Pubs with gardens may have the chance to open earlier than planned on 22 June, if the English weather makes it worthwhile.

Those looking to salvage summer may well take an interest in The Liberation Group, the Channel Islands-based operator which will begin to open managed pubs a week earlier on 15 June.

Governed independently of the UK, Jersey and Guernsey have few to no reported cases of coronavirus, giving Liberation a very different reopening climate to the mainland.

As well as providing tips for inquisitive peers in the pub trade, the restart will give some useful insight for the group when it comes to relaunch its own Butcombe estate on the UK mainland.

Adding to the intrigue of the case study, Jersey and Guernsey have respectively adopted different two metre and one metre rules, providing a test case as to whether physical distancing works in practice, currently one of the most vexed issues for the industry.

“What we will learn from the early openings is, what is more important and what is less important,” Lawson tells MCA. “We’ll learn some of the pinch points, we’ll learn things about what really matters to customers, and there’ll be some things that we’ll have thought about and other things that we’ll learn along the way.

“I think that would be the real insight that it will give us in advance and then hopefully reopening in the UK in July.”

In fact, half a dozen tenanted pubs in the Liberation estate have already quietly reopened, with feedback so far from licensees that trade has been “calm” but “encouraging”.

The former Vision Express CEO says the estate’s unique position, across two politically independent Crown dependencies, has created a fair amount of curiosity in the trade.

“It’s interesting because since we announced that we’re starting to reopen, we have a lot of contact from peers and colleagues in the sector.

“I think it will be really insightful in the first week or two, particularly to see the impact of trading one metre vs two metres.”

For Lawson, one of the most interesting elements will be watching if consumer behaviour changes.

“There will be some positives that come out of this, how we handle dayparts, and we will watch how customers behave differently in different parts of the day compared to how they use to.

“There’s an opportunity for us in that we operate largely rural pubs, and I think people’s behaviours of working from home will have changed during that period of time. It won’t all go back to normal

“I think that offers opportunities with the kind of spaces we have.”

With the virus apparently under control, and quarantine measures in place for in-bound travellers, Lawson believes consumer confidence on the islands is strong and growing, though this has not rushed the decision to reopen.

Jersey offered the opportunity to trade external areas at two metres early on in the lockdown, but this was considered “economically unviable”, and “very difficult to operate on that on that basis”.

Key to a successful reopening is good communication and engendering confidence in customers, Lawson says.

“It will take time. There is no hard sell. As and when customers are ready to come back in, then they will do so.

“Our key job is to make sure that those first steps feel safe and that customers feel welcome.

“If we achieve that, they will come back, and they are likely to tell other people they’ve had a good positive experience.”

The Channel Islands have a strong tourist trade, and Lawson says while this will impact some pubs, there is optimism about UK mainland tourists visiting later in the summer.

“Interestingly, I think we’re seeing a stay local, staycation mood developing,” he says.

“So, we’re quite confident given that we’re still at the relatively early part of the summer, that as and when we get back open again, there will still be a decent opportunity for us this summer.”

When it comes to Liberation’s UK-based Butcombe estate, they are looking at opening a “small number” of managed pubs around 4 July.

These will be larger businesses that are possible to operate effectively at two metres, “albeit it will be very difficult to do so,” Lawson says.

There will also be some tenanted pubs beginning to open in the UK, followed by a few more towards the end of August, though timings are not set in stone.

“I think that two key elements of that decision-making process will be how do the initial pubs that we open perform, and where we get to in terms of two metres versus one metres.”

For Lawson, this period will be the critical make or break time, and one he warns could be the most difficult.

With summer unpredictable, Autumn will be around the corner soon, and given how challenging all this uncertainty is, relief on VAT and duty would be welcome, Lawson says.

“I think a lot of businesses reopening will find a strain on cash almost more difficult to withstand than the initial period of lockdown, because you expose yourself to a higher degree of costs at the time of uncertain revenues.

“I suspect it will take some time, well into next year before revenue returns to normal. We don’t expect it to get there until the very end of next year.”