancies in the accommodation and foodservice sector declined by 71.8% year-on-year in the three months from June to August 2020. 
The ONS measured the total labour cost per hour for accommodation and foodservice at £20.70 in the second quarter of 2020, compared with £11.80 in the first quarter, and £10.60 a year earlier in the second quarter of 2019. This 95.4% increase on the same period in 2019 reflects the cost of the high number of employees furloughed in the hospitality sector. 
Operators should be preparing for a “covid Christmas” by getting maximum value from the employees they are able to keep working. At this stage, it seems the best approach is to make plans based on the current restrictions, including the six-person limit on party size and the 10pm curfew, but to make sure further changes can be implemented if rules are tightened or – unlikely though it seems – relaxed. 
Having the right team members working the right shifts is going to be more important than ever, and business owners, managers and staff will need to be flexible as the situation evolves between now and Christmas.
Bizimply’s Christmas staff planning guide

1. Put your general manager front of house: At times of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to have the very best GMs running your pubs, bars or restaurants – and to make them highly visible. A strong general manager leading their team and interacting with customers provides reassurance that the venue will provide a special festive experience, while keeping everyone safe. 
2. Plan your rota in advance… Although this festive season is going to be different in many ways to past years, there will still be a number of familiar patterns to factor in, such as staff members who won’t want to work certain days because of family commitments. So consulting with your team and publishing your rota well in advance allows them to manage their work life balance and keeps them motivated in their jobs.
3. ... but build in flexibility: Chances are, the staff rota you carefully draw up to cover the festive season will have to be redesigned if any of your team members are impacted by coronavirus, either needing to self-isolate, or caring for children if schools close, for example. Not to mention any further hospitality-specific edicts from government. 
4. Speed up staff rota admin: Bizimply estimates GMs can spend up to six hours a week creating a staff rota using Excel or similar. That’s a chunk of time where they’re not on the shop floor doing what they’re best at – managing the business. So equipping them with good software to produce rotas and payroll should be a priority – especially given that staff scheduling is likely to be more complex than usual this festive season. Giving this time back to GMs is why Bizimply’s solutions were designed: one operator using their software is now creating rotas for 60 team members, across five sites, in just one hour a week.
5. Monitor your team’s health: Operators need an up-to-date snapshot of their team members’ health and fitness to work. Bizimply’s Attendance Questionnaire allows operators to design their own questionnaire that automatically appears on-screen as staff members log on to Bizimply’s clock-in app at the start of their shift. By asking a few questions about known covid-19 symptoms, employers can be kept informed of any team members who might have the virus and take appropriate action. This simple, daily questioning reassures staff their employer cares about protecting their health and that of their customers, meaning they feel confident about their working environment, and more motivated to deliver an outstanding festive experience for customers. 
Conor Shaw is chief executive of Bizimply, which offers workforce, HR and operations management and works with hospitality businesses across the UK and Ireland

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