By Peter Martin  |  Nov 27, 2020

Time to adjust the optics

Hospitality is angry, very angry. Never have I witnessed such fury towards a British Government from so many reasonable and intelligent people right across the out-of-home market. The challenge now is how to channel that collective outrage and intense sense of injustice.

The industry’s resentment has only intensified since last week’s allocation of, and subsequent feeble attempts to justify, the new tier restrictions – and that may be having some impact, with talk of more compensation for hospitality, early tier reviews and the publication of evidential data by Government.

But the prime minister and his cabinet seem still seem less worried that they are likely to preside over the biggest cull of licensed premises since World War 2, than being embarrassed by a substantial backbench rebellion of their own MPs. Hence the apparent concessions we read of in the media to both placate their own side and to get the Labour opposition onside.

Pub and restaurant operators can hope ministers change their minds, relax the harshest pub and restaurant restrictions and quickly move areas out of the highest tiers. Industry lobbying will, and should, continue to argue hospitality’s case to win concessions – and gather more allies to the cause on the way too.

One area where more vocal support would be welcome is among the wider population. Marshalling public opinion behind hospitality’s plight cannot hurt – and has the added benefit of reminding consumers of what they are missing, and encouraging and incentivising them to return as soon as they are allowed.

The problem is that despite regular pub and restaurant customers being happy to go out – as they showed in large numbers the weekend before lockdown – the majority of the public still tends to support the Government’s actions, and the relaxations on shopping may be enough to keep them sweet.

While the scenes of pub customers massing outside pubs and crowding onto buses, trams and the Underground when the curfew hit may have provided evidence for those in hospitality of the madness of the policy, for many in the public it just underlined what a problem pubs and bars are, and perhaps need to be shut. Yes, some people did think that. So, we need to change the optics.

Instead of highlighting the problems, the sector needs to emphasise the positives of hospitality – the fact that it is safe, controlled and a great place to be, and certainly safer than people’s homes. Images of people enjoying themselves, safely seated, and not being drunk, are what’s needed.

But any concerted campaign would need the active participation of the big chains and major food and drink brands – and their creative agencies as well – to pull off something spectacular, say on the lines of ‘What are you really missing this Christmas?’. Yes, a half decent ad agency should be able to come up with something better than that – and as the Government is pondering recruiting celebrities to support mass vaccination, how about roping in some big name pub and restaurant lovers.

The bottom-line is that the only thing operators have any smidgen of control over is not the Government or its advisers but their own businesses – and there are some tough decisions already being made.

Some operations are actually doing fine, especially those in the fast-food, takeaway or drive-thru business. Others can and will adapt again – and this year has produced some impressive innovations. Cranking up delivery and food-at-home boxes, bringing in food trucks, ticketed events and looking to exploit outdoor areas, even in the cold, will all come into play.

There’ll also be a bittersweet bonus for pubs and restaurants in Tier 2 but on the borders of Tier 3, as there will be bound to those escaping Manchester into Cheshire, or Sevenoaks into Bromley, or Leicestershire into Rutland.

For others the options are far less attractive: to go into hibernation until summer, if they have the financial resources to wait, or just to shut up shop permanently. Sadly for many, survival will not be an option.

But for those fighting through, keeping up a conversation with both their customers and potential customers is going to be crucial to how business eventually emerge – whether that’s on an individual or industry-wide basis.

What hospitality doesn’t need, or want, is pity. It does need the public, and politicians, to see its positivity and importance – and the force for good it can be at its best. But that doesn’t mean it has to stop being angry. Just channel it.