The prime minister is safely back in Downing Street, and there are more signs of life in the out-of-home market as the likes of Burger King, Pret a Manger and KFC take tentative steps to reopen sites.
But for much of the hospitality and leisure sector, the outlook remains uncertain and confusing. Last week’s pronouncement by chief medical officer Chris Whitty that “disruptive” social distancing is likely to be a feature of day-to-day life even until the end of the year, did nothing to calm the nerves of an already under pressure industry.
There is still plenty of focus on getting through the here-and-now – and it was good to hear Brasserie Barco’s boss Mark Derry up early on a Monday to take his insurer to task on Radio 4. But more operators across the hospitality and leisure world have also been daring to look to what life might look like post lockdown.
Whitty’s stark warning, delivered without any context or words of reassurance from Government ministers, left many to think that reopening the country’s pubs, bars and restaurants in any meaningful way any time soon was not going to be worth it – and that feeling persists.
Hospitality has been as successful as any sector in putting its case for support to Government – and getting results. Furloughing has been a lifeline, especially now that cash has started to flow, and although there are still battles to be fought around rents, loans and grants, the sector has the advantage of a daily line of communication into Whitehall through its UKHospitality trade body.
It’s not just Chris Whitty, but the apparent lack of movement towards lifting restrictions is unsettling and frustrating and operators are becoming restless, if not a little tetchy. So that route into Government is going to become even more important – as are the messages going to and fro.
Transparency and crisp communication skills are going to be key – even if the Government at times appears to lack both. Not only will the sector continue to need clarity in its objectives with ministers, but the reporting back not just to UKHospitality members but the wider leisure market needs to be just as clear and comprehensive. Everyone needs to be engaged.
And this is not just the responsibility of the UKHospitality team, but individual operators too. We need to talk – and keep on talking.
Rent is perhaps the big issue of the moment and Hospitality Union’s Jonathan Downey’s #NationalTimeOut, calling for a nine-month rent-free period, is gaining wide support and profile. It is not the only solution, and it is clear operators are working to negotiate their own arrangements with individual landlords.
But it would be mad to lose the momentum it has won, even if it is not everyone’s favoured route. The backing that Downey has attracted from high profile individuals like Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi, Angela Hartnett and Tommi Miers shouldn’t be sniffed at either. It should be encouraged, as it keeps the sector firmly in the public eye.
But there is also a lot of work being done behind the scenes too, especially by many of the bigger industry players. Extending the furloughing scheme, rent, loans and grants remain top of the lobbying agenda – but also important is the detailed work being done to map out for the Government the consequences of an extended lockdown and the protocols needed for reopening. Expertise from across the sector is being funnelled into specific working parties for each part of the market.
It has become fashionable to question the lack of big company leaders putting themselves up for media interviews – often by those not understanding what they are doing elsewhere, especially in top-level lobbying and planning.
The questions people should be asking are what are the key sector objectives, and how best to achieve them? To be successful in this political game, there needs to be a plan, but more importantly, it needs to be shared widely and bought into. There will be differences of opinion, and they need to be aired – but best done in private conversations. To quote the words of Oklahoma the musical: “Territory folk should stick together…”
What we cannot afford are misunderstandings and misconceptions, so it again comes back to being good communicators. There is a lot of talent and innovative thinking in the market. Let’s harness it and trust that Boris comes back in listening mode.