OPINION: Smart thinking needed as event caterers pick up the pieces

Rak Kalidas, commercial director, Levy UK & Ireland

How does the events hospitality and foodservice sector get back to work in an environment that is markedly different to the one they knew just a few months ago? And what challenges lie ahead in terms of catering, kitchens and back-of-house provision? Innovation will be critical for the speed at which operators recover, writes Rak Kalidas at Levy UK & Ireland.

On 29 May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an update to its guidelines around ‘mass gatherings’ — documentation which was first published back in March 2020. As things stand, it is perhaps best described as a ‘living document’ with plenty of room for further clarification.

While there are some welcome updates around risk factors and other scientific advice contained within, the reality remains that precious little is known about when large-scale events will be allowed to return, in which order, and what specific measures will be mandated by authorities in terms of hygiene and health and safety when they do.

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Crumbs of comfort notwithstanding, global event organisers can be forgiven for their frustration with ambiguity at a time when they are searching for guidance and clarity.

For hospitality providers, the ambiguity is even more acute: at no point in the current guidelines do foodservice operations get a mention.

While the finer details of a resumption of normal service in the events hospitality and foodservice sector remain to be seen, we can perhaps rely on a few things.

We know that timescales are likely to be longer than for other areas of the hospitality industry — hotels, bars, restaurants — and that any return of service will almost certainly follow a phased approach.

We can assume that stringent hygiene and social distancing will form the bedrock of any guidelines and can begin to plan accordingly.

And we know that technology — both in-built and personal devices — will play a huge role in ensuring that we are able to deliver our services in a safe and secure manner during the post-Covid return.

Managing venue space

There are certain measures that any hospitality or foodservice venue will need to implement to ensure that strict social distancing and hygiene standards can be maintained, both for employees and event attendees. For those businesses operating across stadia, arenas and conference centres, the specific challenges predominantly relate to the larger scale and attendance that are an inherent feature of major events.

While standards will be consistent across locations, the particulars of all operations post-Covid will necessarily depend on the layout and spaciousness of each venue.

In this, we must analyse customer journeys in order to minimise contact points and ensure social distancing measures are put in place.

Enforcing phased group arrivals, minimising queuing and blocking off some seating areas are just some of the measures that will need to be considered by operators.

Utilising outdoor spaces at venues will also be critical to ensuring that attendees can be spaced effectively.

Further clarification will also be required from authorities on whether one metre is a sufficient distance between individuals to reduce risk, as opposed to the current directive of two metres, as this will heavily impact whether major events will be commercially viable to run.

Technology will play a key role here, too. Where dynamic queuing systems and digital displays were primarily utilised to increase the convenience and efficiency of customer service, post-Covid these systems will now also be instrumental in providing visual cues that help to implement social distancing and stagger the flow of people within venues.

Personal devices will also become increasingly important within venue spaces, particularly when catering to an increasingly hygiene-conscious consumer.

Pre-ordering food — perhaps even before entering the venue itself — and having it delivered to a designated drop point at a specified time could prove more important than ever.

Not only will it ensure staggered collection and reduced congestion in busy areas, but it may also help employees and customers to avoid unnecessary physical contact.

Safer food prep and service

With heightened awareness of health and hygiene, operators will need to implement careful measures at every step of the foodservice journey to ensure both compliance and comfort for all parties. Many venues in the UK will need to reconfigure workspaces to protect employees and ensure their safety at work.

Implementing social distancing will be a tricky but vital step, and back-of-house areas will have to be carefully zoned to avoid crossover of people.

This will likely mean operating with reduced numbers at any one time — though this does not necessarily mean reduced staffing levels overall, as employees cannot be expected to work extended periods in restrictive personal protective equipment (PPE) without taking regular breaks.

Changes in service and dining styles will also be required, at least in the medium term. In particular, open buffets, shared platters and close-contact table service in hospitality areas will need to be reconsidered. These could be replaced by frictionless methods of food and drink provision.

Open buffets, shared platters and close-contact table service in hospitality areas will need to be reconsidered moving forward”

High-quality bento boxes, for example, offer a smart and hygienic alternative to traditional plated meals that also minimise visits to service areas. Catering teams must avoid leaving cutlery and glassware exposed to ambient environments for extended periods of time, which may introduce the need for additional wrappings and coverings.

For point-of-sale employees, cashless payment options should be introduced wherever they aren’t already to reduce physical contact with customers and potentially contaminated coins and notes.

Installing touchscreens and built-in payment terminals that do not need to be handled by both customers and employees could also help to limit physical interaction, though these will likely need to be accompanied by additional hygiene overlay factors.

A new normal

These measures will, of course, achieve the vital task of ensuring the health and safety of all people involved in the preparation, service and consumption of food within venues. They will also be crucial for reassuring visitors and employees alike that the environments they are entering and the ingredients and products they are interacting with are safe.

There will understandably be increased apprehensiveness when entering event spaces post-Covid, and one of the many tasks for venue operators will be to help restore the public’s confidence in the safety of major events.

A whole range of interconnected digital technologies and physical innovations will need to be employed to ensure a continuous communication of safety to all people within venues.

Offering food and drink in containers with tamper-proof seals is important, but customers are likely to feel uncomfortable if they are not also given additional visual reassurances — a PPE-clad service professional, a freshly sterilised dining area, frequent displays of hygiene certificates and other cues of cleanliness on digital screens.

It is only by ensuring that customer comfort, safety and peace of mind are placed firmly at the forefront of return strategies that venues will be setting themselves up for long-term success.

Naturally, there will be some reluctance and nervousness when venues first reopen. But while we may initially see lower capacity numbers in the early stages, it is important to remember that reduced capacity events will function as a bridge on the journey back towards full capacity.

Ultimately, operators will need to prove that they can safely and effectively manage the former before they can resume the latter.

As our industry eyes recovery, we can take heart from two key things. First, there are already signs of green shoots in Europe and New Zealand, suggesting a traversable road to recovery for event operators.

Second, the fact is that coming together to interact with each other and celebrate sporting and other large-scale events has been a major part of our cultural fabric over many centuries. Once we all feel safe enough to do so, these important social gatherings — and the food experiences that underpin them — will begin anew.

Rak Kalidas is commercial director at Levy UK & Ireland, a leading caterer specialising in the sports and leisure sectors.

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