It seems bizarre, but when I wrote my last column only a month ago, coronavirus was still pretty much a Chinese issue that seemed a long way removed from mainland Europe, let alone the UK. The subjects I touched on included the rise of vegan food, Dry January and the rise and rise of Greggs.
How things have changed. Suddenly the whole of Italy is being put into lockdown then people start dying of the dreaded Covid-19 in some of Italy’s continental neighbours before the virus finally pitches up here on British soil. At time of writing, five people have died here.
Despite the blanket media coverage, some of it from me, it still seemed somehow unreal. That all changed for me this week when I started seeing commuters on my train wearing face masks and a first Times colleague was diagnosed with the virus and hospitalised. Hearing some of the tales of woe from restaurant and hotel operators also brought the reality of the seriousness of the situation home to me.
One casual dining CEO has been texting me a running commentary on the impact of coronavirus on trading. On Friday 6th March, he told me:
“Central London and suburbs bad and worsening – provinces better but still down and getting worse. Airport concessions down 30%.” The following Tuesday things had deteriorated again: “Worsening – trading hours reductions being brought in on a site-by-site basis and will be reviewed downwards no doubt in days to come. Sales down by about 14% overall with declines of 20% the norm in central London.”
A couple of days later I asked him whether things has settled down or even improved. No such luck. “It’s not a one-time correction, but more like a helter skelter, with each day worse than the week before.”
Given everything that has been thrown at the casual dining sector over the past couple of years, I must admit I am now starting to fear for some operators, especially those that have already been through a painful restructuring, be it a CVA and/or some sort of debt refinancing. Some of the measures announced by the Chancellor in the Budget to help hospitality businesses will be a big help, but they’re mostly aimed at smaller businesses and will do little for the chains.
Of course, you can introduce as many concessions as you like, but if customers are staying at home to avoid going to public places rather than going out, there’s not a lot you can do.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that businesses big and small are having to deal with fallout from coronavirus. A reputable source told me the other day that luxury hotels in central London were suffering falls in occupancy to between 20% and 30%, while in the City The Ned had put its staff on six-hour days.
The big question is how long the global pandemic, as it has now been categorised, carries on for. As things stand, if we can get back to normal fairly quickly, then there is no reason why demand for meals out and holidays should not quickly recover or even exceed previous trading levels as consumers who have been reining in their spending decide to go on a bit of a splurge.
But if the virus was to prove tricky to dislodge and, perish the thought, we were to start seeing fatalities on the scale of Italy, then heaven knows how many businesses will go to the wall. The inevitable lockdown on big public gatherings would be devastating.
Let’s hope the government has put the right strategy in place to control the virus’s spread.
Of course, one man’s misery is another man’s fortune. Step forward Steve Richards, the former chief executive of Casual Dining Group and before that Novus Leisure.
Instead of having to wrestle with a potentially lethal cocktail of rising costs, oversupply and now coronavirus, he is running Parkdean Resorts, which even before people stopped booking overseas flights was fully booked for the summer amid strong demand for staycations.
I guess it is possible that some people may cancel their trips to a Parkdean venue for fear of coming into contact with coronavirus, but given the strength of trading I’d be amazed if it couldn’t find customers ready to take up the slack.
The other big attraction of such leisure parks is that they are for the most part in amazing locations, many of them with their own beaches. In a recent interview with The Times he said: “Fundamentally it’s a great business with an unrepeatable real estate footprint.”
At last Domino’s Pizza has got something right. Matt Shattock is a fantastic choice for the job of chairman. What surprises me is that the company managed to attract somebody of the calibre of the former Suntory Beam CEO and now chairman.
The Durham University graduate and former army tank platoon leader oversaw a $16bn sale of the Jim Beam bourbon and Courvoisier cognac maker to Suntory of Japan and has a bucketful of consumer experience with the likes of Unilever and Cadbury.
Clearly, Shattock’s immediate priorities will be finding a new CEO and CFO for the business, completing the sell-off of its loss-making overseas operations and, even more importantly, cutting the Gordian Knot of the company’s protracted dispute with its biggest franchisees.
Once he’s done all that, it’ll beg the question of what next for a maturing UK and Ireland business. Who knows? Perhaps at that point Domino’s will tap into his experience of finding a cash-rich buyer for Beam. What price a sale to its ambitious Aussie-listed sister company Domino’s Pizza Enterprises?
Dom Walsh: A growing sense of the surreal
It seems bizarre, but when I wrote my last column only a month ago, coronavirus was still pretty much a Chinese issue that seemed a long way removed from mainland Europe, let alone the UK. The subjects I touched on included the rise of vegan food, Dry January and the rise and rise of Greggs. How things have changed. Despite the blanket media coverage, some of it from me, it still seemed somehow unreal. Hearing some of the tales of woe from restaurant and hotel operators also brought the reality of the seriousness of the situation home to me.