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A hard reset for hospitality – surviving 2020 and thriving in 2021

The industry is transitioning from lockdown to trading but the fight to win back customer confidence and stay in business is just beginning. In this open and honest interview, Robert Richardson FIH shares his views on the reality of navigating the path ahead.

Robert Richardson FIH has faced a few challenges in his career.  The most recent was taking up a new role as Manager of the Cave Hotel and Golf Resort in the middle of a pandemic.

Caterer.com caught up with Robert 5 weeks after the move to talk about leadership, how hospitality has changed over the past few months and how the sector is gearing up for its toughest challenge yet – managing redundancies, creating leaner workforces and finding the right path forward.

A turning point for hospitality

We started by asking Robert for his thoughts on the impact of COVID19 and how the sector is responding. “The pandemic was a hard pause – there was no option but to stop trading and take a good look at what was happening and how businesses could survive.  We are at a turning point; we need the government to offer more flexible assistance. To be fair, they have offered unparalleled assistance at an unparalleled time.”

Robert continued, “We need more flexible systems for our businesses and supply chains. We need a tapered extension to furlough and further business relief because without this many businesses will not survive. The VAT cut is incredibly helpful, but it is a sticking plaster. If we don’t start thinking more along the lines of long-term survival, then this will be the start of an employment struggle with hospitality people losing their jobs through no fault of their own.”

“Hospitality will recover because people are habitual, they want to come back to places where they’ve made memories. They want to come back and experience luxury. I think right now hospitality is not doing too badly, but where will we be in October, November? That is the big question at the moment.”

Leadership at a time of uncertainty

In an industry already reeling from loss of business, the reality of redundancies is beginning to dominate the conversation.  In previous years the cyclical nature of the sector usually meant that during the autumn business slowed then built up again towards Christmas.

We asked Robert if it would be different this year. “Will people want to be queueing at the bar or with hundreds of people on the dance floor for a Christmas party? I don’t think so. We have been asked to respect socially distance limits, physical contact and to avoid people”

Robert continued, “Unfortunately, that is going to impact the industry and hard decisions are going to be made. And when that happens, mindsets are going to change. Realistically, we’re going to see some incredibly talented people lose their jobs and possibly re-enter the sector working at levels they would have been at in their careers five or more years ago.”

Lockdown has changed people

People have been changed by COVID19 – it’s inevitable as enforced working from home and furlough are not how hospitality people are made. We’re a social bunch and need that interaction in our daily lives.

“Something I’m hearing is that ‘lockdown has changed me’. And I think that’s right. Lockdown has changed everyone. We had a hard reset where we got to sit down and look at what’s important in our lives.”

“Some people will embrace redundancy; others will struggle.  People will adapt, make changes to their workload or the pressure they work under. That’s where we have to lead with compassion and do the very best we can for our people. The decisions we make need to be based on data, not gut feeling, and we do need to lead our businesses forward. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pick up people that have left us or been made redundant in the future.”

Respect, kindness and emotional intelligence

We asked Robert what skills leaders will need as the true impact of COVID19 unfolds.

“We need to be compassionate; we need to have empathy. Making redundancies is not a pleasant decision, to actually sit and write a redundancy matrix or look at skills versus role. We have to look at handling redundancies with compassion and kindness. Leaders and managers also have to be mindful of their people’s mental wellbeing.”  Robert stated.  “Ultimately and analytically. redundancy will be based on costs at the end of the day and that is where emotional intelligence comes in. That’s where our respect for the individual, our respect for their mental health and respect for their wellbeing comes into play.

Keep in touch and welcome people back

“We need to think outside the box slightly. Once people have left our business, we need to stay in touch and check if they’re okay because we have a responsibility to them. If they’re in our business, we have a duty of care. They’ve left our business through no fault of theirs or ours, we still need to maintain that duty of care.”

“I genuinely believe that our industry is going to bounce back. I’m not putting a timeframe to it, because I’m certainly not that clever, but we will. And when we do, we want to keep in touch with our people, because we employed them once as they were a good fit for our business. They will definitely be a good fit again.  Never make the mistake of thinking that because you’ve made someone redundant on a Monday, that it’s the end of that relationship. If you handle the process properly, your people will want to engage with you as well in the future.”

Surviving 2020 and thriving in 2021

Now that businesses are transitioning out of lockdown, we asked Robert what he thought the next few months could be like for the hospitality sector.

“Leading up to COVID people were spending their disposable income on experiences, not things, and people will want that lifestyle back. As we move towards winter it will be harder to attract people, and possibly we may see a spike in COVID-19 cases”

His advice to businesses, “Revisit your business model and embrace some out of the box thinking. If your clients can’t come to your business, then take your business to the client. Look at your business with different eyes and think ‘how can I adapt this?’

“if we have a second lockdown, or customers voting with their feet and staying home, then we need to adapt and be more creative. We’ve all become adept at digital communication within our businesses so let’s use it now to engage with our customers. It’s quite an exciting opportunity because you’re going to find there’s a whole new audience out there that you never knew existed. So, let’s go and get them.”

“The first hurdle is changing the mindset of businesses who believe they can’t adapt. My advice is to walk away from your business, get a clear mind, put some thoughts on paper, and then go back to your business and see how you can implement them. If we keep an eye on revenue and embrace creative thinking, then hospitality has got a fighting chance.”

A survival guide for hospitality

“What I would say to employers is use the experiences we’ve gained during lockdown to continue to communicate to your teams and keep them informed, the world’s changing on an almost daily basis. We have to keep our people up to date with what we’re doing and keep people talking, engaged and aware of how the business is doing. The minute that dialogue stops, you’re leaving yourself wide open to speculation, negativity, and, frankly, a disenfranchised workforce who feel abandoned.

The other thing we need to remember is our team’s mental health which is hugely important. Again, in the absence of knowledge, our people are going to speculate on what’s happening and that can lead to depression, isolationism, and a whole raft of other issues.   As we go through towards Christmas and into 2021 I think we will see a spike in people’s wellbeing because it’s been great to get outside and do your yoga in the garden and go for a run, but in the cold, dark, wet winter months, maybe not so much.  We have to be respectful of that.

Our teams are looking for reassurance and as managers and leaders it’s our responsibility to provide that. We have to be honest, we can’t sugar coat things, but we need to reassure our teams that we are doing everything in our power was to maintain the business, maintain their income, maintain their employment.

Hospitality’s infinite capacity for kindness

I think what lockdown has shown me personally is, as an industry, hospitality has an infinite capacity for kindness. When our backs are against the wall, industry professionals and hospitality have been out there, massively supporting the NHS. Employer brands have been holding charity events. Businesses have been looking after each other. Hospitality Action’s campaign to contact people who are in isolated locations through volunteers was fantastic.

And I hope when we come out of this, which we will, we just remember how kind and considerate we can be.

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