Despite the number of articles I see touting that Covid-19 will fundamentally change the restaurant scene forever, I do not believe that it will much alter the future of eating out, although in the short to medium term it will have a very large impact for sure.

Do you remember the Olympics that London hosted during the beautiful summer of 2012? How we were all swept along with a mixture of patriotic pride and the positive energy whipped up by the biggest show in town? It was a central feature on the news every day. We were enthralled and energised, developing a new love for all things sport. We were all going to get fit and take up new activities we had just discovered, maybe try out for the next Olympics or start a local community group. Its legacy was supposed to be a shift in our consciousness, leaving us all fitter and healthier as a result…. For some people it no doubt did have this effect, but for most of us, we slowly rebounded to our natural state, consumed by that mixture of everyday busyness and our own unchanging psychology.

It is easy to get consumed by what seems to be a ‘new normal’ and extrapolate that this now marks a huge change in society. In reality it naturally fades over time.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does our imagination it seems. We fill the future with a version of it warped by the gravity of our own world view, so it is no surprise to see people claiming that coronavirus will further their own cause. If you are a delivery company, you see signs of a permanent increase of delivery. If you are a digital marketer, you see signs of a permanent move to everything being online. If you are a vegan, you see signs of a permanent change to attitudes around meat. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail…..

Going back to ‘normal’

It is important to remember though that our previous state of normal before this pandemic was not a fixed one anyway. The forces that were shaping the future of restaurants and hospitality will not change – the importance of customer experience, the integration of digital technology, the pull of speed and convenience, the growing voices around sustainability and social purpose. Expect to see some wild fluctuations in the impact of these forces in the medium term, but beware of the people proclaiming that the world has changed forever.

Human nature has taken a fantastically long time to evolve and it won’t be changing any time soon. And frankly, assuming you can survive this crisis, you would do well to avoid focusing on the changes too much when it comes to developing the core strategy for your business. Marketing-professor-gone-rogue Mark Ritson, in his brilliant article on how the long term post corona world will remain broadly the same as before, references a man that knows a thing or two about business: “Jeff Bezos…complained that most people ask him about what is going to change over the next 10 years. Bezos was far more interested, he explained, in what was not going to change in those 10 years because “you can build a business strategy around things that are stable in time”.”

Here are a few thoughts from me on the unfolding situation:

Returning to restaurants after Covid-19: Object Space Place

Short term

In business terms, there is still a serious crisis to be avoided in the hospitality industry. Kate Nicholls (CEO of UK Hospitality) et al are doing a sterling job lobbying government to ensure that more is done. Aside from making sure previous commitments are working properly, it seems that the conversation around rent is the biggest issue right now. A solution needs to be found.

From a restaurant customer perspective, as we come out of lockdown, expect there to be peculiarity. Our habits take 6 weeks to form apparently, so some behaviours will have been altered for sure and will take some time to adjust back – although a pent up desire to socialise is likely to see an initial spurt of activity (which no doubt the government is not going to want). Some people will see positive benefits to their new habits and maintain them – working from home more, enjoying the ease of delivery, talking to our neighbours or shopping more locally. Some people will have gained negative habits such as a slight paranoia around handwashing or dropping into a spiral of comfort eating. Most of us will rebound to normal over time. KAM Media have produced a white paper looking at what the post-corona consumer might look like, which is worth reading through.

It is expected that some kind of social distancing measures will need to stay in place after lockdown finishes, but it is not clear what these are. Looking to China offers a few clues, but the policies on restaurant rules seem to be patchy. At Object Space Place, we are working on what the design implications of social distancing within restaurants might be and will be releasing this work in the coming weeks.

If your hospitality business has been closed completely during the outbreak, how are you planning to relaunch? If you have pivoted your model (e.g. to provide delivery), will you pivot back or maintain a hybrid model?

Your approach to marketing at this point has never been more vital. If you have not done so already, seek out all the free advice Mark McCulloch has been dishing out on YouTube here.

One of my predictions when it comes to marketing and the need for discounting in order to get your customers to come back – I would wager that your need to do this will be inversely proportional to the amount of support you received from loyal customers buying vouchers or actively supporting you as the crisis unfolded. Never has there been a time when genuine brand loyalty has been so important….time for you to see what customers really think about you.

Medium term

The medium term (perhaps the next 3-12 months) is going to be the most stormy of seas for both hospitality businesses and customers, as the economic fallout begins to unfold. It is highly unlikely that it will be business as usual and there will be changes required that are unique to this time. You will need a specific plan to deal with this one and, frankly, there isn’t really a textbook to follow on this (although every day it seems that someone is trying to sell us the answer). I would recommend looking at Matt Watkinson’s free Covid-19 worksheets based on his book The Grid – it’s a rather intelligent, clear and concise tool for you to work with.

This is the time for brand owners and company directors to really earn their money by navigating their ship and its precious crew through the storm in one piece. Many will be lost over this time and others severely damaged, but those that come through it can be sure of more opportunities than before as with any recession.

I think it is important to remember that there is no single version of ‘the future’ – we will all have our own experience of this and your brand will have its own experience too. You need to have a firm grip on what your offer is all about and what your brand DNA is so that you know what path you need to take. Is it the right time to make some changes to your brand or customer experience? Is this an opportunity to take some brave steps forward? If you are fortunate enough to be well funded, this is an excellent time to be looking for new sites or refreshing existing ones as your commercial leverage will no doubt be high.

Long term

As outlined above, I really think the long term path for eating out remains broadly unchanged. I would hope that one silver lining to this pandemic shaped cloud is that it will be possible to address some of the systemic problems in the hospitality sector. Problems including the long term implications of the delivery apps, landlords with upward only rent reviews and unrealistic demands, unaffordable business rates, not a big enough focus on sustainability and too many mediocre operators. These would all be hugely welcome areas for a ‘new normal’ to be established.

This post was written by David Chenery

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