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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 26th Nov 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Agility and flexibility now key for sector businesses, multi-site pub brands must focus on hospitality basics, creating the right atmosphere, experienced operators can lead the way on industry’s staffing crisis 
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Adam Castleton, Tracy Bickerdike

Agility and flexibility now key for sector businesses by Glynn Davis

After more than a year of using the Pret coffee subscription I recently paused it for a month. This was not because I questioned its worth at £20 per month for pretty much unlimited barista-made drinks, but quite the opposite. It had become so integral to my coffee-drinking that I’d been making lifestyle decisions around it.
 
For instance, my near-daily cycle route (for health reasons rather than commuting) is influenced by the location of nearby outlets – whether to grab a quick take-out coffee on my way back or ride further afield and read the paper over a drink inside a store. This is not a problem as such, but I’ve felt it has brought in a little too much routine to my behaviour. 
 
And despite my original intention to still visit other coffee shops, in reality this has been all too infrequent, and I’ve felt guilty about not supporting other independent businesses while grabbing another Pret coffee. So since hitting the pause button I’ve been reacquainting myself with various coffee shops in my part of north London, and it’s been refreshing – even though it will no doubt hit my wallet for more than £20 this month.
 
Based on my own experience, I can only assume the Pret subscription scheme has been very successful since it was introduced at an incredibly low point for the company. It was very much in the eye of the storm of covid-19, with its focus on city centres and travel hubs when cities were ghost towns and nobody was travelling. Like many businesses, it became a much more agile operation during this difficult time and announced an incredible number of launches, deals, initiatives and developments at a cracking rate that no doubt would have been unthinkable before the pandemic.
 
Pre-covid-19, every business talked about being agile and flexible. What this meant was being able to act like a start-up, make decisions quickly and then execute them immediately. The idea was to extricate themselves from the treacle (aka bureaucracy, hierarchical structures, and politics) that invariably restricts the speed of action and progress of large legacy businesses.
 
The pandemic effectively provided the very backdrop on which companies could deliver on their dreams of agility. Under extreme pressure, management decisions were taken without the months of meetings previously regarded as necessary, and products and services were released into the market in record timeframes.
 
This new way of operating seems to be lasting the course at Pret. Last week it announced a new brand identity for the US – initially at a New York store on 29th Street and Seventh Avenue – and the imminent launch of an order-ahead service called Pret Pick-Up. It forms part of the group’s ongoing digital transformation that centres on developing a frictionless experience in-store.
 
This will be followed by the launch of a new app and loyalty programme dubbed Pret Perks, based around members accruing tokens to then redeem against rewards. That’s the bog-standard basics, and I’d be hoping the company intelligently integrates it with the subscription scheme to maximise value for customers, and for Pret to gain richer insights on its customers.
 
On top of this, Pret has announced various other strategic initiatives. These include entering international markets, signing a first major franchise agreement with The Chesterford Group, opening more shops on garage forecourts and motorway service stations and entering the coffee-to-go market through the roll-out of Pret Express self-service vending machines.
 
Although the company’s City of London stores have been recovering well in recent weeks – reaching 86% of pre-pandemic levels – and its airport units are also on the up, I’d argue the most important thing for the company’s ongoing success is its new mindset. Pret chief executive Pano Christou had some major changes on the cards pre-covid-19, but he has been forced to accelerate them as well as introduce a batch of additional strategic initiatives and initiate a change of personnel in some key positions. 
 
Those hospitality businesses that have rebased their operations around their new-found agile mindset will be much better placed for future success than those organisations whose disciplines and practices have been rolled back and are again reminiscent of the pre-pandemic days. Those times have gone, and flexibility is now the most critical resource. Everybody should subscribe to this new way of thinking.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Multi-site pub brands must focus on hospitality basics by Ann Elliott

Dicks Hudson’s in Bingley is an institution – a pub in open countryside overlooking the Aire Valley. It’s a fantastic but slightly isolated position with few houses nearby, a real destination venue. Wonderful when the sun is shining and guests can sit on the generous patio looking out over the amazing view, but less appealing in the winter when the wind is howling and it’s pitch black.

We took my 91-year-old dad there in early November I didn’t particularly want to go to a Vintage Inn. It’s not that I have ever had a poor experience, it’s just I have never really had a great one. It’s always seemed a bit bland, boring, undifferentiated and ordinary – perhaps ninth or tenth on a list of potential places to have lunch and never quite moving further up the list. In fact, it’s probably fallen behind through a lack of experience

But a professionally-written A board (a bit of an oxymoron nowadays) welcomed customers to a pub run by April and her team – a nice welcoming touch. It was also clear that the pub welcomed dogs. Inside, the team were busy putting up Christmas decorations as we ventured in.

There was an immediate greeting from team members just inside the entrance, a personal welcome back to a young boy in front of us, an efficient acknowledgement of our booking and an accompanied trip to the table, slowed down to accommodate the speed of my dad with his walking stick.

Our table was just in front of the (real) fire at one end of the room and it felt warm and inviting. In fact, the whole pub was cosy and relaxing, with numerous appealing smaller spaces set with tables and chairs. It had been well thought through at every turn, and this wasn’t a recent refurb. There were (lit) candles on the tables and windowsills, adding to this sense of pre-Christmas charm. The team seemed to reflect this sense of warmth and hospitality by being chatty, welcoming and personal (in a nice way).

So far, so good, and better than my expectations. Then came the menu. You know when you are given a menu that you have to read at least four times before you find something you might vaguely like, and you just feel irritated before you’ve eaten anything? Well, this wasn’t the case here. I could have eaten anything on the menu – we all could have. Pricing of starters ranged from £4.95 to £9.50 and main courses from £10.95 to £19.95. It felt incredibly good value for money just on reading

And the food, when it came, was beautifully presented – and I mean beautifully presented. Generous portions, lots of fresh veg and time taken to make the dish look fabulous. It looked and tasted sublime – every dish.

In the middle of the meal, our window view was blocked by the arrival (at 1pm on a Saturday) of the ubiquitous Brakes van. This wouldn’t be felt by many customers as the sign of outstanding food (even my dad asked if this meant we had eaten boil in the bag food). I am assuming Vintage Inns buy their fresh meat, fish and veg from them and use them to deliver a menu of outstanding quality and value.

It was, overall, the most perfect of pub visits, and I felt delighted. Much has been said about the demise of multi-site large pub brands, the rise of gastro pub food, the struggles of casual dining (a sector which could easily include Vintage Inns) and the change in customer habits towards quick service restaurants, drive-thrus and delivery.

This visit proved to me that there absolutely still is a role for multi-site pub brands if they just do what is right for the customer – focusing resolutely on providing wonderful food served by attentive and caring team members in a warm, comfortable and beautiful environment. A real triumph!
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser

Creating the right atmosphere by Adam Castleton

Some think of a site as a necessary cost to delivering products and services. It’s a space to fill as cost-effectively as possible so that the products can be stored and the service can be delivered by the staff. Ordering, paying bills and loyalty are all supported to the nines by tech solutions, but a site’s atmosphere can (and should) be supported in the same way. 

I’d encourage every hospitality brand fighting the current staffing crisis, and its knock-on impact on customer service/experience, to explore the powerful effect an atmosphere can have on some of the industries’ most pressing challenges. In truth, an atmosphere could go a long way to solving our current challenges.

Customers will wait if it’s a good wait
With the current staffing challenges the industry is facing, coupled with the continued impact of covid restrictions and regulations, wait times can be a little inflated beyond the expected lengths.

The recent KAM Media research suggests that one in five customers reported having to wait longer than usual to be seated and served, and it’s pertinent to ask what makes a wait either noticeable or more painful, because some of the most pressing triggers for discomfort can be well managed with a few simple tricks.

Knowing that a wait is going to be longer than anticipated is less frustrating than not knowing how long it’ll be, or even worse, it being longer than you’re told. The London Underground is a great example here. Instead of expending resources in making the trains more frequent or more time-bound, they simply added the dot matrix signs that informed you when the next train will be. Simple and very cost-effective. In a similar vein, the staffing crisis within hospitality is a large problem to solve, but simply telling customers or adding a sign could be a simple and cost-effective way to alleviate waiting time frustrations.

Having nothing to occupy a customer can increase their frustrations significantly, but this needn’t be the case. With a little thinking about the waiting moment, brands could provide the customers something to occupy their time. This can be as simple as great music, engaging content on digital screens or even adult colouring in! If it’s the difference between customers leaving before being seated or choosing not to return, the potential gain here is great. It would also be beneficial to really think about the quality of the music in use – slower, calmer and repetitive tracks are much more effective at soothing.

Collectively, the best kind of waiting has been curated as an “occupied wait”. This is a wait that’s accompanied by a few choice tactics to make it a more positive experience for the customer, and considering the above, brands could achieve all of this very cost-effectively with just music and audio. An “occupied wait” playlist that optimises the most relaxing music, gives timely spoken updates on waiting times and provides customers with engaging content could solve the issue of waiting for such small resource expenditure.

Customer experience doesn’t have to suffer
Just as a brand can have a dramatic impact on the customer experience during their wait, similar principles can be applied to the overall experience. It has been reported that 59% of team members in hospitality venues admit that customer experience is suffering in their venue due to a lack of staff (KAM Media, Merging People & Tech).

Customers are increasingly reporting atmosphere and experience as main drivers for opting to eat out. While staffing shortages will provide challenges to experience and can’t be solved with atmospherics alone, they can go a long way to improving the overall experience. Quite simply, customers are less likely to be frustrated by staffing shortages if they’re having a good time.

Using all the tools at a brand’s disposal within their atmospheric arsenal, the experience could be significantly more pleasurable, such as adjusting the music arousal to put customers at ease. Used in conjunction with lowering the lights, brands could slow the heart rate of the customers and actively slow their rates of expectation. If an atmosphere has been well integrated, this could all happen responsively as busyness changes through dayparts.

Staff enjoyment and retention
Perhaps one of the most concerning additions to the staffing crisis is the finding that 64% of respondents said working within hospitality is less enjoyable than it was pre-pandemic (KAM Media, Merging People & Tech). Having talented, skilled and experienced staff leaving the industry could, of course, further exacerbate the staffing crisis, and so anything that can be done to improve their wellbeing should be considered.

We’ve had significant reports from our clients that simply having a set of productivity-based playlists that surround their working day (pre-opening, between dayparts and closing) have had a dramatic effect on improving both productivity and staff enjoyment. You may have seen the recent video shared by Greene King of their staff dancing around the restaurant as they prepare for the work day. This kind of staff experience is priceless, and once again, it’s just a matter of being mindful of music choices.

Let staff do what they do best – serve customers
As with any good digital customer service solution, the goal should be getting those processes out of the way so that staff can do what they do best – serve people and tend to their enjoyment and pleasure. The same goes for any brand’s atmosphere. It could be responsive, integrated and managed without the input of any staff so that they can give all their energy to providing the human touch that is still so important to the quality of service.

The KAM Media research states that more than 40% of customers said staff friendliness and knowledge is even more important now compared with 20 months ago, so this is clearly a growing trend to be listened to. The best atmospherics will give a brand a double-win, automatically optimising the customer experience moment-to-moment so it’s always working hard on producing the best experience, and giving staff more time to serve. 

Final thoughts
Are atmospherics being used enough? I’d wager the answer is “no”. Quite often, sites are tech-heavy in customer service solutions (EPOS, order and pay, billing, apps, loyalty schemes), and tech-lite in atmospherics. But atmospherics could have just as much power in solving these issues, or in the very least, improving customer experience in the moment. If the solution is effectively smarter working of a site’s music and lighting, this is suddenly a compelling argument for getting more serious with the use of atmospherics. These factors are no longer nice-to-haves, they are the demarcations between brands that do okay and brands that thrive.
Adam Castleton is chief executive of Startle Music

Experienced operators can lead the way on industry’s staffing crisis by Tracy Bickerdike

How experienced operators treat their workforce and get them to see hospitality as a career is vital to change the sometimes-negative perception of the industry and help keep talented individuals in the business.
 
A recent survey by Deputy found that 55% of hospitality employees would be less likely to leave if they had more control over their work-life balance. Why not combat the negative connotations – such as long, unsociable hours – often attached to hospitality roles by advertising jobs with a weekend off every month and flexible shifts? Guaranteed hours (no more zero contracts) and rotas confirmed at least a few weeks in advance will be far more appealing to both prospective and current staff, helping them feel they have a healthy work-life balance and keep them motivated and committed to their job.
 
A happy and motivated team can also be a useful asset to promote your business and help fill vacant roles, as prospective new staff are more likely to believe and be inspired by their peers. Incentivise your team to promote vacancies to their family and friends by offering a referral bonus. Showcase the professional training courses they’ve completed via regular social media posts, highlighting the career-paths they’re on to your followers.
 
When advertising vacancies, we often focus on the needs and requirements of the role but forget to promote the benefits, and these little details can often go a long way in tempting jobseekers. Be it free parking, staff discounts or a bonus scheme linked to targets, something might resonate with a particular person and inspire them to hand in their application.
 
Another beneficial tactic is to consider offering full training for certain roles so that you can attract new types of people. Advertise for the behaviours and life skills that people might want to develop further and that are suited to filling a position. Love cooking? We’ll give you all the training you need to become a fully qualified chef. Social butterfly? Meet new people across the bar every day while we train you to embark on a career in hospitality.
 
There is no magic fix to the current crisis, but it is our role as major employers within the industry to change the preconceptions of what these jobs involve and foster a sense of pride to work in hospitality. Through a renewed commitment to training and development, we can firmly re-establish peoples’ belief in the career prospects of bar and restaurant work, and foster a new generation of talent in the industry
 
Of course, covering the basics in terms of entry level training, such as taking an order and using the tills, is a crucial starting point. But by cultivating a continual training culture for your staff around product knowledge, customer service, perfect serve and so on, you will see substantial long-term benefits for both your business and your staff. 
 
Try offering different rates of pay as incentive for cross-training into different roles or doing additional training to upskill. This way, you have a more flexible team and can save yourself money by sharing jobs out amongst fewer members of staff. For high performing, high potential employees, it might be that you offer training to get nationally recognised qualifications to promote the prospects of a longer-term career. Apprenticeships go as high as degree-level and are a great substitute to going to university, all while working and gaining experience.
 
Plus, with the government levy covering 95% of apprenticeship fees for employees in England, this means employers are eligible to pay for only the remaining 5% (which starts at £175, depending on level). It doesn’t need to be paid upfront and can be phased across several months, making it even easier to finance. At Star Pubs & Bars, we help facilitate apprenticeships from Level 2 to Level 4 via Remit to enable employees to learn while they earn. 
 
Moreover, having a multi-trained team helps employees support each other during busy periods – particularly useful when the kitchen is busy or short-staffed as front of house staff can step in to help. A fully trained team also fosters a better, happier working environment and delivers greater customer satisfaction. So, if you haven’t already thought about upskilling your team, now is the time to do so.
 
Training tips
1. Observe – how they currently do something
2. Demonstrate – the correct/better way to complete the task
3. Practice – give them a chance to emulate what you have demonstrated
4. Evaluate – provide positive feedback and pointers to improve
5. Review – regularly review what’s been practiced to maintain skill levels
 
Provide training that suits your staff and their working patterns – mobile training apps like Hello BEER allow your staff to train when it suits them, with bite-sized video-led training directly on their phone.
 
Traditional lecture style training might not be suitable for your staff, so why not ask them how they best like to learn? Providing practical workshops and hands-on training may be preferable for certain employees.
Tracy Bickerdike is head of training for Star Pubs & Bars

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