Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to a number of operators about their thoughts and feelings on lockdown this time versus March. Some key themes have emerged during these conversations.
There are massive levels of frustration, disappointment and anger about the behaviour and attitude of the government towards the sector.
While there is a very strong feeling that we couldn’t have been better represented in terms of our trade body with the government (and that Kate Nicholls should be on her way to the House of Lords and Ladies), an understanding that we are just one body talking to them among many and an appreciation that no one really knows how to “handle” the pandemic- the criticism of the government is fierce.
Incompetent, chaotic, ignorant, shambolic, uncommunicative, ill-disciplined, clueless, totally lacking in any understanding of how our sector works, bumbling, useless, leaderless, knee-jerking, prevaricating, rumour-mongering, absolutely no appreciation of business, overwhelmed… the comments were excoriating.
Our sector appreciates certainty and consistency. Operators know this pandemic erodes both but believe the government is making this situation considerably worse than it needs to be. This is not helped by the different approaches of the devolved nations and the variations in the requirements of the tier system in each nation.
Hospitality is not to blame
No one is listening and “we are banging our heads against the walls of Whitehall”. Our sector is felt to have been the scapegoat when the government doesn’t want to close schools, universities, grocery retail or care homes. We are the last sector standing. There is huge frustration the government has not recognised how well the sector has regulated itself and is safer now than ever before.
Their biggest concerns, apart from the impact of more lockdowns, are around the end of the rent moratorium, the reintroduction of normal rates of VAT and the introduction of Crown preference.
Oh, and the fact the government has just reneged on its promise of the £1,000 furlough bonus in January which has had a massive impact on their cash flow forecasts.
Leaders feel more in control this time
While no one, commercially, actually wants or likes a lockdown, there is a much more positive feeling this time versus last time. Most operators feel more in control and less reactive than before. They have dusted down the successful processes they had in place for their chain supply, their teams and their customer communications and have learnt from any mistakes they may have made.
Some have launched brand new initiatives they didn’t implement last time but with perhaps more time to prepare and think, believing that a second lockdown was likely. Some have taken the time to think and to not repeat initiatives that were not commercially viable. A third lockdown in January/February is seen as a very distinct possibility.
People and teams came first in the considerations of every leader
Without exception, those I spoke to were most concerned about their teams in all of this. They have worked really hard to ensure they are transparent and honest in their team communications – not giving false hope but trying to paint as positive a picture as they can. They all talked with pride about their people. How they have worked above and beyond, have stuck with them, have adapted to change and coped with effects of covid-19 on themselves and those around them. Their teams are ready for the future and what it might bring – and this is a real source of positivity, gratitude and optimism for a world post-lockdown.
Proactivity, a positive approach to change, creativity and innovation have been essential
Many operators were incredibly innovative in the first lockdown, simply refusing to be on the back foot, let events just take control or to allow previous ways of doing things hold them back – particularly those with sites in heavy office or heavy tourist traffic areas. They understood their businesses were never going to be the same again. They were pleased with how they, and their teams, reacted to the first lockdown – their creativity, speed of reaction, innovation, digital progress, quicker and leaner processes – and have a belief they have done much of the heavy lifting that will see them through the second lockdown.
There is a feeling of positivity about consumers returning to eating and drinking out
They feel positive about the return of customer demand post-lockdown though not necessarily their ability to be able to fulfil this demand due to capacity restrictions, table service-only rules and pre-booking requirements. Most were pleased with their trade between lockdowns and can’t wait to get back to business.
They are resigned to, but not happy about, a poor Christmas versus last year, largely due to lack of corporate bookings at the moment (though any continuation of “bubble only” bookings and the curfew will impact sales even further). One chief executive said their Christmas bookings were currently 0.03% of last year’s level.
They are going for it though – and are determined, throughout this, to make the best of a very bad job and to come out the other side stronger than ever before.