Tops 10 tips for re-opening your venue this summer

Our expert editor, Jonathan Watt, gives his strategy for outlets when welcoming back customers

With pubs and bars expected to begin trading again in a matter of weeks, now is the moment to press ahead with plans for reopening, as well as what trading will look like against the continued backdrop of social distancing.

Safety will be the public’s foremost concern. Creating a safe environment out of home will help reinforce their confidence that your outlet is one in which they can relax and enjoy themselves without having to worry as much about coronavirus.

This begs the question; how can this be done in practice?

We’ve curated 10 top tips to help make the route to reopening and operating as straightforward as possible. Whether you are just starting to prepare for reopening or already some of the way there, there are tips for each part of the customer journey in your outlet from entrance to exit.

Top tips: a checklist for operators

Reinforcing your safety credentials

Safety is paramount to a successful reopening, particularly in the initial phases of the easing of lockdown.

But fear not, for there are a few basic steps you can take to secure consumer confidence. By following them, you will ensure that your customers return – and tell their family and friends too.

Making sure hand sanitiser is readily available for customers and staff from the moment they first walk into the outlet will help to make a huge difference.

One of the most fundamental pieces of advice offered by scientists and health professionals throughout this pandemic has been to wash your hands regularly. And with good reason too. Consistent hand-washing has been proven to significantly reduce Covid-19’s transmission rate.

This is something simple that operators could look to impress on all their staff ahead of reopening. Why not consider placing several signs or reminders around your venue to prompt staff to do so? Both customers and staff will undoubtedly understand and appreciate a renewed emphasis on hygiene.

The act of service

Another area deserving of operators’ attention is the way in which customers are served. Again, there is no need for any changes which are overly complex.

Taking care of customers comes naturally to most people in the hospitality industry. And with good service regularly rated by guests as the most important aspect in the sector, reassuring them from the moment they enter the venue by seating them promptly and explaining any new measures can help make them feel safe and looked after.

Ways to successfully minimise any threats presented by Coronavirus include offering individually-wrapped condiments and sauces before putting them on plates rather than tables; the same applies to cutlery too.

Drinks can be served to tables on trays with customers then removing their own drinks from it. If employees do have to carry individual drinks to guests, you could make it a policy for staff to only touch the base of the glass and then make customers aware of this preventative action.

Going forward together

Providing first-rate service in pubs and bars is a team game; never more so than during these unprecedented times for the hospitality sector.

With staff so critical to the success of new procedures, you could look to up your communication via regular team meetings, both in person and digitally, with your employees. This will ensure that they fully understand all the changes which have been made.

If everyone appreciates the why and how of new service methods, you’ll be ready to reopen with aplomb and be better set for success.

Shout about it

Having spent so long at home, it’s expected that initial demand for dining out will be high. New research from Mintel suggests that lockdown could intensify the consumer trend to prioritise experience over possessions, which is good news for the hospitality sector.

To take advantage of the opening uptick in demand, it’ll be important to get the word out on reopening to as many potential customers as possible.

A mixture of both high and low-tech solutions would be advisable here. Consider ordering banners and new outside signage for your venue to help advertise the fact you’ll be looking to welcome customers back soon. Standalone A-boards and chalkboards can work well too.

Operators should look to use their business’ social media as effectively as possible too. In addition to the primary reopening message, incorporating health and safety cues into any external notices and posts online can help bolster confidence in the fact that your outlet is a safe place to come and enjoy a few drinks or a meal.

That could take the form of signalling that hand sanitiser will be available throughout the outlet or that you have introduced new processes, such as total table service, to successfully deal with the big issue of the day.

A great example of this can be found in Edinburgh, at cocktail bar The Blackbird. Its operators have used Instagram stories to show the venue being cleaned and prepared for reopening to boost its cleanliness credentials. Again, this reassurance is so key to tempting customers back through the doors.

Getting your inside capacity right

Complying with a two-metre distance between separate groups will undoubtedly be a challenge for many operators.

While it is worthwhile noting that the UK Government has made a commitment to study whether the two-metre rule can be halved to one, as is the case in France, operators should be prepared to reduce their capacity if they are to reopen this summer.

Methods to help your venue comply with the distancing measures could include using individual dividers to create booth-style areas for customers and making sure there is at least two-metres between tables.

Other measures could include devising a simple one-way system for your outlet with a separate entrance and exit, if possible.

That’s been the blueprint for reopening demonstrated by Oakman Inns. Last month, the independent operator adapted the Betsy Wynne pub in Buckinghamshire to show how outlets could operate while adhering to government guidelines.

Maximising any and all outdoor space

With space in venues at a real premium at the moment, outlets with good-sized outdoor areas ought to make the most of the space.

It’s relatively simple to elevate the experience of a beer garden with minimal investment, whether it’s by freshening up its appearance with some new on-trend furniture, or simply adding some more aesthetically-pleasing plants.

The most prudent move, and one operators up and down the country will be keen to make, is weatherproofing beer gardens with new and existing equipment, such as parasols, pergolas and awnings, as well as tackling the wind with planters.

Keeping the space usable and appealing to customers even on days when the sun isn’t shining can enhance the guest experience and should also be reflected well in takings.

I recently spoke to Inverness-based operator, Grant Murray, who said: “Investing properly in any outdoor areas you have, to maximise covers while staying in line with social distancing requirements, could pay for itself very quickly in the early stages of the relaxation of lockdown rules.”

Bookings: planning for success

Managing bookings well will be huge for operators looking to make a success of the summer. Although the old method of pen and paper still keeps many GMs right, it’d be a sensible move to consider upgrading your system to an electronic one, even if your business is primarily wet-led.

As walk-in custom may become challenging to accommodate, booking a table, even if it is just for a group to enjoy a few beers or G&Ts, is expected to be far more prevalent on the consumer side to avoid disappointment.

But there are benefits here for licensees. A good electronic booking service can help staff manage customer numbers and work with reduced capacity to the best possible effect, this includes giving them the ability to know if they can seat walk-ins.

With convenience king, a key driver for food-led venues going forward will be smarter use of tech. And with research from Payment sense showing waiting too long to be served is customers’ biggest bugbear using an electronic booking service can help operators cut down on waiting times and fit in more guests.

Operators could also consider setting ‘out-by’ times on bookings, which will allow them to satisfy a greater number of customers while maximising consumer spend against dwell time.

Could menus be an issue?

A big issue but one where there are a couple of easy fixes, the ability to offer your customers a menu needn’t prove a headache.

As the consistent threat of Covid-19 remains, it’s clear that traditional menus won’t be able to be given to customers as they are seated, neither can they be left on tables.

However, switching to a printed A4 single-use disposable and limited menu placed on each table before arrival can help alleviate this particular worry. It could also pay to make this system clear at the bottom of the menu to reassure diners. Other solutions might be to make use of any in-venue chalkboards to write up available food and drink choices for customers.

A more comprehensive solution to this — and one which won’t be as hard to initiate as you may think — would be to work with a technology provider to put your menu on an ordering app.

It’s a move which has already worked well for several larger chains. And the reasoning for doing so is sound. It allows customers to order remotely from their tables whilst seeing all the options on their smartphones, freeing up busy floor staff’s time.

Simplifying choice without narrowing it

Offering limited menus has not hindered major fast food chains that have reopened for delivery and collection in recent weeks. And it shouldn’t hurt your outlet either.

There are reasonable trade-offs customers will be willing to make as they begin to eat and drink in the on-trade again, and for some time limited menus, which perhaps only contain five to ten main course options, will be one of them.

A suggested course of action could be to look at your five top-selling dishes and offering them alongside one or preferably two vegan options. Simplifying choice without narrowing it can help make it easier for customers to decide and for staff to upsell.

One city-centre operator told me he thought this would be “massive” for publicans over the summer months.

“This will be key going forward as it will help us control stock and staffing levels, options should be reduced, and I suspect the vast majority of customers will understand that,” he said. “When it comes to shortened drinks menus for guests, I’d be tempted to offer two per category and that would be my outlet’s bestseller alongside a more expensive premium option, the same applies for the most popular cocktails.”

Payment made easy

UK Finance predicts that in the coming decade contactless transactions will account for over one third of all out of home payments in the UK with cash making up only 16% of transactions by 2027.

This will undoubtedly be accelerated this year by Covid-19, the hygiene reasons do not need to be explained.

With contactless technology set to spike, operators can tap into this by constructing food and drink packages for sale at just under the new contactless limit of £45. Naturally, using contactless also negates the need for customers to handle card readers.

Operators utilising ordering apps will, of course, also be able to take payment for food and drink orders automatically at the moment customers finalise their order.

And with research from Barclaycard showing that some 65% of diners wouldn’t return to a venue if they had to wait too long to pay, a bespoke payment app could help retain a lot of custom.

It’s worth remembering though that a sizable minority of customers still prefer to use cash to pay for smaller purchases. With that in mind, it should be a priority to for staff who are handling money to wash their hands right away.

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