Professional Comment

What Can Hospitality Brands Do To Survive The Lockdown?

By Roly Grant, creative director and co-founder, brand design agency Without

So much has changed in the past few weeks, it’s almost impossible to make sense of it all. We’ve seen much-loved and long-established restaurants and bars from all sectors of the industry let staff go, revert to delivery only, or shut down altogether. Many people are asking if there’ll be anywhere left to go out and celebrate once the restrictions are finally lifted.

There’s no doubt the current pandemic is having a devastating effect – hospitality is one of the hardest-hit industries – but lots of business owners are doing everything they can to protect the livelihoods of as many staff as possible, and keep their companies going for as long as they can through diversification.

Restaurants in China are obviously further down the line. April Puffer, a Beijing eatery specialising in puffer fish, established a delivery fleet made up of its own chefs and waiters. Business revenue has dropped by 90% but the restaurant has invested in keeping its brand alive – and resisted handing its direct link to consumers to a third-party delivery service (as well as a substantial chunk of its reduced income).

Back home, efforts by the likes of Leon have garnered a lot of media attention. The healthy fast-food chain, in partnership with Wasabi, Abokado and Franco Manco, is teaming up with food suppliers and distributors to deliver free hot meals to NHS staff. With celebrity endorsement, they’ve managed to raise in excess of £600,000 so far through public donations. It’s a brilliant way of a) being seen to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and b) keeping brand awareness alive and consumer loyalty high. Research and history show that actions like these pay dividends in the long term. (Google ‘brands we’re going to boycott’ to see how businesses that are deemed not to have the common good at heart might fare when all this is over.)

The good news, as reported recently by data consultancy Kantar, is that of all the activities that people want to pick up as soon as the lockdown is lifted, dining out is top of the list. Shopping, out-of-home entertainment and sport came second, third and fourth. So, what actions can restaurant and bar owners take now to make it easier to re-establish themselves down the line and take full advantage of the predicted spike in business?

Keep brand awareness alive

Government intervention, though by no means a panacea for all problems, has taken some of the pressure off. Where initial fears about survival may have eased, what can people do in the downtime to shore themselves up for the future?

Protecting customer relationships is vital. Deliveries and goodwill to critical-care workers alone won’t save a business, but they can keep the dialogue with consumers alive. It’s worth noting, however, that so many third-party delivery services are still taking a hefty commission (as much as 30%), and they can have the added effect of diminishing stand-out for individual outlets. If you’re ordering sushi to come to your door by bike, do you always note which restaurant made it?

If you can, protect your route to market without handing the keys to the empire to a third party (digital platforms, socials, delivery services, et al).

London’s Crosstown Collective has got the right idea. Made up of The Estate Dairy, Crosstown Doughnuts and Millers Bespoke Bakery, it delivers its goods across the capital.

It’s the brands that remain recognisable, and have known values and stories, that will engender loyalty and be first on people’s lists when all this ends.

Take note of new consumer behaviour

Ask people what they want. Focus less on what you’re used to doing and more on what people need now. Think of the things that would be nice if you were sitting on the sofa craving a pick-me-up. If ever there was a good time to branch out, this would be it.

When we do finally return to something resembling normality, consumer behaviour will have changed forever. So, look at what they’re doing and respond to it. Kantar’s report shows that more and more consumers are embracing digital tools, and will continue to use them in future.

So, what could a ‘welcome back’ package look like, for example, and is there an opportunity for restaurants here? Can booking processes be made more flexible and experiential (order your first round of drinks while you book online so it’s ready on arrival, or arrange surprise birthday extras digitally)? Customers are using digital platforms in greater numbers than ever before, why not harness that and improve hospitality experiences accordingly?

Get ready for your comeback

When the government finally says that it’s safe for everyone to come out and play, those brands that have looked after themselves and maintained strong, positive profiles stand to benefit.

We need to use this enforced hiatus to our advantage. For example, now’s the time for restaurateurs and local authorities to reassess rental arrangements, which are so often hiked when times are bad, but rarely reduced when fortunes take a dive.

If brands have been nurtured, staff treated with respect, and new consumer wants and needs acknowledged, businesses should be well-positioned to take advantage of an upturn. Those who ‘went dark’ or prioritised recouping funds, could end up being bumped off the guest list for what could be the biggest party of the decade.