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How social distancing will change bars, restaurants, hotels and wineries

The UK’s hospitality sector is preparing to emerge from months of hibernation in July if, and when, the government gives the go-ahead. Each venue will have its own approach.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of the drinks business.

According to research from Budweiser Brewing Group, more than a third (35%) of people plan to head straight to the pub the first week they reopen, but with certain social distancing measures. JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin last month said that the group will spend £11 million on safety equipment such as goggles and gloves for staff.

Pubco Greene King has also prsented its own detailed reopening plan, which involves things like “safe socialising layouts”, hand sanitiser at exit and entry points, asking customers to pre-book tables and face shields for staff.

Greene King’s measures include face shields for staff.

That may work for pubs with plenty of floor space, but the problem is “multifaceted”, according to Michelin-awarded British chef Jason Atherton. During a virtual panel discussion with industry leaders on 28 May, the chef said the requirements will vary depending on their offering, property, and clientele.

“My needs will be very different to Leon, to O’Neill’s and many others,” he said.

Sarah Gill, owner of The Dairy and Sorella, said most of her restaurants have a small dining space, so “realistically we can’t open until we’re really allowed to open to the public”.

Compliance with the rules


Trade body UKHospitality submitted a 75-page report setting out a roadmap to getting restaurants and pubs open on 4 July, which includes ditching the hotel buffet, having two metres between tables, and no more drinkers at the bar. Across the world, venues are trying to work out how to make this happen without giving everything too clinical a feel.

One of the first new concepts was Sweden’s Bord för En (table for one in English). The restaurant sits in the middle of a field in Värmland. Three-course meals are delivered to the diner in a basket suspended on a washing line. A café in Schwerin, Germany, requires customers to wear a hat made from swimming pool noodles so they don’t get too close to one another. The Inn at Little Washington, a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington (pictured above), added mannequins dressed in 1940s clothing to some tables. Front-of-house staff have been told to pour wine for them and ask about their evening.

“That actually made me feel quite uneasy” Graham Hardiman, managing partner of The Mystery Partnership, told the drinks business. The Mystery Partnership carries out quality checks on hotels and private members clubs around the world, and recently launched a 50-point audit scheme for venues planning to reopen once lockdown ends.

“A lot of the standards are a movable feast,” he said, “but we’re looking at social distancing, we’re looking at PPE, how they are making sure their lift buttons, bannisters, everything is clean.”

One restaurant in the US uses mannequins to enforce social distancing. (Photo: Inn at Little Washington)

Hardiman said he’s already had a “quite overwhelming” response from people who want to have their hotels and restaurants checked over. “This is really open to anyone in the hospitality industry,” he says. Hardiman added that managers might use the situation as a good opportunity to make their site stand out. “The wonderful thing about it is they’re up for thinking creatively around these situations, and we will come up with good ideas, but I do think in the end it will be reassuring customers that every property is taking it seriously.”


Reshuffling the workforce

The new way of life is already forcing restaurants and bars to change the balance of their workforce. JD Wetherspoon has said only two members of staff will be allowed to work front-of-house at each of its sites when they reopen in July. Hardiman said one hotel he works with has quadrupled the number of cleaning staff responsible for some areas of the property to maintain scrupulous hygiene standards.

Clement Robert MS, group head sommelier for Caprice Holdings, told the webinar panel that restaurants and bars need to balance “giving more space for the guests, and at the same time having more staff on board to make sure your guests feel safe”.

Regular health checks for staff such as taking their temperature and track-and-trace testing will also become essential.

“When you’re dealing with customers face to face, those interactions that may have been quite long pre-Covid, will now be short and necessary to perform the task,” Hardiman said.

A sommelier’s role, for example, is extremely people-focused, and before the coronavirus outbreak, customers were known to request their company at a dining table for a large portion of their stay while they sampled vast wine lists. Hardiman said he thinks sommeliers will still be important, but lateral thinking is required.

“I think sommeliers are still very necessary. If you go to Luckham Park in Wiltshire or Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire the wine is an integral part of the overall service, and is even worthy of a phone call to discuss it.”

Hardiman said many somms may need to do their best work over the phone or via FaceTime. “It’s unlikely there’s going to be a five- or 10-minute discussion about the wine list.”

There was some positive news from Shanghai, where Jason Atherton’s two restaurants that are currently open have had their “the busiest month on record, up by 20%”, with straightforward social distancing measures in place such as staff wearing masks and tables kept two metres apart.


Wine tourism

MDCV opened its Ultimate Provence estate in 2019.

In France, travel restrictions will be lifted this month. Bars and restaurants can reopen from 2 June. The nation’s wineries, which usually welcome millions of foreign tourists, will trial their social distancing strategies on native oenophiles this year.
“We’re quite busy,” Nathalie Tournoux, the director of tourism at sprawling Provence wine group MDCV told db. MDCV owns a handful of high-spec estates, with hotel rooms, bars and restaurants all included in the package.

Tournoux explained they had to wait until 28 May to find out whether they could open, leaving them five days’ notice if so. “We have had some clues, and we have ways we can prepare for it,” she said, adding all they needed to know was how far apart to set the tables. Staff must wear masks, as must customers when moving around.

Tourism bodies and wine associations are working together. The Regional Council of Occitaine in southern France, plans to spend
€34 million (£31m) on a regeneration project over the next 18 months.

Gérard Bertrand, the proprietor of Château l’Hospitalet in Narbonne, says there has so far been a 20% fall in wine tourism revenues for the start of the year, but he is optimistic about the rest of the year. “We believe that we will have a very strong summer. We hope to compensate a little bit and we will try to finish the year close to less than 10%.” He expects mainly European tourists from the UK, Netherlands and Germany to be able to visit from 15 June. “This month may be a bit flat because it is a transition period but after that I think it will be much better.”

Bertrand told db that the château’s diverse tourism offering, with vast outdoor spaces, vineyard tours, and access to a local beach, should reassure customers.

“We have enough space in order to host people without any problems, and then we will restart our jazz dinner every Friday.”
In Provence, Tournoux expects to lose 40% of visitors this year, but said: “We’ve had a lot bookings. Hopefully, we’ll have great weather in autumn so we can extend the season.”

Château De Berne is MDCV’s flagship resort, and will take its own high-end approach to health and safety compliance. A team of four has been created to oversee the group’s transformation in a world where spreading a virus is an ever-present risk.

In its restaurants, the tables will be two metres apart, and staff will encourage people to use the terrace, with its views over Provence. All the menus will be available online, and service times will be staggered to ease congestion. The estate is also encouraging more outdoor activities, such as picnics and vineyard hikes to keep guests apart.

In the US, where California’s regulations mean wineries and tasting rooms are still closed, Jordan Winery in Sonoma offers a four-mile guided hike around its estate, followed by a takeaway gourmet picnic. The number of hikes will be limited each day, and no more than five couples – all socially distanced – can take part. Luxury hasn’t been overlooked, and if anything estates are adding value to entice visitors back.

Bertrand told db his château still plans to host its annual jazz festival this year, although the team are now looking for new artists.
Tournoux said her team must make the tourism offering the same standard that Ultimate Provence and de Berne’s visitors have come to expect. “The product is key – we can combine wine tourism and there’s also bespoke activities for visitors to enjoy, so that’s how we will promote the property.”


Long-term sustainability

For all the hard work restaurants are putting in to adapt and survive, the outlook is still bleak. A report from UBS published last month predicts that one in five restaurants in the US could close permanently due to the coronavirus crisis. ”

Undoubtedly business will be lost,” Hardiman said adding that businesses that make changes that are sustainable long-term will have the best chance of coming out stronger.

Already, we are seeing more startups accommodate those needs. Three British entrepreneurs have developed a contactless tableside ordering service, Creventa, to help UK restaurants maintain social distancing when they are allowed to reopen. Diners will be able to use the service by scanning a QR code or inputting a web address into their smart phones when the sit down at a restaurant, bar or pub.

“It will come down to creativity. In the hotel sector, online check-ins could help to reduce risk. There will be contactless keycodes you can use on your phone. These aren’t widely used, but they will become a commonplace part of any refurbishment.”

Tornoux added: “In tourism we are kind of used to these situations, you realise there are always more ways to do your job.” db

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