It’s one of those bittersweet moments for hospitality, and business leaders could be forgiven for feeling just a little nervous about how to react for fear of being misread.
There’s now a visible route to reopening, but the path is not without hazards, and we all know there will be those that are going to stumble and fall along the way.
So, what’s the appropriate image to project? Upbeat and optimistic, to gee up the teams in the run-up to opening – not to mention providing some much-needed reassurance for both investors and customers?
Or should it be a more down-beat and concerned demeanor, designed to remind politicians and the media that hospitality is far from out of the woods? It’s not a straightforward call.
There’s already a distinct air of spring-like anticipation, and even excitement in some quarters, wafting through much of the market. England has its roadmap, imperfect though it may be, and a way out of lockdown is being sketched out for the other home nations too. The Budget ticked a lot of boxes, without meeting all the sector’s aspirations, but was generally seen as positive.
But that’s tempered by the reality that the crisis is not over yet. Debt continues to stack up, and the latest data from AlixPartners and CGA last week starkly demonstrated that business failures continue. They showed 1,700 permanent closures of licensed premises in January alone, bringing the total for the pandemic to 12,000. Even with new openings, that’s a net 7,700 sites down across Britain.
With Boris Johnson’s roadmap falling short of industry expectations, and questions remaining around aspects of the Budget, there’s still political work to be done. And when business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng casually tells The Times that he believes social distancing could remain in some form in retail and hospitality for the rest of the year, you know this is no time to drop the governmental guard.
So, when UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls quipped during a digital conference last week that she wasn’t planning a break before September, you could almost hear an audible sigh of relief down the line.
The other news, however, has been of an industry getting itself back into gear, even blowing the dust off ambitious expansion plans. The passion and enthusiasm are coursing again.
Confidence has been growing and it was telling that the latest Business Leaders survey from CGA showed levels of optimism among leaders last month as high as any time since the start of the pandemic.
The research also revealed that 58% of bosses were actually expecting to open new sites in the coming 12 months, up from just 26% six months ago, and with far fewer expecting to permanently close sites than any time since the end of the first lockdown.
With the acceleration of digital adoption across all sectors of society and business, including hospitality, it was reassuring too that scepticism about technology and data among the sector’s leaders had fallen away dramatically since the start of the pandemic, with a third now saying that the use of technology would be fundamental to operating post-lockdown.
Not only is there an eagerness for getting up and running again, but in engaging with developing trends. Many are seeing the key dates in April, May and June as being the start of something new for their companies and not just a return to the ‘same old’.
But neither are bosses underestimating the challenges, with most not expecting a return to profit until next year at the earliest.
Being upbeat has its benefits though, as Mowgli founder Nisha Katona confided last week, she’s gets thousands of new social media followers, and potential new customers, every time she does a daytime TV cookery slot, unlike an appearance on Newsnight.
The pendulum is swinging towards the upside, so if leaders need to strike a pose, ‘happy’ and ‘confident’ may now pay more dividends. But it’s still a tight call.
Peter Martin: Happy face, or serious face?
It’s one of those bittersweet moments for hospitality, and business leaders could be forgiven for feeling just a little nervous about how to react for fear of being misread. There’s now a visible route to reopening, but the path is not without hazards, and we all know there will be those that are going to stumble and fall along the way.