OPINION: Covid-19 changes – here to stay or gone tomorrow?

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Hospitality businesses have made massive alterations to their processes and practices to comply with government guidelines around Covid-19. But whether such changes are likely to have a profound long-term impact on operations is a matter for debate, writes Chantal Bourquin at Tricon Foodservice Consultants.

During the last couple of months, the hospitality industry has slowly begun to reopen for business, operators including hoteliers, restaurateurs and contract caterers are finally able to showcase all the planning and preparatory work they had put into the months their operations were closed.

Adherence to government regulations has entailed adjustments to physical facilities, working practices and service styles.

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Some changes respond to social distancing and hygiene guidelines, others address the consequential changes to consumer behaviour.

But while these changes are unarguably a necessity to enable businesses to operate in the immediate term, a fundamental question is the extent to which such changes and adaptations are here to stay for the long term.

While there are many such topics for discussion, we’ve focused on three specific areas here.

1. Technology

The hospitality industry has long acknowledged the importance of technology in improving operational efficiencies, controlling costs and in customer attraction and retention.

Reopening plans have accelerated the use of technology solutions to eliminate unnecessary contact, far beyond previous levels.

Cashless payments, online advance reservations for all outlets, QR menu codes replacing paper menus, self-check outs, mobile ordering/payment apps will all be prevalent over the coming months.

But long term? In quick service restaurants maybe. But the premium guest experience and sense of conviviality and togetherness that comes from shared dining or drinking cannot be replicated by an app.

From a commercial perspective too, the inability to accept walk-in customers that dissuades casual trade coupled with capacity restrictions resulting from social distancing guidelines, will surely mean that these measures are short-term only.

2. Public relations

Promoting honest and open lines of communication between operator and consumer is crucial in securing repeat customers and gaining genuine trust in the market.

Not taking customers’ loyalty for granted and staying relevant during the next couple of months whilst the market re-builds and redefines itself will endorse success.

Simple and relatable communications which are easily remembered and digested by consumers are having the greatest impact i.e. ‘Five hygiene practises you have implemented in anticipation of re-opening’ or ‘What have your staff been up to during lockdown?’

Alternatively, lockdown may have been an opportunity to revisit brand values and how these connect to the community during these trying times.

Whilst PR was certainly relevant pre Covid-19, its importance is only heightened due to the uncertainty in market trends in the coming months and the need to keep a finger on the pulse of the evolving consumer behavioural trends.

3. Sanitisation

Behind the scenes, the necessity of sanitising surfaces and effective handwashing has always been a prerequisite in practising best hygiene standards.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic now also means maintaining equivalent standards within front of house areas with sanitisation stations and hand wash basins for customers to use pre and post dining.

Likewise, front-of-house areas are now being more visibly and frequently sanitised, supported by additional signage to communicate effectively with guests.

How overt or discreet the signage and/or hygiene stations will vary from outlet to outlet and can be designed to blend in with the brand. But the question of whether consumers will expect to see such standards maintained indefinitely is likely to be a key point of discussion, even when (if) restrictions are eased.

Will customers expect and want to see such practises, or will we revert to ‘out of sight, out of mind?’

Chantal Bourquin is a management consultant at Tricon Foodservice Consultants, an integrated foodservice hospitality management and foodservice design consultants practice.

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