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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 27th Aug 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Time for small businesses to ‘level up’, relative rights and freedoms, witnessing the staycation boom first-hand
Authors: Helena Hudson, Paul Chase, Glynn Davis
 

Time for small businesses to ‘level up’ by Helena Hudson

The past 18 months have been devastating for hospitality. From government-enforced lockdowns to disenfranchised workforces as a result of furlough and regular isolations, the pandemic has forced brands across the industry to reimagine how they operate.

Departures by large food and beverage brands and coffee chains have meant that even some of the UK’s most bustling high streets are nothing close to what they once were. In inner cities, this has been even more catastrophic. 

Entire areas of London, where high streets were already at tipping point, have been left deserted. While this presents a challenge for landlords, it also provides a real opportunity for agile brands that are capable of moving at speed. 

Landlords want to quickly sign deals to fill their units – to protect them from business rates and earn some income in the not-too-distant future. They also don’t want empty sites and neither do we as residents, shoppers, commuters or office workers. 

If conversations with landlords over the past 12 months are any indication, we are at a unique moment in time where small brands are able to “level up” and move into prime locations. For my brand, the Real Eating Company, which typically operated in and around the south east, we’ve been able to sign deals to move into three central London sites – locations that were previously completely out of reach.

But this isn’t just a positive for brands like ours. It’s also essential for ensuring the longevity of high streets. We must do what we can to ensure high streets offer something a bit different to attract people enough so they want to spend some time and money there. That each has personality. 

And this isn’t just small brands taking risks, but landlords too. For years, institutional landlords have sided with corporates over smaller businesses. But, in the past 18 months, the bigger brands are the ones that have often resorted to site closures, company voluntary arrangements or administration, leaving landlords high and dry. Big companies serve their shareholders, not their landlord. Smaller businesses are naturally more committed tenants because evaluating risk is taken so much more seriously – so much more is on the line for them. Therefore, they are much more likely to take a symbiotic approach to their dealings with landlords. It is a joint endeavour.

We’ve had months of positive discussions with institutional landlords, private landlords and have nine times out of ten come away with a mutually beneficial understanding. 

This is now being reciprocated in discussions for new sites. Small brands are now being treated on a par with – or often preferred to –larger brands because landlords have faith they are more likely to stick around and work together. 

Landlords want to build a relationship with people. They want a recognisable face, and someone who they know – if the going gets tough – will work with them. 

This is the same for consumers. The pandemic has reinforced the benefits that shopping locally brings. Whether that’s through better food quality, affordability or those personal connections with members of the local community, which is being reflected in the way consumers are spending. 

According to Barclaycard data released earlier this year, spending at specialist local food and drink outlets such as butchers, bakeries and greengrocers rose by 63% in the year since March 2020. 

The same is also true for serviced food and beverage brands too. I believe customers no longer want to see the same “cookie-cutter” selection of food and beverage brands on their high street. Instead, they want unique and carefully curated offers from a variety of smaller businesses. 

Arguably, these small brands care more about every touchpoint with a customer and put more thought and care into the design, innovation and quality of their food and drink offering. 

Because, for them, it is do or die. There isn’t a huge corporate safety net that they can fall back on, and it isn’t shareholders’ money at risk. 

The past 18 months has brought a great deal of pressure and stress for businesses of all sizes. But not all of the changes have been bad and a number of factors have come together to accelerate a behavioural shift that would otherwise have taken decades to happen. 

The most important thing we can do as small business owners is to grasp the opportunities that have presented themselves. It’s a big leap forward but will help high streets and shopping centres up and down the country to come back fighting after a devastating 18 months for UK hospitality.
Helena Hudson is founder of Real Eating Company
 

Relative rights and freedoms by Paul Chase

When “Freedom Day” finally arrived on 19 July and covid-19 restrictions on licensed premises were finally lifted (at least in England), it is understandable that a beleaguered licensed trade gave voice to three cheers. But that quickly reduced to two cheers when the government announced its intention of introducing “vaccine passports” for nightclubs and other crowded venues. Since when, we have heard nothing definitive about what this means in practice; what premises will be required to ask for proof of vaccination; what exceptions, medical or otherwise, there will be or what penalties will apply, either for operators or for those who gain entry by producing some sort of fraudulent proof. 
 
This last-minute approach makes it very difficult for premises to plan compliance, or for the police and licensing departments to plan enforcement. Now that the efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmission and the longevity of the protection they provide from infection are becoming more doubtful by the day, so the health justifications for proof of vaccination as a condition of entry to premises become ever more difficult to find. I am opposed to any such restrictions, and I do hope, and half suspect, this may have been a bluff designed to nudge young people into getting the jab because of FOMO – fear of missing out. Professor Susan Michie, SAGE’s pet communist psychologist, may well have advised the government along these lines because she seems to believe that restrictions such as masks and social distancing will now become permanent features of our way of life.
 
I do believe the government genuinely wants to get the balance right between our rights and freedoms, and protecting the public from covid. This is not a fashionable view, I know. But there is an element of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” about the criticisms that are levelled at government over its handling of the pandemic. But before screaming “fascist” at anyone who suggests some restrictions may need to remain to control a virus that is still killing 800 people a week, spare a thought for the people of Afghanistan. Over the past week, we have seen the retreat of the west, and of western liberal values, in the face of the Taliban’s ominous advance. We see the most powerful nation on earth struggling to keep one airport open. And the entire Afghan nation fall into the grip of a clerical Gestapo, with all the odious apparatus of medieval fundamentalism and barbaric punishments. 
 
If you think that a so-called vaccine passport is a fascist curtailment of your freedom, think of those who will now be living under a regime that bans music and cuts off the fingers of women who varnish their nails. And for those gender ideologues who feel unsafe if someone mis-pronouns them, think of the girls and women of Afghanistan – an oppressed sex class – who may be beaten or killed if they don’t cover their faces. 
 
I don’t resile from the position that I want to see our rights and freedoms as we knew them before the pandemic returned to us in full; nor do I, in any way, seek to justify the medical apartheid of covid passports. Rather, this article is a plea for a bit of perspective. What the past 18 months have shown is how ill-prepared we were for a real public health emergency, rather than the imaginary ones like the binge drinking tsunami or the non-existent childhood obesity epidemic. It has also shown how many of our fellow citizens are deeply superstitious and prone to believe in conspiracy theories. 
 
The parochialism of our concerns stands in stark contrast to some of the horrors we see unfolding before our eyes in other parts of the world. I’m grateful that I live in the United Kingdom. I think anyone born here, or who came to live here at any time since the end of the Second World War, had a fantastic piece of luck. So, for all the covid crackpots out there who are still saying it’s a “plandemic”, not a pandemic; that covid is a hoax, a conspiracy designed to control us and that it is all part of the “Great Global Reset”; that we’re governed by a bunch of fascists, I say this: no, we’re not. They are nowhere near being as well organised as that. 
 
I am optimistic that we will get our freedoms back, and I’m confident in the robustness of our civic institutions. Spare a thought for those who haven’t got any.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health
 

Witnessing the staycation boom first-hand by Glynn Davis

Let’s first clarify that a staycation actually means taking time off work to enjoy day-trip activities and does not include overnight stays. But since, in recent years, it seems to have been adopted as the catch-all term to describe any domestic holiday, I’ll just have to go along with it from this point onwards.
 
During my family’s recent “staycation”, we travelled along the beautiful North Yorkshire/Cleveland coastline beginning in the Victorian resort town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea where I had, prior to the trip, attempted to book dinner at The Seaview Restaurant. It is located on the promenade next to the pier where it, not surprisingly, commands great sea views from its glass box-like first-floor dining room.
 
Since demand for the restaurant seemed to be pretty robust, we had to make do with a takeaway one lunchtime but even here there was incredible demand for its renowned fish and chips and other seafood. Such was the appetite for its takeaway that it had led to some locals complaining about the daily snaking queues blocking the promenade. After a battle with some objectionable councillors, the owners gained planning permission to add a four-bay takeaway block in order to ease congestion on the walkway.
 
Covid-19 staycations have undoubtedly turbocharged trade at The Seaview Restaurant – although it was, admittedly, popular before the pandemic – along with other holiday-based destinations and businesses around the country. They have been given the opportunity to maximise their revenues while consumers face constantly changing restrictions around overseas trips. Certainly, on my travels, there was much evidence of the boost being enjoyed by various hospitality operators.
 
Down the coastline from Saltburn lies the picturesque former fishing village of Staithes where local business owners were in agreement that it has been the best summer they had experienced in 25 years. Such was the briskness of trade at the Royal George pub on the cobbled main thoroughfare it abandoned its booking system because it felt it was limiting trade.
 
Another few miles south on the Cleveland Way coastal walk down to Whitby revealed yet more proof of boom times with pretty much every B&B around the town displaying “No vacancies” signs in the windows. The availability of properties on Airbnb was also pretty much non-existent. Such was the level of trade at the nearby Filey holiday parks that getting served at the on-site bars was so tough, some thirsty holidaymakers had been seeking liquid refreshment at other nearby resorts, including Whitby.
 
A recent report from the Resolution Foundation found the UK will benefit more than other European countries from the switch to staycations because of the high number of British people who typically holiday abroad and spend far more doing so than overseas tourists do when coming to the UK.
 
It would be great if the country and its hospitality businesses could retain some of this business in the post-covid-19 world. St Austell is confident of buoyant trade at the least running through the whole of this year as it has highlighted that from September to November its hotels are seeing a significant increase compared with 2019 and a number of its most popular properties are almost fully booked to the end of December. 
 
Let’s hope that despite the variable weather, staff shortages, supply chain issues and price increases imposed by some accommodation providers, the great British public has found sufficient appeal from its UK staycations this year that it will want to repeat the exercise next summer and maybe explore other areas. 
 
Some education would be rather handy in order to highlight the fact the UK’s holiday destinations do not solely comprise Cornwall and Devon, and maybe the Lake District. There are myriad other delights around the country and they do not always involve water. Maybe such education/promotion is something the government could put on its agenda for next summer because I was very surprised it did not undertake something similar this year. When it became clear overseas travel was going to be a serious issue and not to be recommended, this would have been a great opportunity to dissuade people from international travel while at the same time promoting the UK holiday trade.
 
Certainly my family and I will be back on the so-called staycation trail next year (we always have been actually) and hopefully, at some point, we might even be able to make it into The Seaview Restaurant rather than being limited to the takeaway experience. I’m also hoping this year’s news of bumper staycations does not prove to be the equivalent of next year’s fish and chip paper.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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