How venues, attractions and destinations are adapting to survive.

Few sectors have been as badly affected by Covid as leisure and hospitality. Not only is it one of those whose very existence centres on the physical presence of customers, but many of the health measures designed to combat the pandemic are at odds with the traditional experience offered by venues. How can crowded, hands-on attractions cope now that the opposite is required from visitors? How can small food and drink operators survive trading at half their usual capacity? What happens when a town plans a whole year of activity and is then hit with a lockdown order?

We sought a number of different viewpoints to find out how the sector has adapted to the events of this year, and what the future holds. Big thanks to our contributors: 

  • Carol Hopkins, Rochdale Development Agency
  • Fiona King, Manchester Gin
  • Stella Greathead, Flight Club Darts
  • Jamie Scahill, Manchester Union Brewery/Twenty Twenty Two/Funkademia

First up, how challenging has it been for an independent operation like the Manchester Union Brewery taproom to not only make it through lockdown but subsequently put in place the measures and infrastructure needed to get back up and running safely? “It has been fairly challenging, but we did hold back for four weeks to see how the pubs and restaurants dealt with reopening before deciding what we needed to do,” shares co-founder and director, Jamie Scahill. “The biggest challenge for us is the capacity, as we only have a small taproom to begin with and now we’re limited to 10 tables, so it reduces our potential income by 50%. Putting in place Track and Trace and all of the other requirements was fairly simple and business has been great since we reopened. Our key adaptation has been adding cans as a product. Before lockdown, we only sold to bars via keg, but all of that stopped overnight. We ran a very successful pay-it-forward crowdfunding campaign which allowed us to can our lager, so now, as a business, we’re in a much stronger position.” We’ll hear more from Jamie later when we look at the challenges facing the night time economy. 

Jamie Scahill

“Now we’re limited to 10 tables, it reduces our potential income by 50%.”

Jamie Scahill
Co-founder, Manchester Union Brewery

While the scale of the challenges might differ between operators, the nature is broadly consistent: venues have spent the year working out how to bring in the same measures, namely social distancing, Track and Trace, sanitiser stations and, for those with a food offering, reduced menus necessitated by having smaller teams in the kitchen. “There’s no denying that this has been a challenging period for our industry,” says Stella Greathead, business development manager for game-changing darts-and-drinks brand Flight Club Darts, which has venues across the UK. “The aim is to be as clear and safe as possible, which our customers appreciate and understand. We have signposting in-venue, as well as part of the booking process, so everyone knows what to expect. As the rules change we’ll adapt with them, and we ask customers to help us to keep each other safe. We’ve got a lot of missed moments to make up for, but safety comes first.”

Stella Greathead

“”The aim is to be as clear and safe as possible… We’ve got a lot of missed moments to make up for, but safety comes first.””

Stella Greathead
Business Development Manager, Flight Club Darts

“We’ve made a lot of changes to the way we operate in order to make the bar and restaurant Covid-secure,” says Fiona King, marketing manager at independent brand Manchester Gin, which has the Three Little Words restaurant, as well as an on-site distillery, as part of its offering. “They’re quite subtle from a customer’s point of view, which was really important to us. We want to ensure that guests and our staff are safe and comfortable, but we also don’t want to forget what hospitality is about.

“On the whole, guests have responded really positively and we’ve received good feedback from them about the measures we’ve put in place. I think for the most part, people are pleased to see us taking things seriously but maintaining atmosphere, service and standards high – we’ve tried our best to ensure that these changes don’t diminish the customer experience that we’re known for.”

All of the required tweaks, workarounds and innovations have been tricky enough for operators to manage on a venue-wide level, but what about when a response is required across a whole borough filled with visitor attractions, bars, restaurants and other leisure destinations? 

Nurture and support the key for visitor hotspots  

For Rochdale, the pandemic could barely have come at a worse time. When we worked with the town’s development agency two years ago to help them articulate and communicate their vision for the borough, 2020 was always on the horizon. Why? The year was set to signal the start of another big new chapter for the town, with the opening of a brand new shopping centre, flagship retail arrivals and relocations from stores including Marks and Spencer and H&M, a return of cinema entertainment and leisure attractions to the town centre – not to mention the arrival of Dippy the Diplodocus, who is in the middle of UK tour, the Rochdale leg of which began on 10 February.

And then: Covid.

Thankfully, when we caught up with the Rochdale Development Agency’s Carol Hopkins, the story of the year so far is more positive than we feared it might be. First things first: how’s Dippy? “His stay has been extended to December, which is great,” says Carol. “That will obviously help to bring people back in from a visitor experience point of view. The attraction was going great guns and is picking up again now. February half term we saw more than 7,000 people through the door, in one day alone.” While levels are yet – and remain unlikely – to get back to that extent, for obvious reasons, Carol notes that the response from the town’s leadership and its people have been central in their efforts to stimulate recovery. “The public seems quite keen to get back out and about. It certainly helps that Riverside [Rochdale’s new multimillion pound retail and leisure development] has been able to open. It’s great, with tenants like H&M and M&S moving there, parking right next to the stores… there’s a cinema, indoor golf. It really is lovely.” So, while one might have thought the arrival of a whacking great new leisure complex would be something of a white elephant this year, Rochdale has been able to use it to get people back out and about. 

Carol Hopkins

“Nurture and support is a big part of the response. It’s the business community that employs local people. It’s all about that circular economy.”

Carol Hopkins
Business Development Manager, Rochdale Development Agency

This was also a priority in the hospitality industry, as soon as lockdown was relaxed: “Within days of being told that pubs could reopen, the council created a huge beer garden in Town Hall Square,” says Carol, noting the speed and thoroughness of the response. “It was all fully cordoned off and tarmaced to support the businesses there.” These include the town’s award-winning Flying Horse pub, famed for its real ale offering. Other nearby venues such as the Medicine Tap were afforded similar support. “The licensees and business holders were really pleased with that. It gives them more scope, including putting on outdoor performances, as well as reducing the impact they will feel from things such as social distancing and reduced indoor capacities.” Across The Butts at the other edge of Town Hall Square, there are several similar stories. “The old RBS building is now a gin bar, and they have a nice garden; two other cafe bars have opened on Bailey Street. The good thing is they are independents, too. It’s not big chains coming in and taking money out of the borough; it’s local people finding success, making money and putting it back in.”

Away from leisure and attractions, there is good news for the town’s other businesses. Carol says conversations are turning back to trading and growth: two of Rochdale’s most famous businesses, JD Sports and Foot Asylum, saw revenues rise this year, and a number of smaller operators have been in touch about taking office or warehouse space. “What we think is that businesses that have been operating at home have grown so much they now need space,” says Carol. “Our Q1 this year was higher than Q1 last year. We’ve had a logistics company move into town, creating 20 jobs; at one development we let four of 11 units during lockdown and did so at the going rate.” The success, Carol says, has been driven by the presence of the council and other stakeholders, including on channels such as Zoom and WhatsApp. “Nurture and support is a big part of the response. It’s the business community that employs local people. It’s all about that circular economy.”

What now for a more hands-off experiential offering? 

So, Dippy gets to stay in Rochdale a while longer, a landmark visitor attraction. But what about the other, less likely places that had become leisure attractions through pre-Covid innovation? Even before the pandemic, smart food and drink operators were working hard to harness the power of leisure activity and attractions within their venues, as a tool for driving visits in ever-challenging times. Witness the combined offer at Manchester Gin, whose Three Little Words cocktail bar and restaurant is complemented by an on-site distillery and gin school, where guests can learn all about the beloved drink – and make their own. The idea was the brainchild of founders Jen and Seb, two gin lovers who once set out to distil 100 bottles a month from their dining room, but who now – several awards later – produce over 80,000 bottles a year from their base on Watson Street in the centre of Manchester.

One might expect a distinctly hands-on attraction such as this to be severely affected by the new no-touch world. But the brand’s Fiona King offers a different viewpoint. “Ironically, I think the fact that it is an ‘experience’ has meant that the effects are felt less on the distillery side of things,” she says. “With a meal, you have certain expectations of how things work, [whereas] with a distillery tour, you’re a bit more open to the unexpected as it’s not such a regular occurance.” 

But while the perception of guest experience might have been somewhat protected by the novelty of it all, the same challenges – around max capacities and reducing physical contact – felt by other venues have also been seen at the gin school, although again Fiona is keen to highlight the positives that have resulted. “[At the distillery,] our capacity has been greatly reduced. We’re down to less than half the capacity we were running at previously, which I think has had a positive impact – guests get more of a one-on-one experience with their host, and we’ve noticed a lot more interaction between guests from different groups.”

For Fiona, the ongoing adaptation and innovation surrounding the marketing and operations of Manchester Gin is an extension of the efforts that started in March, when lockdown was first announced and the brand urgently set about looking at how best to keep present and future customers engaged. The answer, like we have already seen in the property sector this year, was to get virtual and move things online. And like in the property sector, what started as a necessary means of reaching people has blossomed into an integral and exciting part of marketing and operations. “In the middle of lockdown, we were really limited in terms of what we could offer gin lovers on an experiential level. We wanted to combat a bit of boredom and bring people together from home, so we developed our virtual tastings. They really took off and helped us to double online revenue and traffic in the midst of lockdown. Even now we’re out of full lockdown, some people aren’t comfortable travelling yet, so the product has been adapted to form part of our permanent online collection.”

“It’s been really exciting to develop [a virtual] offering. We started it on a whim and have ended up with a really unique and profitable new product which has enabled us to reach new audiences.”

Fiona King
Marketing Manager, Manchester Gin and Three Little Words

“It’s really taken off for virtual and remote birthday parties, hen dos, etc, but has also been in high-demand with corporate groups. It’s been really exciting to develop this offering. We started it on a whim and have ended up with a really unique and profitable new product which has enabled us to reach new audiences.” 

Over at Flight Club, another hands-on venue you might expect to be disproportionately affected by the current situation, negatives have been turned into positives and existing features ramped up for the benefit of guests. We’re fortunate in that our venues were already well-equipped to support social distancing,” says Stella Greathead. “With semi-private spaces to play in and tables for drinks that are a distance apart, we’ve been able to provide a safe space to socialise from the outset.” 

“In addition to this, we already have a ‘press for service’ button on all tables and oches for guests to call a server over, which is even more useful now and we’ve added an ordering app to reduce interaction. Technology is at the heart of our offering, so to be able to embed the ‘new normal’ into our current offering has felt less jarring for our customers, as it’s something that’s always been there, which is a positive. We are constantly looking at ways to improve our customer experience, and that’s important now more than ever.” 

Verdict: innovation will drive survival 

It’s been six months now since the government’s first stay-at-home order, and people are increasingly coming around to the realisation that things aren’t going back to how they used to be. Perhaps the healthiest thing we can do now is come to terms with that. The stories we have heard from people while putting this story together have been ones of adaptation, survival, and acceptance. Most venues and destinations are coming to terms with the way things are now, and working out how they can continue in the face of it. Fast-paced innovation is the order of the day and we’re seeing it everywhere from visitor attractions, to shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Standing still isn’t an option. 

One of the most pressing challenges affecting leisure and hospitality businesses is footfall – or rather, the lack of it. Leisure and hospitality businesses have for many years relied on ‘walk-ups’ to fill their venues, being able to tempt people in from the street with special offers on tickets, 2-for-1 drinks deals, or just a bustling atmosphere that attracts others. 

Today, there are several problems with this. First, social distancing, which seriously hinders the entire notion of a walk-up: leisure venues now have set capacities and a significant number have switched to only welcoming people with pre-booked tickets or reservations. This is a massive shift in the intent required from – and impulsivity afforded to – guests. The question now might not be so much, “fancy nipping in here for a quick bite to eat?” as “fancy making a reservation, changing out of these comfy clothes, going into town and being hungry, possibly next Wednesday?” It’s an exaggerated example to make a point (and right now there are still plenty of places welcoming walk-ups), but it doesn’t take much to imagine a world where inhibited impulsiveness causes problems for operators. And you only need to look back over comments like those from Manchester Union Brewery’s Jamie Scahill, to grasp the impact of limited spaced on small venues: a 50% throttling of potential maximum venue revenue is a huge hurdle for any business. 

The question now might not be so much, “fancy nipping in here for a quick bite to eat?” as “fancy making a reservation, changing out of these comfy clothes,
going into town and being hungry,
possibly next Wednesday?”

The second issue, which is related to the above and which has been a profound challenge for leisure attractions over many years pre-Covid, is how digital and social media can be harnessed to get people to venues when fewer people are walking around outside. Simply put, how do you get someone – sat comfy on their sofa on a rainy day – to come and visit your theme park or aquarium, without the aid of greeters, A-board discounts, or the kind of pester power that can really only be elicited when a small child sees a poster of a shark and decides they must, MUST, see it in its tank RIGHT NOW, thank you? It’s not easy, but it is achievable. We’ve spent years helping brands such as The Blackpool Tower, Madame Tussauds and the Blue Planet Aquarium to rebalance the relationship between their walk-up and pre-booked ticket sales, infilling with the latter where the former has been harder to drive. 

Now, we suspect, it will be most if not all types of leisure and hospitality businesses who look at this rebalancing as a key strategic rock in the post-Covid world. The uplifting news is that with a thorough understanding of customers, particularly their online habits, and with content that is smartly conceived, well-presented and targeted towards the right groups of people, it is more than possible to rebalance a footfall-dependent business to replace revenue lost from walk-ups with that driven by people pre-booking online.

Expect to see more innovation in digital and social marketing, like that already witnessed in operations and tech, as operators adapt and survive. 

UPDATE: 30 SEPTEMBER 

Just as we were about to hit publish on this post, the government’s new 10pm curfew on night time leisure and hospitality came into effect, with immediate and obvious implications for the industry. We took a few days to let the dust settle, and, let us tell you, where ministers may have envisioned a world in which people happily head home – in groups no greater than six in size – at the bongs of the clock, we have instead seen the opposite: crowded last orders, crowded streets outside venues, crowded public transport and, it is suspected, crowded house parties, of the sort that used to be commonplace before pubs were allowed to adopt a more continental approach to closing time. 

As a policy decision, it has been less than successful. And it has drawn the ire of industry champions, not least Sacha Lord, the Manchester club scene stalwart who went on to found the Warehouse Project and the Parklife festival, and who now acts as Greater Manchester’s Night Time Economy Advisor. 

Posting on Twitter about the impact, and sudden arrival, of the curfew, Lord said that “waking up to the news that senior ministers have confirmed no one looked at the financial impact of a 10pm curfew, or in fact that it wasn’t the recommendation of SAGE is staggering. Especially when videos are now going viral of 10pm overcrowded streets and public transport. 

“It’s very clear, across the UK, that this ill thought out 10pm curfew, has pushed everyone out of venues with socially distanced measures, into the streets, into off licenses, supermarkets, over crowded public transport and house parties. Every operator predicted this. Shambolic.”

The response from the industry has been emphatic and delivered in unison: the curfew makes no sense, brings with it inherent unfairness and, unless urgently reviewed, will lead to many more jobs losses – not to mention health problems both physical and mental for affected workers – for an industry already hit incredibly hard by Covid. 

As well as the curfew, noises coming out Westminster suggest the government is all but ready, if they haven’t already made the decision, to cut their support for the UK’s fifth biggest industry. Speaking on Sky News, health minister Helen Whateley said that it “doesn’t make sense to continue supporting jobs where there simply isn’t work at the moment,” putting UK policy into sharp contrast with that seen in France and Spain, whose governments have committed to supporting hospitality businesses for another two years. Lord calls the suggestion an “utter disgrace,” saying it will affect 3.2 million people.

“It feels like nightclubs and the live music industry have been forgotten by the government,” says Jamie Scahill, who, alongside his work with Manchester Union Brewery, has a long track record in the Manchester night time scene, being involved with Northern Quarter bar Twenty Twenty Two and Funkademia, the city’s longest-surviving club night. 

Jamie Scahill

“It feels like nightclubs and the live music industry have been forgotten by the government.”

Jamie Scahill
Co-founder Manchester Union Brewery

“They were the first to close and will be the last to open. I think a large number of venues could open with reduced capacity by using temperature checks and masks and the recent Night Time Industries Association report backs this up. We could see a large number of independent venues closing as they just don’t have the funds to survive; multi-venue owners will buy up any that shut and before we know it we’ll have a Wetherspoons-style club scene.”

Who knows, by the time you read this, the curfew may have been removed; replaced with something else that can protect hospitality workers, and the guests they look after, from the impact of Covid – both in terms of health and financially. Whatever happens, we stand with our many clients, colleagues and friends in the leisure and hospitality sector as these uncertain times continue.

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