Drinking out after COVID-19: Ten views from the leaders

COVID-19 has transformed many of consumers’ drinking out habits. But which changes will be permanent, and what’s coming next?

CGA’s ‘Rebuilding Brands in the On Premise’ webinar, chaired by founder & executive director of Peach 20/20 Peter Martin, got the views of two leaders from the sector: Inception Group co-founder and CEO Charlie Gilkes and Justin Carter, managing director of Lounge Cafe bars. These are some of their top insights for drinks suppliers and fellow operators.


1 Digital ordering is here to stay…

Safety concerns have triggered a big uptake of app-based ordering, and Carter said it’s here to stay for Loungers. “The biggest lasting change for us has been the introduction of an ordering app—it’s really worked for us and it’s going to have an ongoing effect on the way we sell drinks.” Among other benefits, apps like Loungers’ cut queues at the bar and encourage higher spend, he said.


2 … But staff recommendations still count

App-based ordering doesn’t suit all venues, especially ones where contact with bartenders is a big part of the experience. “Our consumers want that interaction with staff,” Gilkes said, adding that teams play a crucial role in educating about drinks and upselling. Loungers will also make sure that apps don’t dominate, Carter added. “We’re paranoid about technology taking the personality out of the business—the interaction between staff and customers is still the essence of what we do.”


3 Returning drinkers want cocktails

Both Inception and Loungers have seen surges in cocktail sales after the end of lockdowns—partly because consumers have found it hard to recreate them at home. Digital ordering has also made them more accessible, Carter suggested. “People can sit at their table and tap in an order which would have taken time to prepare at the bar… it’ll be interesting to see if it [the increase in cocktail sales] sticks now.”


4 Reduced range

Reopening has prompted operators like Inception to reduce range, focusing on quality and speed of service ahead of quantity. Trimming menus also reduces costs and—perhaps counterintuitively—increases appeal. “It’s been a really positive step for us. Sometimes with a huge menu you have a paralysis of choice, and people get overwhelmed,” said Gilkes. For drinks suppliers though, range reduction means it’s harder to get brands stocked, and makes it even more important that they stand out.


5 The experience counts

At venues like Inception’s, experiential aspects like the theatre of serve are as important as the quality of drinks—even more so now that people have got so accustomed to drinking at home. “People are buying into the whole experience,” Gilkes said. “We need to offer so much to get them to leave that comfortable sofa… to double down on experience and atmosphere.”


6 Healthy drinking on the rise

COVID-19 has prompted many consumers to look for healthier choices when drinking out, and fuelled interest in no and low alcohol drinks. “It’s no longer good enough just to have an orange juice [for people not drinking alcohol]… you’ve got to have a range of cocktails and make people able to order something without feeling like a party pooper,” Gilkes said. Low-ABV aperitivos, hard seltzers and purer spirits like tequila are other drinks tapping into the health trend, he said.


7 The right brand mix is crucial

Loungers “sits on the shoulder of trends,” Carter said—which means it’s important to track what’s popular and respond with suitable brands. “It’s about getting the right mix—of brands that people feel comfortable with, but also ones that are new and show people we’re keeping the offer fresh.”


8 Activation needs collaboration

Social media and influencers are increasingly important branding platforms for drinks brands and venues like Inception’s, and Gilkes said collaboration with suppliers was vital to promotions. “Activation is key—you can have a product on the back bar, but you need to find ways to get people to order it.”


9 A multi-channel approach is here to stay

Lockdowns prompted many operators to pivot to selling drinks for at-home consumption—in Inception’s case, via cocktail kits. Demand isn’t going away, said Gilkes. “One of the biggest lessons [of COVID-19] is that it’s good to have a multi-channel approach where possible.”


10 There’s plenty of room to grow

Carter joined the webinar from St Ives, where Loungers has just opened its 140th site. For operators like this—and the drinks brands that supply them—the future is bright, despite the challenges of the last 15 months “It’s good to be back on the openings trail and we’re very excited about the coming months—the pipeline’s looking stronger than ever.”


The ‘Rebuilding Brands in the On Premise’ webinar highlighted CGA’s new BrandBuilder service. BrandBuilder evaluates drinks brands’ health in the On Premise, and can help businesses attract new consumers, increase frequency of purchase, build brand loyalty and grow market share. It combines CGA’s market-leading consumer research with sales and distribution data to provide detailed analysis of brands’ strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. To learn more, contact Rachel Weller at rachel.weller@cgastrategy.com.


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