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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 10th Mar 2023 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Big in Japan, workforce is our next challenge and our next big opportunity, thinking outside the box, don’t put sustainability on the backburner, driving motivation and engagement in a workforce
Authors: Charlie McVeigh, Kate Nicholls, Sarah Travell, Stephen Nolan, Richard Hartley

Big in Japan by Charlie McVeigh

As a teenager in 1980s west London, I grew up with an awed longing for the twin behemoths of global culture and cool, America and Japan. England was grey and dreary, everything was “post”. Post-industrial, post-war, post-punk. Acid House, Oasis and (sorry) The Spice Girls would finally give us the confidence to be proud of ourselves a decade or more later – but back then our inheritance expressed itself in the introspective gloom of The Cure, The Smiths and Joy Division. 
When I finished up at school in 1985, I blagged jobs in the States and Hong Kong (tales for other columns), eventually saving enough money to get myself to Tokyo, then with the reputation as the most expensive city in the world. My only real preparation for the sensory overload of Japan’s capital was Bladerunner (1982), a movie I had watched on a loop until the VHS tape wore out. Although notionally set in the dystopian future Los Angeles of 2019, like the rest of us at the time, its creator, Ridley Scott, assumed Japanese culture would by then have subsumed American life.
I stayed with a school-friend who was working out there and had a Japanese girlfriend. Thrillingly, she had a friend, and the four of us got in a cab on my first night and drove what seemed a preposterously long way to a large apartment block in a quiet residential area. Walking into a dimly lit unmanned lobby, we took the lift to the 17th floor, where the doors opened directly into total mayhem. A triple-height, post-apocalyptic scene, packed with kids in performative fashion. Around the outer edge of the club were a series of caves, with deep sand on the floor. Removing shoes, you crawled in, and the rough stone walls were embedded with tiny video screens (then totally unknown as a technology in the west) showing the most violent bits from Japanese horror movies. The music was an assault, totally alien. The people were beyond cool, beyond beautiful. Nowhere since has come close to that club experience. In fact, that place – and I don’t think I ever even found out its name – ruined nightclubbing for me forever.
Cut to 2023 and I am back in Japan, on a ski-trip in the northern island of Hokkaido, which lies parallel to Vladivostok in Siberia. In winter, a brutal northerly wind comes sweeping down from Kamchatka, hits the relative warmth of the Pacific Ocean and dumps snow in ridiculous quantities there. Skiing in Japan is the worst kept secret in extreme sports. For those of us who are addicted to deep powder snow, the conditions are spectacular. You don’t go for sun; it snows all the time. There are no pine trees, only fine wintery birch that gives the landscape a hairy feel. Like everything in Japan, it is other, different and wondrous to the western sensibility. Maybe once a day at best, the clouds lift for a moment and you realise you are skiing on a chain of perfect Fuji-like volcanoes.
After skiing, one repairs to an onsen, often beautifully designed mountain bath complexes powered by natural hot springs. For the first time since school, I wondered around from hot-pool to ice-plunge 100% naked in (male) company. Not being a regular reader of H&E Monthly, I found it initially daunting, but then curiously liberating. The baths themselves engender one of the great natural highs. You pay to get in, so I think this can be classified as an elevated hospitality experience, certainly one of the better ones of my life.
I won’t tell you about the specifics of the ramen bars and extraordinary restaurants. They were brilliant, but you can find similar in London. The standard of hospitality is spectacular, each new guest being greeted with shouts of welcome, and the efficiency and humble friendliness is a lesson to us all. There is a strange and counter-intuitive disconnect between a nation that is clearly brilliant at automation and productivity but equally comfortable with creating millions of non-jobs. Japan permits almost zero immigration, and its government pays (Japanese) workers to sit on folding chairs by junctions recording traffic patterns all day, all night, in all weathers. For a country with a reputation for technology innovation, the speed and consistency of mobile broadband is woeful, and most companies’ websites look like they have been designed by Borat.
Two peak food moments will live long in the memory. An entire column could be written (and has) about the phenomenon of the ubiquitous Japanese convenience store (Google it). But the egg sandwich in Lawsons, one such chain, available for the princely sum of £1.35, is quite simply a perfection of simplicity, indulgence and deliciousness. Thank you to Paul McKenna, of Red Branch Hospitality, for putting me on to that!
At the other end of the spectrum, after the ski-week we did a bit of touring on the main island of Honshu and found ourselves staying at Ichijoin, a Buddhist temple in the mountain sanctuary-town of Koya. A surprising combination of hyper-simplicity and extreme luxury, and still owned by the family that founded it in the year 700, this is definitely one of the most impactful places I have ever stayed in. Ichijoin only serves vegetarian food, and the two meals we ate there were each 15-plus small plates and almost entirely made up of ingenious interpretations of the soy bean. A very large penny dropped – the artful preparation of the soy bean might be a solution to the whole vegan/vegetarian conundrum, yet we see little of any quality in the UK. Dishes ranged from a hearty miso and soy bean stew (literally as rich and unctuous as any boeuf bourgignon) to a fresh, creamy tofu that was indistinguishable from burrata.
There are a thousand-and-one extraordinary hospitality experiences to be had in Japan. My first trip was during peak-Japan, in the 1980s, when the narrative was that they were taking over the world. Since then, decades of economic stagnation have caused the country to turn inwards and create ever more decadent and extreme versions of its own already alien culture. There is little effort to make it easy for the foreigner (thank goodness for Google Translate). All of this makes for a deep, visceral experience. And – as per the Lawsons egg sandwich – it isn’t even that expensive any more.
Charlie McVeigh is the founder of Draft House and chairman of Butchies. This article first appeared in Propel Premium.

Workforce is our next challenge and our next big opportunity by Kate Nicholls

If there was one big takeaway from UKHospitality’s inaugural Workforce and Skills Event last week, it’s that our industry has a massive opportunity to grasp the people and skills agenda, and to drive up the talent outlook for our sector. Put another way, and perhaps somewhat more dramatically, we must grasp the opportunity to avert another crisis, especially as we emerge from the massive events that have gripped our sector, economy and lives in these past three years.
How we recruit, train and retain people; how we drive skills and education in our sector; how we promote hospitality to the wider world; and how we ensure we lead on creating a truly diverse, welcoming and inclusive sector that appeals to all – these are now the issues at hand. Our immediate and collective mission must now be to drive the status of hospitality so that we become an industry of choice. This is within our power to achieve, and achieve it we must, because without brilliant people, there can be no world-class hospitality industry. 
It was hugely encouraging then to use the event to shine a light on some of the brilliant work operators are doing in this area. It became clear, for example, that there is a huge momentum to address the diversity and inclusion agenda within the sector, with operators investing resources to create working environments that are accessible to all, and to which everyone can bring their best selves every day. Examples include (but which are no means confined to): bringing prison leavers into employment; opportunities for the over-50s; offering even more flexible working; help with managing the menopause; and support around mental health and well-being. We are doing all this and more.
And it is important that we do so, as a record number of people are now employed in foodservice and accommodation. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now 2.6 million people employed in this category, and that’s not counting the additional jobs the sector provides in contract catering, leisure and visitor attractions. Hospitality jobs are up 10% in just over a year – that’s nearly 250,000 net new jobs – which is 22% of all net new jobs across the economy in the past 12 months.

This is no time to rest on our laurels though. Hospitality job vacancies remain close to record levels – two-thirds higher than pre-pandemic – with 146,000 jobs waiting to be filled, which is around double the vacancies compared with the next industrial sector. While it is clear we as an industry are doing all we can, we will need government support if we are to fulfil our potential, and so we were delighted to welcome hospitality minister Kevin Hollinrake MP among the speakers at our Workforce and Skills event. He provided an update on the government’s Hospitality Recovery Strategy; a strategy that was undoubtedly a seismic shift in the way government perceives hospitality – as indeed was the introduction of a minister with specific responsibility for the sector.
He also revealed, exclusively at the event, the substantial progress that’s already been made as the sector recovers and moves towards a more resilient future. And the work done following the publication of the Hospitality Recovery Strategy illustrates the clear value in government working with us closely on key issues affecting the sector. There’s still more to do to meet our mutual objectives, however.
Indeed, we believe there’s more that the government can do on the super-critical workforce front, and UKHospitality has proposed reform of the Apprenticeship Levy system, to give businesses more control over how they train their staff, while making the system more flexible to support seasonal workers, those keen to learn in a different way and those who want to front or backload their learning. 
We’ve also made pragmatic proposals for immigration system reform to plug the gaps in our workforce caused by the pandemic, such as additional roles on the Shortage Occupation List; encouraging older people into the sector through our Guide to Employing Over-50s; and, through my role as the sector’s disability ambassador in the cabinet office, promoting employment opportunities for disabled people.
We’ll be continuing to work with the government and hope that the spring Budget will go some way to helping us get more people into work and training. UKHospitality would also like to see the chancellor tackle three other key short-term issues – energy, business rates and VAT – while providing longer-term headroom and flexibility for hospitality businesses to invest in people, places and in growth. Hospitality is at a crucial juncture, and while the support of government is vital, the future is very much in our grasp.
Kate Nicholls is the chief executive of UKHospitality

Thinking outside the box by Sarah Travell

Over the past three years the leisure sector has arguably faced more challenges than any other, from widespread closures and complicated social distancing measures to the current cost-of-living crisis. However, that hasn’t stopped a multitude of innovative new concepts emerging and taking the opportunity to expand – and none more so than in the experiential category. As we’ve seen from our own clients in this sector, which include the likes of Ninja Warrior UK, Platform Social Gaming and Clays, there remains good levels of activity from both established and fledgling brands, taking a new approach to match evolving consumer needs. 

The Propel Multi-Site Database, which is produced in association with Virgate, contained 21 new companies in February, bringing the total number of businesses listed up to 2,789. The 64 sites run by those 21 new additions means the entire database has now reached 68,058 sites. Many of these additions highlight the growing influence of experiential concepts on the market, and the increasing appetite of landlords across the country to make space for them in schemes and on high streets. 

One of the most anticipated was F1 Arcade, the first Formula 1 licensed experiential concept created by Puttshack and Flight Club co-founder Adam Breeden, which opened its debut site at the One New Change scheme in London’s St Paul’s late last year. A couple of months ago its parent company, Kindred Concepts, secured a second site, an 11,000 square-foot unit at Two Chamberlain Square at Paradise Birmingham. Future expansion plans include a mixture of owned and operated venues, joint ventures and franchise partnerships, with target locations including the UK, US, key European cities, the Middle East and Asia.

There are also now an increasing range of companies looking to take significant space, from 20,000 square feet upwards, including the likes of Gravity, which recently secured new backing to grow in the UK and overseas. Manchester leisure group Rocafella Leisure recently secured the rights for Nerf Action Xperience (NAX) with US entertainment company Hasbro, to bring the concept to the UK. The first site, spanning 35,000 square feet, will open at the Trafford Palazzo in Manchester this summer.

It will be the prelude to the start of a UK-wide and overseas roll-out. Each NAX centre will provide guests with a multitude of Nerf-fuelled indoor activities to explore, comprising three different zones in a purpose-built and immersive environment. The competition zone will allow groups to battle it out with different Nerf blasters in three immersive themed arenas. The sports zone will feature a huge atrium of Nerf-related sports challenges, including basketball and football volley, and there is a dedicated training zone to hone players’ targeting skills. 

There are also signs of a second wave of operators emerging, those who have already worked and learnt from the initial competitive socialising/experiential pioneers. One such is former Swingers partner Josh Ford, who is planning a multiple venue roll-out of his new game show experience Gameshow Studios, set to launch in central London this spring. Gameshow Studios will see guests become contestants for a two-hour fully immersive game show experience, complete with a backstage Green Room cocktail bar. 

Then there is Charlie Gardiner, the founder of Incipio Group, the Edition Capital-backed operator of venues including The Prince and Lost In Brixton, who has launched his first venture in the nursery and soft play market. Gardiner, who founded Incipio in 2016, opened Jaego’s House in Kensal Rise as the first venue for his new vehicle, The Little Houses Group. Branded as a club for all the family, it features a jungle gym, crèche, child-minding service and kids’ cinema for children, plus a co-working office, gym, treatment room and library for adults.

A restaurant and waterside cafe, seating 85 inside and 24 on a canal-side terrace, offers three specially curated menus – for kids, adults, and a “one-handed” menu for breastfeeding guests. Gardiner, recently received backing from serial sector investor Imbiba and has lined up a second site in London, near Parsons Green tube station, for an opening later this spring.

Looking to go more down the traditional route, Chance & Counters, the board game bar/café group, will open a new flagship site in Bristol as it looks to ramp up the pace of its expansion from next year onwards. The business, which was founded in Bristol in 2016 by friends and board game fans, Steve Cownie, Luke Neal and Richard Scarsbrook, will open its second site in the city, on the ex-Purezza site in Gloucester Road, this April. At 3,500 square feet, the premises is the group’s largest to date and will double up as a group headquarters.

The group opened its debut site, at the city’s Christmas Steps, and has since expanded to Cardiff and Birmingham, now employing more than 75 staff and hosting nearly 200,000 board gaming sessions every year. An opening in Leeds is thought to be next on the group’s radar. It goes without saying that there are still challenges facing the leisure market, such as staffing issues and tightening consumer spend, but for well capitalised occupiers looking for innovative concepts, there remains exciting opportunities ahead.
Sarah Travell is the founder and chief of Virgate, sponsor of the Propel Multi-Site Database. The comprehensive database is updated monthly and provides company names, the people in charge, how many sites each firm operates, its trading name and its registered name at Companies House if different. Companies can now have an unlimited number of people receive access to Propel Premium for a year for £895 plus VAT – whether they are an operator or a supplier. The single subscription rate is £445 plus VAT for operators and £545 plus VAT for suppliers. Email to upgrade your subscription.

Don’t put sustainability on the backburner by Stephen Nolan 

It’s no secret that when it comes to climate change, we are facing one of the biggest challenges of our times. Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns all pose a growing threat to the future of our planet – something which we must urgently work to address. 
The opportunity for hospitality 
Indeed, over the past few years, we’ve seen the government work to ramp up its sustainability efforts, from the launch of its net-zero strategy in 2021 and its commitment for the UK to become net-zero by 2050 to the recent announcement to ban single-use plastics in the UK from October, as it comes under increasing pressure to present us with more sustainable choices.  
While these commitments are certainly a step in the right direction, the reality is that when it comes to single-use plastics, not only are the current viable alternatives limited and more costly, but the removal of them will barely make a dent in the overall environmental impact of the average hospitality business. With food systems estimated to be responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that there is a significant opportunity for hospitality businesses to take a lead in reducing the sector’s environmental impact, and supply chain is the place to start.
With rising costs, hikes in utility bills and increasing rents, it may be tempting to put sustainability on the backburner. But, despite the economic challenges, sustainability is an area that the industry cannot afford to ignore and offers businesses, particularly those first-movers, the opportunity to gain a strong competitive advantage. 
The audiences to engage 
While there is an environmental imperative to reduce emissions, there is an audience engagement imperative as well – particularly among investors, employees and consumers. 
Indeed, when it comes to investment and purchasing decisions, a business’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance is of growing importance. ESG reporting helps investors understand a company’s risk management strategy and evaluate the value and long-term viability of a business. Without it, there is a lack of transparency, and investors will likely overlook the company and invest elsewhere, leading to significant financial and reputational issues. 
Purpose has also become of increasing significance to employees within the sector, with research suggesting that 42% of UK working adults are more likely to work for a company with environmental initiatives over one without. Businesses that respond to this growing appetite for sustainability in the workplace will likely benefit not only from a productive and more engaged workforce, but also in attracting future talent, particularly as younger generations who demand action and awareness on environmental and social issues enter the workforce.
Sector leaders I speak to tell me that more often than not, candidates are enquiring about the company’s ESG initiatives in interviews, so it can be a real game changer when recruiting from Generation Z. Additionally, improving carbon literacy among employees is vital in driving the behavioural change required in helping to tackle carbon emissions. Teaching employees while they’re in the workplace to think about switching off lights or turning down the thermostat will help to encourage a more conscious workforce and prompt them to take these habits home, helping to expand out the effect of sustainability efforts. 
Finally, there is also a consumer drive towards sustainable choices. Hawksmoor’s Will Beckett says that “nobody ever ordered a ribeye with purpose”, but he acknowledges that people do want to know that the place where they’re eating does “the right thing”. That belief was reflected by our Sustainability Sentiment Index, which found last year that nearly half (45%) of consumers feel that a venue’s commitment to sustainability is an important part of deciding where to go and spend money, with around two thirds (64%) of people surveyed saying that eating and drinking out venues/brands could do more to reduce their environmental impact. Providing more sustainable choices will incentivise environmentally savvy customers and help to drive increased footfall and spend – something which is even more critical in the current climate.
What this means for operators 
We know it’s a challenging time out there right now, but it’s vital that sustainability is a core part of hospitality operations. Operators who embrace this can see the profits and losses impact – both in the short term, with reduced financing costs and increased supply chain transparency, and in the long term, ensuring the viability of their business. 
Those that invest in understanding their environmental impact and meet the demand for more sustainable options will ultimately thrive and help to future proof their business. Those who fall short risk being left behind.
Stephen Nolan is chief executive of Nutritics, the company behind food production research and education platform Foodprint

Driving motivation and engagement in a workforce by Richard Hartley

April sees the National Living Wage go up by nearly 10%, one of the highest rises since its inception in 2016. To put this into context, an average hospitality business with a weekly turnover of £20,000 and a labour percentage of 30% will need to take an extra £2,000 a week to maintain its current margin. In the current economic climate, with consumers’ disposable income being squeezed, that is going to be challenging.
We, therefore, need to think about how we can get more from our teams. When it comes to employee productivity, our research tells us that a big driver, if not the biggest, is staffs’ motivation in conjunction with clear direction of what is expected of them. If we park financial motivation – be it from higher pay, or working for tips – there are other methods that will help bring out the best in a workforce.
Boosting motivation and performance across all areas and team members comes down to how well you communicate. It’s really important that employees are well informed about shift allocations, priorities, roles and tasks. When they understand what they need to do and the part it plays in the overall achievement of the business, every minute will be filled with tasks that add value, and staff will be motivated to provide better service to customers. Slack tasks like clearing tables, emptying bins, restocking napkins and doing toilet checks make a really big difference to the customer experience, and this should be communicated at the start of every shift.

There’s a big difference between a highly motivated person clearing a table and someone who is not clear on their priorities and is looking to simply pass time on their shift. All shifts have peaks and troughs, and your staff will be at their most productive when they fill those slack moments with tasks that need to get done. All too often, we see employees using this time to gossip (typically in the glass wash) rather than working through the jobs that need to get done.
Nailing communication with your staff is a two-way street, and you want your staff to feel engaged in this conversation. Being transparent with a workforce gives employees the space to discuss challenges and suggestions for day-to-day improvements on the job. For example, staff will likely want to be prepped for new menus and pricing ahead of time, so that they feel more confident and motivated selling on the front-line.
Using a feedback platform is a great way to capture feedback from front-line staff, allowing them to build the kind of relationship with you where they feel they are valued and listened to. When employees understand where they stand, what they can expect from you and how they can expect you to treat them, productivity is boosted. Making your employees part of the company’s vision and mission is key to getting that commitment from them.  
It’s no secret that a poor work-life balance is a big productivity barrier. Simply put, you don’t want to overwork employees, and you want to listen to their ideal hours. Allowing your teams to swap shifts and request time off with ease is a big driver in engagement. If you have staff that are working part-time around other commitments such as children or education, giving them some flexibility by allowing them to pick up shifts when they feel they will be the most energised and productive will have a big impact on how they feel about the job, and how they feel on shift.
A burnt-out employee won’t turn up to a shift bright-eyed and ready to have positive interactions with other staff members and customers. What you’ll get instead is low motivation and bad performance. This idea has become a bit of a phenomenon recently – it’s referred to as “quiet quitting”. Basically, this means someone will do the minimum requirements for the job without giving any more time, enthusiasm or effort than what is necessary. 
Front-line workers are the beating heart of customer service, so ironing out any potential blockages in their performance doesn’t just benefit them, but the business too. Your team is your greatest asset, and getting it motivated and engaged in its roles and tasks will have a big impact on how effectively your labour is spent. Investing time and energy into your team’s productivity is going to play a crucial role in lessening the impact of rising labour costs.
Richard Hartley is chief innovation officer at people, productivity and payroll system S4labour

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