Opinion: Looking Forward

Happy New Year! 

2020 was certainly a year no-one will forget! A wild, erratic and precarious rollercoaster ride. I think enough has already been said about the past pandemic year – “an unprecedented time” – sad, difficult, emotional, uncertain, crazy. Thankfully in Australia, we have been spared the worst. Whilst we must not be complacent, we can go on living – so here’s to a happy and safe 2021.

I started writing this whilst sitting in lockdown in Brisbane, thankfully now lifted although I still think it odd to walk through a shopping centre with everyone wearing masks. Hopefully, we will all do the right thing, stay at home and get on top of this. We must all learn to adapt and accept the “new normal”, so the hospitality and tourism industry can get back to doing what it does best. Hospitality people have always been a resilient bunch. And we all like to go out and socialise. So I’m sure the future is positive.

In 2020, like everyone else, I spent a lot more time at home – which, of course, Charlie the beagle (pictured) enjoyed – more company, more walks, more snacks. And for most of us stuck at home, we learned how to use Zoom and Teams.

The pandemic has brought in a radical shift in our relationship to food and cooking. Many people have turned back to time-consuming home-cooking projects to pass the time at home. 

  •  We have learned how to cook, preserve, pickle, bake, make sourdough and
      ferment – or not
  •  We have discovered some local suburban diners and amazing little cafés –
      all within walking distance – and dog friendly
  •  We have all rediscovered the benefits of premium takeout

This means that we have a better understanding of food – and we have higher expectations. We have had time to learn to discriminate between good and average.

There are some key trends that will affect consumers in Australia in 2021.

We are making mindful choices and relying less on habit and convenience. We are re-evaluating what we purchase and how we spend our money. We are seeking authenticity and comfort. This will affect dining, as we expect more from our meal experience and we will not compromise on service and quality. We are seeking traditional, high-value comfort foods. Cheaper prices and “great value” will become more important.

We are cocooning – staying in our local areas. Whilst in lockdown we have re-evaluated our lives. We are seeking a simpler, less hectic life. Many people will continue to work from home. Infrastructure Australia recently conducted a study of the impacts of the pandemic, which suggests that about 1.3 million Australians, who were forced to abandon the office for home during the pandemic, do not want to return. This will have major impacts on CBD properties, restaurants and cafés.

We are also re-assessing where we want to live. People are moving from the cities to coastal and regional locations that give us more space, fresher air and are closer to nature.

We are buying local. Many of us like “working from home” (WFH), and this trend affects everything we do – what we buy, what we eat, where we meet others – even where we holiday. Small local communities will grow in importance. And we are reaffirming relationships with friends and trusted suppliers.

We are all anxious. We have lost control over our lives. Whilst there is optimism about vaccines and the “new normal”, we are still concerned. There has been too much disruption. Many people are relying on government support. Some people continue to flout the rules. The virus continues to pop up. The future is uncertain. So, we are being careful, considered and frugal. But at the same time, small indulgences are important – they help us get through our anxiety.

We are concerned about social media, which has been responsible for magnifying panic and anxiety. We are concerned about the influence and privacy of social media sites. Many people are turning away from Twitter/Facebook/Instagram etc.

Driven by the anxiety and concerns, mental health issues have snowballed. Mental health is now a common problem affecting us all.

However, these issues can be an opportunity for Hospitality, since humans crave togetherness and social interaction. We are seeing a gradual return to the local pub, café and gathering place – and more in-home dining.

COVID has reshaped our eating out industry. It has forced out the weak and unprofitable, reducing the over-supply of venues, whilst unfortunately also seeing better operators caught out by the economic environment.

It has forced us to look at alternatives, like premium takeout. Dark or ghost kitchens have taken off. No seating. No fancy overheads. Just a simple commercial kitchen for delivery-only or a waiting area where customers can pick up food to-go.

COVID has encouraged pre-paid bookings. It has renewed our love of al fresco dining.

And as we have been told many times, we will all have to adapt to the “new normal”. Things can change quickly, as seen in Brisbane in the past two weeks; even with the vaccines, we will have to remain vigilant. The vaccines are simply another line of defence. Like the regular flu, they will not eliminate the COVID-19 virus.

Social distancing will stay – we need to accept and adjust to this – and modify venue layouts to accommodate more space – with flexible dining spaces. The desire to eat outside will see more outdoor and rooftop dining.

Conspicuous hygiene – hand washing, sanitising tables and strengthened cleaning and food safety protocols etc. – will also become normal.

Facemasks will become designer fashion accessories.

Pre-bookings – with prepayment – and guest registration will stay for a while.

Costs will inevitably rise – with a rise in simpler, fixed price, “table d’hôte” menus. Flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan menus will become more commonplace. Non-alcoholic beers, mocktails and quality soft drinks will also grow in demand as we seek healthier, good-for-you lifestyles.

International travel will remain restricted for a year or more, so international visitors will be rare, whilst the world seeks to manage the virus. Interstate travel may continue to be disrupted – so local and regional tourism will continue to grow. We must be prepared to cater for more locals and more repeat business. This will place an emphasis on good – no, great – value. Fancy, fiddly, fine dining will give way to simpler, more traditional, satisfying, comfort foods. Italian, Mexican and the new Aussie Cuisine will flourish.

Take care with discounts. Discounting generally resets the base pricing expectations. Instead of discounting your core business (room rates, meal costs etc.) you should consider value adding. Add “free extras” to make the offer better value. Hotels can include meals; restaurants can include dessert and a glass of wine etc. They will cost you less, make your product better value and not impact your core pricing.

We will continue to experience challenging times. We will have to learn to live with the COVID-19 virus – just as we have with other diseases like the flu and HIV. We must be adaptable and innovative. But the future is good. The “new normal” will be different. But it will also be fun, novel and exciting. The evolution of dining continues, as it always has, and together we can all stay safe and dine another day.

By Jeremy Ryland
18 January 2021

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