Looking outside now at these dreary November days, the summer already feels like a different time.

The reality is it wasn’t too long ago that we were basking in the sunlight, lockdown was loosening and restaurateurs were feeling the shine from an Eat Out To Help Out scheme which gave us all in the industry a boost after difficult months. After enduring reduced, or no custom for months, seeing queues of guests was a relief for many businesses.

As we weather another lockdown, and look ahead to months of more social distancing and reduced group numbers in the busiest time of year for hospitality, reflecting on the positives and negatives from the long days of summer can help the industry prepare for what’s next. Whether or not the rumours of a Winter EOHO are true, it may help restaurateurs plan for a future that has so long been unpredictable.

Satisfying summer?

The discount and scale of the Chancellor’s flagship scheme aided by a five-week August month took customers from their sofas to socially distanced tables and boosted the fates of thousands of restaurants across the country. And the proof is in the proverbial pudding, with our industry enjoying a casual +126% increase in month on month consumer spend in August. Footfall was up, at 126% also and guests kept on coming back for more, with the average number of restaurants visits showing a 17% increase. Interestingly, spend per customer was up 18%

But while the spend for August was high, this was not to last. Even before new lockdown measures were introduced, spend during September dropped 17% as customers returned home, meaning the impact of the scheme, though positive, was shorter lived than the industry needs.

The setting of the sun

This shift in consumer behaviour, teamed with increasingly strict and inconsistent Government measures including a 10pm curfew, 9pm curfew, and now full lockdown mean that the last month has seen continued difficulty for many in our industry. We’ve seen the impact of these measures first-hand, with consumer spend in October drop by a further 20% on the previous month, as businesses and guests have had to curb their nights early and, eventually, either shut up shop completely or stay open for delivery only.

Over the last few months, restaurants have needed to work even harder for customers, who have been much more likely to come in smaller groups. Many restaurateurs put in place their own EOHO style deals, with operators across the industry, like Bills and Pizza Hut, trying to elongate the summer days of spend. But as we go through lockdown #2, many of us in the industry will be contemplating how we can hit the ground running when our doors can reopen.

The pinch will certainly be felt by businesses and guests alike, but there are tactics we have learnt from lockdown #1 that restaurants can try to put them on the paths to renew relationships with guests and kindle that much needed spend.

Bring the Christmas cheer

With restaurants on course to reopen for the season of goodwill, mince pies and mistletoe – touch wood – it is the perfect time for restaurateurs to rebuild their relationships with guests. Normally the time of the office party, family meal out or special festive treat, any other year the festive period over Christmas and New Year would see a boom in the hospitality industry. Office parties, private celebrations and family gatherings will take a hit over this new, socially distanced, working-from-home festive period, with the dining industry missing out on corporate and private spend. As we all know, this is usually the time of year that keeps our cheeks rosy the whole year round.

Pulling on the heartstrings of the festive season, our industry can create those special moments guests just can’t get at home. To keep spend sweet in this most difficult of environments, restaurants need to create nostalgia and remind the guests why they love dining out, despite any restrictions that might still be in place. This means it’s time for operators to bring out the fan favourites, ensuring guests have availability to special elements of dining.

Continue with tech

While having a nostalgic guest experience will be a key driver to returned consumer spend, convenient, seamless technology will make guests’ lives easier and keep them safe as we continue to navigate the pandemic. Back in August, the arrival of the QR code made guests feel safe in their dining experiences, reassuring them that restaurants were covid secure.

With many bars and restaurants preferring to scan all orders now that paper carries a potential for health risk, thinking above and beyond this for customers will make them feel safe, secure and more likely to return.

Create lasting loyalty

It’s clear that once we are allowed out into the world once again, we will all want to return to our favourite spots. The challenge here for marketers will be to draw back in pre lockdown loyal guests who have not returned post lockdown, whilst investing in new crowds and translating them into loyal guests who will return time and again. Looking ahead to December and beyond, marketers will need to double down to create lasting loyalty amongst high-value, frequent visit guests rather than those who are looking out for a cheap deal.

Taking careful consideration about marketing channels, the value of the deals on offer, and the longevity of programmes that can help draw new guests in and keep them returning for good. Much will depend on the channel through which offers are delivered to guests, particularly when building new brand relationships guests can depend on. Taking advantage of the trusted channels used daily by high-spend guests, such as their bank accounts where they can track guests future spend behaviour, could be a good direction to travel in, and could put merchants and restaurateurs on the path to loyal high-spend guests.

As we all take a step back from busy lives and busy schedules in lockdown, it can give us the opportunity to rethink our strategy towards customer retention. Even in this difficult environment, there is hope for hospitality to bounce back when we can venture outside our homes once more.

Ahead of the busy festive season, as we’ve seen from EOHO, there are still avenues restaurants can go down to position themselves for the best possible reopening and investing in meaningful relationships with guests should be top of any restaurateurs’ Christmas list.