Once again, the hospitality industry is in a state of flux at one its busiest times of the year as a result of COVID-19.  The threat of the new Omicron variant has resulted in reduced footfall, and establishments being forced to close due to staff shortages as a result of cases rapidly increasing.

At the same time, businesses are receiving less governmental support compared to during previous lockdowns. The short notice for implementing new measures has caused stock wastage and financial losses.

However, there is some positive news with the first-ever research of people’s attitudes to pub closures during lockdowns led by Dr Sianne Gordon-Wilson at the University of Portsmouth, which found that regular pub-goers have remained passionately loyal to the pub culture.

The exploratory in-depth study was published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

She found the first and strictest lockdown in Britain had not led to regular pub-goers finding alternatives, as there was no substitute for them to the ‘home from home’ of their local pub.

Dr Gordon-Wilson from the University’s Portsmouth Business School, said: “Pubs are a central and important part of UK culture with a long history. They are also an integral part of some people’s social and work life, and that is difficult to replicate at home.”

She found that individuals used pubs to network, do business, date, relax, seek variety and see friends and that none of those she spoke to had found a substitute that came close to replicating a pub visit.

Dr Gordon-Wilson said: “Drinking in pubs was found to be a functional as well as a symbolic act. The drinking element is functional, and can be substituted in the home or socially online. The symbolic element represents the pub experience; the social and physical aspects that are very specific to pub environments and are difficult to replicate or find a substitution for. “

There are different initiatives that the pub sector could adopt to support both elements when the pubs are closed or are subject to serving restrictions during the pandemic crisis.  

Any future planning efforts for affected businesses are inhibited by uncertainty about what will happen to the sector after Christmas, over the New Year period and beyond.  Dr Gordon-Wilson said pubs and restaurants will need to quickly adapt to survive this uncertain period.

She said: “The key priority should be for all stakeholders to remain in contact through blended online and offline activities to help keep pubs relevant to customers.

“Drinks could be sold in different packaging options to suit different occasions: dating, online drinking, birthdays, anniversaries, or even relaxing.

“Pub employees and managers could also run virtual entertainment to help maintain their customer ties. This could include different online activities, such as quizzes, home-brewing classes, music events, competitions, comedy nights, and broadcasting sports events through video conferencing programmes (e.g. Facebook live) or through virtual reality viewing platforms.”

Dr Gordon-Wilson added: “It is important for these to be facilitated from inside the pub or for this to be replicated virtually, as the pub experience is accepted and enjoyed by customers.”