Social? Distancing? Imagining post-lockdown service in hospitality
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By Dan Bignold
Jul 2nd, 2020
What do post-lockdown customers expect? How do you balance fear with making money? Assessing customer expectation is crucial for hospitality operators planning Covid-19 re-openings.

Over recent weeks, we’ve been collecting operations advice from f&b operators who have already re-opened, or are on the verge of re-opening, so we can share the best bits with those planning their post-pandemic service protocols. In terms of health and safety practices, we’ve added some of these tips into our Covid-19 re-opening lessons already; others we’ve included below.

But beyond tangible hygiene advice – where to clean, how to reduce touch-points – the richest topic of conversation was the mindset of guests, and how this needs managing if you’re going to successfully re-build your business. Although our interviewees’ opinions might not be considered tips exactly, as wider thoughts, they can still help formulate your service protocols if you distill them down into some essential questions to ask yourself before re-opening.

Indra Kantono, owner of Jigger & Pony, Caffé Fernet and Gibson (among others) in Singapore, who was about to welcome back on-premise guests when we spoke, reckons the first challenge is getting staff to ask these questions too. “They’re like ‘Yay, we’re re-opening.’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, but it’s not going to be back to normal.’ I want teams to start thinking about all the changes that are going to happen.” Agreed. As we’ve always argued at Small Batch, it’s not good enough to understand how to do something; you also need to think about why – particularly important when it comes to implementing Covid-19 safety systems.

Of course, each market has government regulations that operators will be asked to follow. But much of that only covers details, such as contact tracing and distancing, and in blanket fashion across the industry. (In some countries, these won’t amount to much more than voluntary guidelines anyway, or “informally enforced” rules.) More impactful on revenue, and the viability of your business, will be your specific customers’ willingness to return, and under what conditions – and your ability to navigate their expectations.

"Cocktail bars are the bottom of the list of things people would think to spend money on. And I can't blame them”

Before re-opening at the end of March, Yao Lu, owner of Union Trading Company in Shanghai, reckons his regular customer base was split. “People were nervous coming back, yes – but there were others desperate for a drink,” he says. But more damaging than the virus itself is the economic shockwave. “Millions have lost their jobs, millions more have taken a pay cut. In times like these, cocktail bars are the bottom of the list of things people would think to spend money on. And I can't blame them.” His revenue is down 25% compared to last year.

To try softening that blow, many operators have changed menus and lowered prices. Eddy Yang, owner of Chameleon in Shanghai, says they’ve reduced their average check from around 78 USD per person to around 37 USD. “Customers have lost jobs, so we’re trying to work within their budgets. When we first opened, we also ran a happy hour with classic cocktails at 7 USD all day long, pouring house spirits and moving up from 25% cost to around 50%. We wanted to encourage people to come out, slowly help people to feel safe.”

Elsewhere bars are making other changes to tempt guests back: reducing table charges; taking away promotions aimed at larger groups; or simplifying drinks in order to reduce beverage cost. Changes such as these are not only tweaks to pricing strategy, however. They’re also micro-shifts to accommodate the over-arching sense that returning customers want something different – the much-discussed “new normal”.

Kantono, in fact, has a theory that the emotional need for most guests dining and drinking out has changed. “In most developed cities, we’ve focused on experience-based consumption. Consumers wanted to travel the world. Eat at authentic restaurants. Go to music festivals,” he says. “But in the next couple of years that will either be prohibited or prohibitively expensive. Even a little bit scary.”

“My thesis is spend will shift from experience to what I call the relationship economy – people investing in their personal relationships. I still think dining out will be important in this – it’s where people will celebrate, but just limited to small groups. So how will we need to change the layout of our venues? We’ve been focused on experience – open kitchens, allowing you to get close to the bartender, knowledge transfer – but what if guests don’t want to talk to a bartender? What if they’re thinking ‘I don’t know how many people that bartender’s been in close contact with'? What if they only trust the person they’ve come with?”

In this world, the guest will be coming into your venue and focusing on their own table, rather than embracing the whole room. Operators should therefore concentrate on making that element run simply and smoothly, rather than occupy themselves with the bells and whistles, or over-elaboration, of a concept. A return to the basics of good service, in other words.

But what of atmosphere? Or guests cutting loose? Terry Kim, owner of Alice Cheongdam and Get All Right in Seoul, says social distancing means what’s acceptable for guest behaviour inside a venue has shifted. “We understand the uncomfortable situation that coronavirus has put everyone in together. So unfortunately, now, if you get drunk inside our bars, make a mistake and don’t follow our rules, you are asked to leave.”

"What if guests don’t want to talk to a bartender? What if they’re thinking ‘I don’t know how many people they've been in close contact with’?" 

Antonio Lai in Hong Kong, owner of bars Quinary and The Envoy, as well as Michelin-starred restaurant VEA, agrees: “More reserved concepts” – a description he uses for his own venues – “might be a more appropriate posture in these sensitive times. I can see how more casual bars might be seen as flippant against the seriousness of the pandemic.”

But, he counters that there will always be customer type looking for the “old normal”. “My thoughts are that guests who go to a bar, whether in the middle of a global crisis or not, are looking for a little piece of escapism. They choose your bar specifically because your bar can take them where they want to go.”

Escapism, or reality check? Probably a little dose of both. Kantono argues that distancing is not a matter of preference. “I don’t you think you can be too subtle. Everyone has to observe the rules and it needs to be obvious.” His own solution is a movable stop sign that means a seat cannot be taken, since he figured everyone understands a traffic signal – “even people who are two drinks in”.

“Some people told me the signs are ugly, that they didn’t blend in, but I don’t think that’s the point. In this pandemic, it works the opposite way: the more you make it clear, the more comforted guests feel. If I go to a venue where no one is paying attention to the rules, I’d hesitate to stay there too long. Comfortable now is feeling safe.”

In short, gauging your own guest (and staff) preferences – governed by their own fear levels or personal risk tolerance – will determine the details of your safety protocols more than government regulation. And playbooks, lessons or blogposts such as this, offering general or specific tips, will only partially apply. In other words, don’t tie yourself in revenue-reducing knots trying to implement someone else’s solution.

Instead, how much is “new” about your own particular post-lockdown “normal” – how much you actually change – is going to depend on these factors:

  1. Your country: Both the severity of the pandemic there, and the public’s reaction to it, will dictate whether guests want the old normal back or something completely different. This may have as much to do with cultural factors as it does infection statistics.
  2. Your venue type: Does your existing service style already accommodate specific government rules or general expectations, or completely contradict them? For example, fine-dining restaurants and sit-down cocktail bars already distance guests pretty well.
  3. Your guest type: Young people generally have a greater risk tolerance than older, more vulnerable patrons, for example (but age is only one, generalised factor here). If you’re a large venue, you might even think about separate spaces with different safety levels, if it helps maximize revenue overall and keep all patrons happy.

There’s another contributing factor – the owner, or management. F&b businesses (and usually the best ones) have always been an expression of someone’s personality, their vision of hospitality, and – now – their definition of “safe”. Combined with the above three, it means globally we’ll see some venues that are strict, some less so. Customers, as ever, will vote with their feet. And just like splits in opinion on the virus and government responses to it, those votes will be different.

A few final words on how to welcome back and talk to guests about the global pandemic, whether they’re the nervous type or not: “Always allow the guests to vent,” says Lu. “I feel like if we can provide that safe space for people to talk about their frustrations, we are doing our jobs and the least we can do as hospitality professionals.”

“As for what bartenders should say, that's quite simple,” reckons Lai. “Say what you would to a friend. In this case a friend you haven't seen for a long time. That has been the cornerstone of hospitality, and nothing – flood, fire, or plague – will change that.”

12 more tips for running operations after re-opening

  1. Indra Kantono: “For social media, our communication has been about showing people what we are doing to make our venues safe. It’s not about pretending there isn’t a problem.”
  2. Terry Kim: “Before staff training was about drinks knowledge or service methods. Now it includes working together to become healthy and increase employee immunity.”
  3. Indra Kantono: “It’s a good idea to look at common areas, so work with the owners of your property. You need to talk to other stakeholders and find out how often they are sanitizing communal areas. Guests won’t return if your bar is sanitary, but then the bathroom in the shared lobby isn’t.”
  4. Agung Prabowo, The Old Man, Hong Kong: “We’re providing a paper envelope to store each guest’s face mask safely while they’re in our venue.”
  5. Indra Kantono: “If guests don’t want to share their particulars for contact tracing, in this case we put our foot down and just say that perhaps they should dine somewhere else.”
  6. Eddy Yang: “Tables, table legs, door handles and backs of chairs need regular cleaning, but also the glass screens in our spirits display cases. It’s not just anywhere that hands touch; also surfaces that faces get close to.”
  7. Mahipal Singh, Dear Donna, New Delhi: “To reduce touch-points, introduce more large-format drinks like punch or bottled cocktails if guests are planning to consume more.”
  8. Terry Kim: “Limit guests waiting outside to one group. We tell other waiting guests that we’ll contact them by phone when we have a seat.”
  9. Antonio Lai: “We've adopted a practice from our restaurant VEA across all our other venues – clearing rubbish from the tables with dedicated tongs.”
  10. Indra Kantono: “For iced water, get rid of shared bottles. Instead we’ve bought the long-spouted coffee jars used for pour-overs, and will use those for pouring iced water at the table. It allows you to reach further without touching the glass.”
  11. Antonio Lai: “Pandemic hygiene standards are just a refresher course in the basics of barmanship. For example, never handle glasses by the rim and minimize contact points with the glass.”
  12. Paul Mathew, Drink London, London: “We’ll be placing branded QR codes on the tables; scan these and they’ll take you to our electronic drinks list. The next step will be ordering and paying electronically.”

For even more details and tips on how to re-open safely post-lockdown, check out the “Covid-19 Re-opening” course in the Small Batch Learning training library.