In a recent virtual panel discussion hosted by Tribal Worldwide London, three hospitality and digital experts gave their thoughts on the evolution of the industry during the coronavirus crisis, what businesses should be doing to adapt, and what might come next for hospitality.

The impact of the coronavirus crisis on the hospitality and entertainment industries has been nothing short of dire, with hotels, restaurants, bars and events venues forced to close their doors to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

As lockdown measures ease across the UK, those businesses that made it through the lockdown are now faced with the challenge of re-opening safely – which means regaining consumer trust and complying with government guidance around tracking and tracing infected visitors. Already, a number of pubs and restaurants have made headlines by becoming the flashpoint for another outbreak.

It’s not an easy time to be in the hospitality business – but there is consumer appetite for experiences and entertainment, and technology solutions are being innovated that will help hospitality businesses to smoothly navigate the Covid-19 era.

In a recent webinar, ‘Stronger Than Before: What’s Next for the Hospitality Industry?’, organised and hosted by Tribal Worldwide London, three panellists gave their perspectives on the future of the hospitality industry: Michael Codd, Digital Marketing and Innovation Lead Europe at AB-InBev, Simone Ippolito, Founder and CEO of Capp Assist Ltd., and Victoria Buchanan, Executive Creative Director at Tribal Worldwide London.

They spoke about some of the solutions that helped keep pubs, restaurants and other venues afloat during the lockdown and those that are helping them emerge from it; the ways that hospitality businesses have pivoted and reinvented their offerings; and their predictions for where the industry i going next.

The critical role of technology

All of the panellists agreed that the use of technology has been the deciding factor in which businesses made it through the lockdown, as well as how successfully they survived it.

As Tribal Worldwide’s Victoria Buchanan put it, “If you’re agile, and can jump on the technology, technology can save so many businesses.” She pointed out that the businesses with an ecommerce offering survived the best during the lockdown, while many quickly partnered with firms like Deliveroo and were able to shore themselves up that way. However, some simply didn’t have the funds to invest in a technology solution or partner, and these businesses sadly have a reduced chance of surviving the Covid-19 era.

But bars, pubs and restaurants weren’t on their own during the coronavirus crisis, and drinks companies like AB InBev were keen to help their trade partners stay afloat during the lockdown. Michael Codd spoke about AB InBev’s “Save the Pubs” campaign, a multi-pronged initiative across various countries that helped secure spending and donations for pubs and bars during the lockdown.

He explained that the idea originated in Belgium, where AB InBev were developing a sports app with added payment integration; when the lockdown began and it was clear that pubs and bars would have to close, they were able to redevelop it in just three days to create “Café Courage”, an online platform for customers to pre-order and pay for their favourite beer at participating bars. They could also make donations to their favourite venues through the website, and for every order placed, AB InBev matched its value with donations of free goods, up to the equivalent of 3.6 million pints of beer.

In the UK, AB InBev set up a Shopify instance that pubs and bars could use to create an account and receive donations from customers. Similarly, AB InBev matched all donations made through that platform, which passed the £1 million mark a few weeks ago.

“There was no media spend behind this campaign at all,” emphasised Codd; the “Save the Pubs” campaign was purely organic and PR-driven, and benefited from a lot of exposure and sharing on social media to spread the word. He added that it helped that consumers could see it wasn’t a marketing exercise, because AB InBev didn’t put any of their beer brands on the campaign. “When you show as a brand and as a company that you’re being unselfish, that helps with consumer trust.”

Simone Ippolito is the co-founder of Capp Assist, a free app created for the hospitality sector that allows businesses to register, track and trace customers and manage their capacity in real-time. He pointed out that although many restaurants, pubs and bars are now developing their own apps for booking and payment, from a customer experience perspective this isn’t sustainable – can you really expect customers to download a separate app for every venue they visit?

It could be argued that customers may be more willing to download an individual app for a pub or restaurant they’re a regular patron of – and that this might even drive repeat visits if it reduces friction for future visits, incentivising the customer to come back instead of going elsewhere. However, there is also a strong case for having an ‘all-in-one’ solution like Capp Assist.

Ippolito explained that customers can download the app ahead of time and check capacity without going out to visit the venue – which both helps them to plan their visit and smooths the experience when they arrive, preventing them from needing to spend time downloading the app upon arrival.

He noted, however, that businesses have been slow to adopt Capp Assist and solutions like it. In response to a question from an audience member about how Capp Assist is tackling this problem, Ippolito said that while Capp Assist is promoting its solution (and has been approached by some marketing and PR agencies who want to help spread the word), venues need to do their part by reaching out to customers and explaining how the app can improve their experience. “It needs to be a collective effort to make this work,” he said.

The panellists agreed that the types of solutions that are being developed now are not just a stop-gap measure, but represent a new way of doing business for the hospitality industry. “It’s not a temporary situation – this is changing the whole structure and the way that hospitality runs as a sector. It’s really important to stop and think about these experiences and make sure they’re designed properly,” said Buchanan.

Ippolito agreed: “The world we knew before isn’t going to be the same moving forward, so we need to be working together to avoid a situation like this happening again.”

Reinventing business offerings

Panel host Jamie Willey, Business Development Director at Tribal Worldwide London, asked the panellists for examples of hospitality businesses they had seen reinventing their offering or pivoting to new business ideas during the coronavirus crisis. He gave the example of a hotel brand that had transformed its unused car park into an outdoor entertainment space, complete with a DJ and bars.

“Otherwise, that would have been an empty hotel struggling to make revenue,” he said.

Victoria Buchanan recalled an East London brewery that would send a lorry to people’s houses during the lockdown and spend 20 minutes at each address, allowing them to buy beer for as long as the vehicle was at their house.

Even for those brands who aren’t completely reinventing the way they conduct business, the coronavirus crisis has provided some unexpected opportunities to improve or change up their offerings. Ippolito said that Capp Assist has been approached by events venues to include ID verification software within their app; this will be part of ‘Phase Two’ of the app, and will mean that when customers buy tickets through the app, they can verify their ID at the same time – saving them from having to carry it with them on the day.

Things will be particularly slow to return to normal for the events business in particular, with events limited in the number of people they can host together in one space. However, Willey pointed out that some events organisers are running “blended” online and offline events, and although organisers can’t drive sales of things like drinks through the online event, they can still promote awareness of their brand, which may well lead to repeat bookings and in-person sales further down the line.

Buchanan noted that the hospitality industry is now seeing a surge of customer data that it hasn’t previously had thanks to the ubiquity of online bookings. She asked Ippolito whether Capp Assist had identified any business opportunities in the data that it had been collecting from customers registering with the app.

Ippolito was quick to stress that Capp Assist isn’t looking to monetise the data that it is collecting, and only shares the customer data it collects for track and trace purposes with the NHS; it is also fully GDPR compliant. However, the numbers of people logging their details individually can give pub, restaurant and bar owners more of an insight into trends, such as when people come into their venue and in what numbers.

“The struggle is that people don’t want to be tracked 24/7,” he said, talking about the fine line Capp Assist has needed to walk in convincing customers to share their details. “We’ve made it very clear that we’re not here to track you.”

What’s next for hospitality?

Finally, host Jamie Willey asked each panellist for their predictions on what comes next for the industry and how things will develop in the future.

“I don’t think trade will be the same again,” said Michael Codd. “Businesses need to be adaptable – the rate of digitalisation has accelerated massively, and whatever information you can access physically, you now need to be able to access online. Even the most traditional businesses will need to adopt things like digital menus and online booking.”

“There’s a need to solve these problems for our local communities,” Victoria Buchanan agreed, adding that the hospitality industry is currently “reinventing experiences”. “We’re having to make massive transformation steps here. People are having to think fast and be innovative.”

She talked about the changes that fine dining is currently undergoing, with restaurants paring down their offerings to the most high-quality drinks and taster menus – people are going out less, but when they do they spend more money, which results in a higher level of revenue for restaurants overall.

Simone Ippolito agreed with this observation, adding that businesses “need to be smart and see how the world is changing.”

However, Buchanan noted that it isn’t always necessary for hospitality businesses to completely overhaul their offering or reinvent their way of operating; there are opportunities present in the product offerings and services that they already have. For example, bars can create content that shows their customers how to make their own drinks at home.

“You don’t need to invest in huge transformation to start communicating with your clients,” she said. “You can make the stuff that you’ve got out there work a lot harder.”