The ‘new normal’ for hospitality

On Monday 11 May the government launched its road map to recovery, backed up by the Chancellor’s announcement on Tuesday 12 May regarding the extension of furlough until October, with a number of limitations / conditions attached.

Both for many are hugely welcome, especially as more than two million hospitality jobs are furloughed, and the supply chain is threatened with significant damage – all against the backdrop of an economy on its knees and recent admissions by the chancellor that we are likely to witness a recession the likes of which has never been seen before.

Certainly, the powers that be are steering us towards a cautious return to normality, but in reality, there is still much to consider, especially across every facet of the hospitality sector.

This is a sector tightly bound to people, it’s those personal experiences that make the industry what it is and why so many of us love it. But we will all have to forgo those deeply personal interactions if we are to reopen, especially in light of the fact that Covid-19 is still silently lurking waiting for us to drop our guard.  

The government’s recovery plan acknowledges that life will be different, at least for the foreseeable future. It declares safety is paramount, that it will somehow juggle this whilst attempting to protect livelihoods and slowly return to some sort of normal.

The plan talks about optimising social distancing measures and doing as much as possible to suppress the epidemic spread, while minimising the economic and social effects. That will require a widespread system of testing, of tracing and monitoring and a significant re-designing of all workplaces and public spaces to make them “Covid-19 Secure” none more so than in the hospitality industry.

The government has announced that current social distancing measures and controls will remain in place, but will be gradually replaced by smarter controls, further backed up by existing good hygiene practices such as hand washing, social distancing, and regular disinfecting of surfaces.

There is no doubt that due to the sheer diversity of the hospitality sector that there is no one-size-fits-all model for reopening. There are hugely varied business models across the many sub-sectors of the industry, which as a result means there are considerable practical challenges that need to be overcome.

Whilst the push to reopen for the 4 July is encouraging, we need flesh on the bones. A number of core considerations need to be taken into account, and above all else the health and wellbeing of our customers and staff is paramount.

Basic health and safety protocols must be set in stone to ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, there can be no half measures in this, guidance must be clear, precise, and detailed and sub-sector specific.

We can’t have a wishy-washy approach at any level, after all this is potentially about people’s lives. It is essential that reopening is done in the right way, at the right time and with the right protocols in place so that our industry can help play its part as we gradually begin to return to some form of normality in the coming months.

That said, unhelpful comments made by government advisors at press briefings, like those by the Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam earlier this month certainly don’t do hotel or guest house owners any favours…‘’it is a biological truism that being outdoors is safer than being in an enclosed space with people potentially carrying the virus.’’

Many are already faced with a lack of cash, they owe suppliers, they have rent, mortgages, loans and wages to pay (they have to find the cash to pay furloughed staff a huge ask for many with no income or reserves before they can claim it back through the government scheme) and on top of that there are many who either do not qualify for government grants or are facing practical difficulties in accessing business interruption loans, with according to a recent British Chambers of Commerce survey only 1% of applicants successfully accessing these funds. 

Alongside this there must be a guarantee of continued financial support, many of us have continued costs, which we have to meet and with no income, as a result the situation is looking increasingly bleak. Up to a third of all businesses in the sector believe that they may never reopen some or all of their sites. There’s no question that it’s essential that the furlough scheme is extended until at least spring 2021.

As an industry we are due to reopen on 4 July, but despite this we will only have in effect two months left of the season in which to trade before we see the winter downturn return. On top of that even when we start to trade, we will be serving fewer in-house guests, and there certainly won’t be any walk-in customers due to necessary social distancing measures.

There’s little or no point in opening the doors with 30% or 40% occupancy, and even if we did many of us without continued support will either be forced to shut our doors or at the very least be forced to make the difficult decision to make staff redundant. Understandably the mood amongst those in the industry is one of despondency, anger, and pure frustration, especially as many have dedicated their lives to building up their businesses and are now seeing those businesses simply collapse.

This is a question of special importance to areas like Cumbria with their largely rural communities. 65,000 people in Cumbria rely on tourism for their livelihood, as you might imagine there are limited alternative job opportunities and so much of the local infrastructure and secondary employment relies on a vibrant visitor economy.

It’s been a significant struggle to encourage people to see hospitality as a career within the UK employment market, there are significant shortages of qualified and experienced staff. Faced with the current crisis many businesses are rightly concerned that this crisis will become further exacerbated and that staff will simply walk away from an industry, which seemingly doesn’t merit the attention of government, a sector that has all too often been regarded as inferior and is certainly surplus to requirements in the current climate may well not recover from this apparent indifference.

It’s now time that the government treated the industry with the respect shown by our international neighbours, this is a long-term career, with a valuable role to play. We are a major part of the UK economy accounting for 5% of Gross Domestic Product, adding around £130 billion to the pot, employing 3.2 million people, generating £39 billion in tax revenue for the UK government.

Surely, it’s time the government stepped up to the plate and gave us some breathing space? After all ours is going to be a long road to recovery, inevitably because of the need to retain elements of social distancing within our businesses to prevent a second outbreak and because travel restrictions will be imposed for quite a while too both in terms of domestic markets and in terms of international inbound visitors, who will not be visiting the UK in the same numbers for some considerable time to come.

Without some real long term support, the hospitality industry is going to fare very badly, with many of its businesses suffering adversely, with the potential for significant job losses and ultimately the decimation of many of our rural communities who rely on valuable tourism income.

Hospitality venues are the glue that binds many of our communities together, we serve to benefit them all and our investment in our businesses underpins wider regeneration and local infrastructure projects as well as attracting inward investment.

There is no fall-back position for our rural communities, we have to get this right first time round. We either fully support every facet of the sector or we see large swaths of rural England become nothing more than soulless communities with no local infrastructure because there is no working population to support the things that make a community like shops, pubs, schools, banks and so on.

We must get this right or we risk seeing the heart ripped out of our industry… this must be at the right time, with the right support and for the good of our communities…

By Jamie Shail, a Lake District hotelier and restaurateur 

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