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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 5th Nov 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Needle spiking ‘panic’ scapegoats nightclubs, operators risk losing customer relationship, one strike and you’re out, digitisation beyond the pandemic
Authors: Paul Chase, Glynn Davis, Katy Moses, Nick Liddle

Needle spiking ‘panic’ scapegoats nightclubs by Paul Chase

Reports of widespread needle-spiking, alongside a significant number of drink spiking cases, have led to a nationwide conversation about the crime and inspired a boycott of nightclubs and bars dubbed “Girls Night In”. National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead for drugs, Deputy Chief Constable Jason Harwin, has said: “We have now had responses from all forces across the UK in relation to incidents involving some form of injection, with a total of 56 confirmed reports from across September and October.” In addition, as of 23 October, the NPCC had also collected 198 reports of drink spiking.

But is needle spiking really “a thing”, or is it largely a social media-inspired moral panic that reflects the neuroticism of our age? There’s no doubt about the reality of drink spiking, although historically, the incidence has been small. Slipping Rohypnol into someone’s drink is a relatively easy thing to do, but injecting someone is much more problematic. Think about it: a predator must smuggle in a syringe and a phial containing the drug, go into the toilet to charge up the syringe and then, with the plunger withdrawn, walk out of the toilet, find a victim, inject the needle into her arm and depress the plunger – all without the victim noticing. How likely does that sound to you?

However, not all the reports made have shown evidence of widespread needle spiking. Three women who reported feeling unwell after nights out in Exeter and suspected they may have been spiked via needles were found to have no traces of spiking drugs in their systems, while police in St Albans said there was no evidence to suggest a woman who reported a potential incident of spiking via injection had been the victim of an offence. But widespread, alarmist reports on social media have amplified this fast-emerging moral panic, with nightclubs under the spotlight and receiving much of the blame.

Interestingly, a freedom of information (FOI) request made to Avon and Somerset Police produced some revealing statistics. Between 2016 and the end of February 2021 there were 486 drink spiking incidents, with 65 reported in 2016 and 101 in 2019. By comparison, in 2020 through to the end of February 2021 there were 104 such incidents – but nightclubs were closed for the whole of this period. However, we all know that house parties and other unlicensed music events were rampant during this period of closure. Another popular myth is that drink spiking only happens to women. Again, the FOI request to Avon and somerset Police reveal that of the 486 reported incidents, 428 reported the sex of the victim, and of these 101 (or 23.5%) were men.
The issue of men being victims of drink spiking is further complicated by the phenomenon known as “ChemSex”. This is when gay and bisexual men take drugs that enhance sex and lower inhibitions. It is linked to the rise in digital media and dating/hook-up apps which has made sex on drugs much more accessible to gay and bisexual men. The assumption is that merely turning up to a ChemSex party is to give consent. This is false, no assumption should ever be made about consent. The only guaranteed way to be completely clear on consent is to have a verbal confirmation, an emphatic “yes”. The mere absence of words such as “stop” or “no” isn’t good enough. So, the popular narrative of “nightclubs are to blame” seems very wide of the mark.

Experts seem to agree that while it is plausible that spiking by injection could be carried out by an individual or very small group, it’s very unlikely that it’s being easily replicated on a wider scale. Guy Jones, senior scientist at The Loop, a non-profit organisation focused on drug safety, and John Slaughter, senior forensic toxicologist at Analytical Services International, which provides toxicological services which are used to identify legal and illegal drugs and poisons, both said the recent cases were the first time they had heard reports of needles being used in spiking cases. They agreed that while it was certainly plausible that one or a very small number of attackers could have attempted to use needles to spike victims in bars and nightclubs, it’s unlikely that perpetrators could replicate the method easily on a wider scale.
Slaughter said: “If someone is jabbed with a syringe then their reflex action is going to be to move away within a second or two. The opportunity for someone to actually inject enough drug from that syringe to have the effect, I would think, is fairly low. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible, I’m just saying, in my opinion, it’s unlikely.” But facts or nuances rarely inhibit mainstream media from declaring a new “epidemic” of something or other. And people tend to believe anecdotes on twitter because they would, wouldn’t they? In the context of heightened concern about violence towards women, any new aspect to that was always going to produce sensational headlines in the media. The truth is more complicated, as I hope I have illustrated. I just wish lazy editors would stop scapegoating nightclubs.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

Operators risk losing customer relationship by Glynn Davis

Technology has been something of a lifesaver for many companies over the past 18 months or so, but there is an underlying problem that lurks behind the scenes which could prove to be detrimental to the future success of hospitality companies.

During the pandemic there has been a surge in the adoption of digital-based solutions including those from the major home delivery providers – online booking tools and order-and-pay applications that have given hospitality businesses the ability to service their consumers across channels and in a frictionless way. 

These tools have been great for businesses desperate to generate any sort of revenue during incredibly uncertain times with stop-start lockdowns, periods of limited trading hours and myriad other restrictions. But there is a price to be paid for many of these applications. I’m not talking about the 30% the delivery companies charge or the chunky fees the booking firms take per cover – I’m talking about the loss of the relationship with the customer.

The providers of these solutions invariably seat themselves firmly between the operator and the customer, thereby eliminating the vital link between the two parties. This cuts off the flow of valuable customer data to the pub/restaurant and deprives it of using this information to accrue knowledge and build its business on the back of the insights that can be gained.

This is certainly recognised by Richard Allison, chief executive of Domino’s Pizza, who says that by handling its own delivery the company has maintained control over its data, which has proven to be a fundamental differentiator of the business: He said: “It’s incredibly important to us. When a customer orders from us we know their name, email, phone, home address and can learn and grow our business from this. We don’t want to share this with an outside party or for them to sell it on.”

From such data, the customer experience on the website can be tailored to the individual based on their previous behaviour. The valuable opportunity to upsell and offer them additional items to complement their meal is obvious. This data also enables companies to build profiles of their core customer types and use social media to attract similar groups of individuals.

It is this very data that many of the digital tool providers fail to share with their hospitality clients. It is clearly in the interest of these providers to retain this information as they can then keep the operators in the dark about their customer base. This ensures they remain reliant on the tech providers to bring in customers – for a fee, of course. There is much to learn from the hotel industry, where the many booking platforms including, Trivago and TripAdvisor now control the customer relationship.

The importance of ownership of such data is apparent in the retail sector, where Tesco has put its recent strong performance down to its Clubcard loyalty scheme – relaunched last year – and which is underpinned by the rich data it holds on its shoppers. The tool is recognised for giving away rewards, but its fundamental value is in the insights the data provides the business. It is no coincidence that over the years, the buoyant periods for the group have been when it has placed Clubcard at the heart of its strategy.

It is also pretty instructive that Asda has finally launched a loyalty scheme – that is initially being trialled in 16 stores – and that McDonald’s has stated it will introduce its MyMcDonald’s Rewards scheme into the UK next year after its US launch in October swiftly attracted 12m members. Such schemes highlight how the relationships with customers, based on the data that companies hold, is becoming increasingly important as it allows them to directly – and crucially, with intelligence – interact with their customers.

As hospitality companies increasingly operate across a growing number of digital touchpoints, the value of data and the relationship with customers will become ever more valuable and a vital differentiator. They must, therefore, take great care to ensure they are not stymied by the data-hungry intermediaries’ intent on owning the customer.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

One strike and you’re out by Katy Moses

Roll back to pre-pandemic and hygiene probably didn’t weigh heavily on your mind as an operator (unless, like me, you have teenage sons!) – it was more about experience and ambience. Fast forward to 2021, and despite the initial flurry of high-visibility covid measures hastily implemented in many venues, most operators have started to shift their focus to more “exciting” things – while keeping standards high, of course. 

But this month we finished a project at KAM looking at how people’s attitudes have changed since covid-19 when deciding where to go out for a drink or meal or order food for delivery. And guess what is still very much firmly on our customers’ minds? Yep, hygiene and food safety.

Almost two in three consumers agree that hygiene standards have become more important to them when visiting a hospitality venue since covid-19 hit. This is consistent across all age groups and gender demographics.

Never before have we known hygiene to be so prominent in the British consumer’s mindset as it has been over the last 18+ months. What was previously something most hospitality customers were only aware of when they had a particularly bad experience has been catapulted to the forefront of their minds. It seems to have moved from our sub-conscious to our conscious when we make decisions about which venues to choose, whether we have a positive experience and, of course, whether we return.

The research, which we carried out in partnership with Food Alert, found that there is now no room for error, and that customers are incredibly unforgiving when standards fall. Half said that if a venue falls short of their hygiene expectations just once, then they will never return. To be crystal clear, that means you’ve got one strike and then you’re out – for good.

While we have seen numerous venues attempting to reassure customers and adhere to government guidelines during the height of the pandemic, it’s interesting to see the measures most customers would like to see as permanent features in venues going forward.

We are seeing some of the more “extreme” measures, such as temperature checks, screen dividers, masks and one-way-systems slowly being removed (assuming guidelines don’t change again, of course). The main reason is the disruption they have on the “normal” consumer experience in a venue. We want to feel safe, and we absolutely want to feel like a venue is on top of hygiene standards, but we don’t want it to be detrimental to the overall experience.

The research found that two measures customers would like to remain long-term are hand sanitising stations (69%) and adequate spacing of tables (63%). Measures which don’t dilute the customer experience, but just give enough reassurance that their health and well-being has been considered and is important to the venue. This, ultimately, is what the customer is looking for. 

Venues simply will not prosper if they fail to get the fundamentals right and meet the increased expectations of consumers on food hygiene and cleanliness. Nearly two in three Brits agreed that hygiene standards have become more important to them when visiting hospitality venues since the pandemic. More than half wanted hospitality venues to continue to have extreme hygiene measures evident, displayed, and transparent, while 69% wanted to see hand sanitising stations become a permanent feature.

Eating and drinking out is a sensory experience. However, the holistic experience for a consumer can only be realised if it’s underpinned by delivering on the core factors that are critical to consumer satisfaction. When visiting a hospitality venue, these core factors are now quality of food, price, and cleanliness standards. Instagram-ability, good music and good vibes will only lead to a monument of hospitality perfection if the fundamentals and foundations are properly looked after and maintained.

These foundations are built on delivering consistency when it comes to the cleanliness of tableware, tables, and food safety hygiene – and remember, customer perception is as important as the reality here. Let’s not forget those all-important outside areas, which are essentially any venue’s shop window. It’s clear that, without delivering on basic hygiene, venues will struggle to achieve the optimal customer experience. Worst case, you’ll lose them forever.

It comes as no surprise, then, that food hygiene ratings (FHR) are now also an all-important decision maker – or breaker – for customers, and getting the scores on the door can be the difference between business success or failure. Interestingly, although again, perhaps not surprisingly, FHRs are of even higher importance to customers when ordering food for delivery.

This heightened awareness of health and hygiene in general has been more prominent in older generations during the pandemic. But when it comes to checking FHRs, it’s Generation Z and younger millennials who are more actively ratings aware. Venues should be using positive FHR scores as a footfall driving mechanism for these savvy consumers. When ordering online, from companies like Deliveroo and Just Eat, the FHR was more likely to be used as a sorting factor for venues above range of food and drink, delivery times and images of the food.

Astute operators should be looking at this and thinking about how they can use their high-ranking hygiene standards in a positive way to separate them from their competitors and influence the valuable 18 to 34-year-old market. Of course, quality food and drink, great service and wonderful atmosphere will always be important, but it’s interesting to see the value this generation places on hygiene and, of course, ratings of many kinds.

Driven by Generation Z, more and more consumers are looking for transparency from both brands and operators within all channels, and hospitality is no exception. In fact, when it comes to food and drink preparation and consumption, the expectations around transparency are often heightened. Trust is a big part of the relationship that customers have with hospitality venues – trust in the consistency of food quality, in the consistency of service delivery from staff and in the consistency of hygiene standards.

No, hygiene isn’t a particularly sexy topic, but ignore it at your peril! You can consider this your “one-strike and you’re out’ wake-up call!”
Katy Moses is managing director of KAM Media

Digitisation beyond the pandemic by Nick Liddle

Technology adoption within the food and drink industry has boomed over the past year. The pandemic brought a rush of technological innovation and adoption that has been lifesaving for many hospitality businesses. Through the introduction of digital ordering and the growth of delivery marketplaces, restaurants, pubs and cafes have not only found new customers to serve but new revenue streams to explore as well. Some businesses have been entirely transformed, particularly in the quick service restaurant and fast casual markets. As the dust starts to settle on the covid crisis, operators are now taking a step back and starting to think about how technology can support and complement their business in the long run. There’s no denying the pandemic accelerated the speed of digital adoption, catapulting operators into the digital world, but was it a marriage of convenience or a catalyst for digital transformation within the hospitality industry?

State of affairs
Whether you put it down to covid or Brexit, we all know the hospitality industry is in the midst of a labour crisis, and not just in the UK, but across Europe too. With the rising cost of overheads – including food and wages – putting pressure on the bottom line, operators are looking to make savings where they can. Over the last 18 months the hospitality industry has benefited from low VAT, government-backed loans, 0% business rates and furlough schemes. Now that restrictions are easing and industries are opening back up these schemes are slowly being revoked, making it even harder for businesses to remain profitable while adding yet more pressure.

At the same time, a split is developing between customer demographics in ordering behaviour. After more than a year of having to order on their phones, many customers now have technology fatigue, and with the novelty of being able to order at the bar again, some customers are choosing to do so in person. At the other end of the spectrum are the customers that only want to use technology. A number of recent reports detail that the 18 to 35-year-old cohort not only want to continue ordering digitally but expect a good experience when they do, and would even pay more for faster food. Operators have to diversify and offer omnichannel ordering flows to meet the needs of all the different customer demographics.

Digital adoption versus digital transformation
When covid first hit, operators scrambled to update their tech stack, digitalising virtually overnight. But having to adopt fast meant many implemented new technology and platforms that weren’t integrated, creating a poor user experience for both customers and staff. With disengaged staff discouraging the use of apps and technology, it’s no surprise that the number of orders placed through digital technology have dropped now operations are back to full capacity.

This is a by-product of adopting digital technology but not committing to digital transformation. Operators need to prepare the business for transformation to ensure it’s accepted and succeeds across all departments and functions. Digital transformation is as much about change management as it is about technology, and the success of your transformation relies on it. Simply adding a QR code to the menu and hoping for the best won’t necessarily work. Operators need to understand how their business must change to accommodate new opportunities driven by digital ordering, to ensure it’s a seamless experience for both customers and staff while also protecting the brand position.

Ace your transformation
Before starting out, you need to get to the root of what your business needs. The better you understand this, the smoother the transition will be. Consider the user journey for both customers and staff. Do you want to reward returning customers or attract new ones with custom offers and discounts? Are you looking to increase average transaction value, or do you want to up throughput? These are the kinds of questions you’ll need to ask to really understand what’s right for your business before you start looking for a product or provider.

Be open-minded and consider all viewpoints and suggestions – your internal teams need to be aligned and united on the vision. Use data to guide your decision. Making changes to your business can be daunting but it’s important to remain objective. Lead with your head, not your heart.

Digital transformation isn’t a quick fix solution. From initial discovery to implementation, roll-out and continual improvement, it’s a big project and takes time for the whole business to adapt. Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. Things might not go to plan and there may be failures on the way to success, but that’s okay. Commit to your transformation at every stage of the process and you’ll give your business the best chance of success.

Digitisation of an industry is a journey, and one we’ve seen in many other sectors. Those that commit to digital transformation will reap the benefits in the future and create a competitive advantage. Now is the time for the hospitality industry to move beyond the technology versus humans debate and instead leverage that technology to ease economic pressures.
Nick Liddle is the commercial director of Vita Mojo

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