- Jay Hall
How Your Restaurant or Bar Can Weather the COVID-19 Storm
EDIT: Keep in mind that this article was written March 2020. For more up-to-date information you can scroll down to the FAQs.
We’re all reeling from the events of the past 2-weeks. COVID-19 is all anyone can talk about and unfortunately, it is dealing quite the blow to the hospitality industry.
There is no question that the industry will be changed for quite some time, even after the pandemic has passed. And, it’s important to remember that this too shall pass.
As the story develops, many look to digital as an outlet to let their customers know that all precautions are being taken in consideration of everyone’s safety. That’s a great start but the real heavy lifting is going to be in how we deal with this long-term.
At Sync, our dozens of hospitality clients have seen major hits to their revenue streams and adjustments have to be made. As their PR and communications representative, we have had—what feels like—endless strategy sessions to determine how this crisis should be handled.
Here are 10 things you can do on behalf of your hospitality business to weather this storm and succeed in the long-run.
COMMUNICATE OPENLY WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS
Be honest about what you’re doing and why. Speak to your customers in a way that is personal and engaging. Transparency is the only tool to combat fear. Explain your procedures and how this is a positive change. Dive deep into how much you care.
COMMUNICATE OPENLY WITH YOUR STAFF
It’s not just your customers that need to hear from you. Your staff is likely on pins and needles right now. I had some uncomfortable conversations today and you need to be pragmatic as well. Be open and tell them what steps you plan to implement based on what actions you are forced to take. Have a real-world plan in place that helps your staff understand where they sit financially.
DON’T MAKE LIGHT OF THE SITUATION
I know the nature of hospitality is fun, lighthearted and oftentimes, jest. However, this is not the time for jokes. I have seen several businesses post memes about COVID-19 and those posts have backfired in a big way. Even if you think that your audience will be okay with the joke, there are always people outside of your audience, AKA potential customers, who might not be so forgiving.
One restaurant recently received 24 1-star reviews on Google because of a tasteless post. Now is the time for sincerity, not humor. At least, not direct humour … make jokes about subjects that aren’t taboo.
BE PROACTIVE ABOUT HEALTH
Make sure, if you are staying open, to institute proactive policies such as the following as recommended in the latest Nightclub & Bar Show newsletter:
Replacing handshakes with fist bumps, elbow bumps or slight bows.
Touching switches and buttons with a knuckle rather than a finger, and lifting or otherwise handling dispensers and other items with paper towels or gloves.
Opening doors with closed fists or hips, particularly bathroom doors and those leading to commercial buildings.
Washing hands for 10 to 20 seconds with soap and/or using a hand sanitizer that’s greater than 60 percent alcohol-based.
Report fevers, coughs or difficulties in breathing to management immediately, do not go to work, and seek medical attention immediately.
Where possible, embrace delivery. As many stay home, they will crave your food. Make it easy for them to get what they want. If you don’t have delivery, it’s easy to sign up for a meal delivery service. There is even an option with every service we’ve seen to receive contactless delivery. Just remember, one golden rule of business … location, location, location. It just so happens that the location is now where your customers live.
PLAN FOR THE FUTURE TO MAKE MONEY NOW
Show your customers there is a tomorrow. Plan events for the summer and start selling tickets now to shore up revenue and get people excited about the future. If events are not a part of your business model, now is the time to think about how they can be. How about a food event? While talking to your customers, find out what act they’d like to see at your club? Maybe you can put together a beer tasting?
If you’re in an area where hospitality businesses remain open, plan events with limited capacity. Showing your customers there will only be 50 - 100 people present will set their minds at ease. Even if some people still don’t want to attend, there are those out there with nearly zero risk factors that will.
Give people a reason to talk about something other than COVID-19.
DO NOT IGNORE COMMENTS
Watch your feeds. People are scared and have questions. If they’re asking you a question that means—especially, at times like this—they are looking to you for answers. Now is the time for digital customer service!
Now is not the time for sales. This is a moment where you get to show everyone that you aren’t tone-deaf and truly do appreciate your community. Leave the boosts and ads for now unless your research shows otherwise. Simply offer great content that is focused on health and safety or family.
DISCOUNTS & OFFERS
Would you rather have $100 or $0? Sure, $100 doesn’t compare to the $500 you were making before this happened but there’s nothing you can do about that particular gap. Offer special rates to entice purchases. Maybe it’s 2 can Dine deals, or half-off bottles on a Saturday night when you open again. The particular message doesn’t matter … but having one does.
GO ABOVE & BEYOND FOR YOUR CUSTOMERS
Just because you’re closed does not mean you can’t “touch the table”. Now is the time to reach out to customers proactively and find out what they really think of your business. You probably have more time than ever right now; use it intelligently. Ask your customers questions and use this time to improve on areas that your customers have a commonality of issue. If you listen and make adjustments you won’t just have a “We’re Open” message to send, but rather a “We’re Open & Here’s How We’re Even Better” message to put out there.
Your customers will be over the moon about the adjustments and feel like they contributed in a positive way during a negative time.
It’s important to remember that in these darkest of days for the hospitality industry, no one is at the mercy of old guard tactics. Through social media, your website, chat, directories, and other digital communication tools you can use this time to show your target market that you not only care about their well-being but their future as well.
I wish you nothing but the best as you navigate this crisis. Stay calm, make long-term choices, and stay transparent.
SOME BONUS TIPS
Prepare for 90-days no income and have someone that's not panicking about your business forecast for you, so you can make better decisions.
Start talking to everyone you owe money to and make arrangements if government assistance isn't available to you. No one's opening a restaurant for months after this so it is in their best interest to work with you.
Return any inventory that you can.
Remember, hope is not a strategy so hold on tight and plan for the worst-case scenario.
There is a good chance that when the smoke clears there will be a huge focus on local first. Get ready for that wave and make the most of it because it won't last forever.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQS)
I don’t have delivery or pickup. How can I shore up some revenue at this time?
You have to adapt to the reality of the situation. Look at your menu and offer items that are on a tiered pricing menu. $10, $20, full menu. Hit your social media hard, letting people around you know they can still get your food, just in a different way. You're going to have to lean on your network to help too. Tell friends and family you're offering delivery and pickup, but encourage pickup as delivery is pricey through the service options like SkipTheDishes.
Lastly, offer a logged discount or some other incentive so that people will post about their order on social media and get them to tag you. Not only does virility still apply in the social sense, but you can then share their posts and stories on your feeds.
I know this might be outside of your comfort zone but comfort is no longer a part of our lexicon. The name of the game is survival.
Where should I focus my marketing efforts?
Peer-to-peer marketing is the #1 type of marketing you should focus on. If a brand tells me about a new dish, I may think, "I have to check that out at some point." If I see other people like me posting that dish I am moved to action. In these uncertain times, community endorsement is going to be critical to success. Offer incentives as mentioned in the last question and get people talking about your restaurant in a positive light.
What are you clients doing to survive?
We're all thinking long-term. Full transparency, some of our clients have hit pause on their contracts because they don't have it in them to fight this Godzilla sized issue. The majority though are banking on a bailout and while they can't do anything to influence that decision, they're focusing on long-term recovery.
As mentioned in the blog I wrote, events and long-term strategies like discounted gift cards are high up on their to-do lists. Many are planning to throw one hell of a party when this is all over.
We've had a lot of difficult conversations in the last week or so and for those that want to fight, they are cutting back on whatever they can and all of those savings are going into a marketing fund for when they can open their doors.
What kind of content should I post?
You can post anything as long as you keep this in mind, "How can I make someone's life better today?" Delivery options at great rates, memes, articles about what to do while self-quarantined, feel-good messages ... people remember those that made them feel great during trying times.
Outside of that, share your story. Show the human side of your business. Relate to your customers hard times because when people feel like someone else is in the same battle as them, they are more likely to support you.
Just don't hard sell. That's the only thing I would stay away from.
Why did you leave the restaurant business?
At first, I was bewildered by this question. Then I realized that many of you have never met me or we met in passing and you don't know my story. Without droning on I'll give you a brief synopsis. I have run and owned nightclubs, bars and restaurants. Each had varying levels of success. For a few years, I was completely happy.
Then, out of the blue, I wasn't happy anymore. It turned out I was transforming from a people person to a bit more of an introvert. The local celebrity of running an establishment wasn't for me anymore and I wanted a quieter life. I also found that creative campaigning was all that made me happy aside from writing. As a restauranteur, I had no time to write, so I left the industry in that capacity, kept the marketing side going and wrote 2 books.
I found my happy place. I do miss it often but ultimately it was the right choice for me.
Technically, I’m still involved in a restaurant but I handle the marketing and my partners run the day-to-day business.