Whilst the delay to “Freedom Day” dealt another blow to leisure and hospitality, forward-thinking brands are taking matters into their own hands to shape a much-loved industry. Entrepreneurs and leaders in the sector look ahead and share their predictions…
Last weekend, British sparkling winemaker Harrow & Hope held its first large-scale event in 18 months in Marlow – a day of free tasting for every customer, as a thank you. “We got into winemaking for a peaceful life,” laughs Henry Laithwaite, co-founder of Harrow & Hope. “Now we have 50 tours to do this summer.” The timed slots may be a “logistical nightmare”, but he’s not really complaining. Henry is characteristically upbeat, a trait honed from years of relying on perfectly balanced weather (on British soil…) for your livelihood.
Having been forced to run reduced-capacity wine tours, Henry made them a permanent fixture (everyone prefers the intimacy of smaller numbers), but tripled the volume – events are sold out for the foreseeable future. He credits the effort the team put into building mailing lists of high-quality customers, who get first dibs – and best prices – on pre-releases, the brand’s biggest driver at the moment. The challenge for the next six months is how to satisfy pent-up demand; Henry reconfigured the winery – a “heavy investment” – to create a terrace. Next year, the focus will turn to stock. “We can’t spread ourselves too thinly,” Henry explains.
Virtual vs IRL
For Third Space, such was the success of its digital service and app functionality during the lockdowns – and its offer of subsided kit to support at-home work-outs – that digital fitness is now entirely built into the London health club’s luxury proposition. “We’ve had requests from ex-members who have left London to purchase digital memberships, along with some large corporates, so this is an obvious next step for us,” says chief marketing officer, Lauren Wilson.
Usage per member at Third Space’s residential clubs (Islington, Tower Bridge and Marylebone) is now higher than pre-pandemic, prompting the business to add such locations to its expansion plans. “From a sales perspective our April and May new joiners are more like a strong January and February, and whilst we have a road to travel to get back up to pre-pandemic membership levels, interest in the brand – traffic to website, enquiry forms – and referrals are all very strong,” Lauren adds. “Since we reopened, we’ve noticed the age of new members has dropped to 30, from the average of 36 – younger people are tired of working out in their bedrooms, in flats they share with friends, and are keen to get out and enjoy life again.”
At Wahaca and DF Tacos, co-owner Mark Selby believes that the role of technology will evolve from a necessity (a lifeline during lockdowns) to an enhancement of the customer experience, without “changing the vibe of the restaurants we all love.” The key is choice: “virtual” waiters and scannable menus for customers who know the restaurants inside out, complemented by real waiters and tactile menus for those who want a more engaged experience. “And I think we’re several years away from robotic chefs…” Mark adds.
Fortune favours the brave (brand)
As the first UK restaurant group to be certified as carbon neutral, Wahaca’s next goal is to achieve net zero emissions. “It will come at a huge cost, but it’s for the long term, and businesses who focus on sustainability will shine through,” says Mark. “During the pandemic, everyone became more aware of, more engaged with, the environment, and it accelerated people’s thoughts on what they can do about it. Being a strong brand enables you to try things – to get feedback and then tweak. It allows you to be bold, nimble and drive agendas – like net zero.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Spencer Craig, founder and CEO of London food-to-go shops Pure, who decided against pivoting the business model during lockdown. Having a strong business to begin with affords you the opportunity to ride out storms like Covid 19. “We built a brand for people on the move – we’re fast, we’re delicious,” says Spencer. “So we spent the time making the business as brilliant as it could possibly be for when things opened again.”
This took the form of menu innovation (more vegetarian and vegan options), staff wellbeing (regular communication, personal support, online social events and team awards) and Pure +more (a membership service launched in March). “We’re forecasting that people will be going into the office three to four days a week – that’s 70%-80% of where we were before the pandemic,” Spencer says, thereby adding that the focus will be on increasing frequency of customer visits, digital services and office delivery.
Eat out to help out – and pay for it
But chef owner Chantelle Nicholson warns that there are “a few more bullets to be dodged”, notably staff retention and the rising cost of food – and the realisation from consumers of the role they play in ensuring the success of great restaurants. “Consumers need to be willing to pay the true cost, and that won’t happen overnight,” she says, echoing a piece by restaurant critic Jay Rayner in this month’s Observer Food Monthly, who said: “If we want a broad range of restaurants, we’ll have to cough up. It’s as simple as that.”
Except it isn’t, in practice. Still, there’s a school of thought that says out of difficult times come moments of genius. “I think we’ve fallen back in love with what’s on our doorstep – we’re valuing community more. And we’ve been given an opportunity for a reset, to become more conscious of what we’re about, rather than be something for everyone,” Chantelle adds. “That leads to more diversity in the sector.”
The common thread running through these predictions is that of behavioural change, from both consumers and businesses, brought about – initially – by force and now by choice. Some people are craving human interaction; others want to retain the innovation of the digital world we all lived through during lockdown. Whichever camp your customer falls into – and it’s likely to be both – brands must consider how much their business models need to adapt to these changing behaviours and to recognise the changes as opportunities. Sure, the brands we spoke to have listened – and will continue to listen – to their customers, but they recognise their roles as leaders in shaping a new landscape. You won’t find any of them waiting around for things to go back to the old days…