The future of hospitality – we are part of the solution and not the problem by Alastair Scott
I am surprised the quote from Mark Twain of: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” has not been used more over the past nine months during the covid-19 pandemic. Theresa May made a similar point when she said that policy should follow the evidence rather than the evidence be found to justify the policy. We all feel, at the moment, the hospitality industry is suffering from some combination of these two factors to try to either severely wound us or kill us off from a health lobby that likes to blame society’s problems on us. But with adversity there is always opportunity and I would like to suggest that, as an industry, we have two opportunities. The first is to consistently use evidence-based arguments with whatever we do and whomever we see. The second is to use the statistical richness of the past nine months to really test and prove wrong many of the negatives about the hospitality industry.
The immense value of statistics
It is amazing what you can do through statistics. The whole of my final year at university was spent modelling the spread of Aids, in which my tutor was an expert when Aids was a real danger to lives. Interestingly, from my college, we also had a lot of people progress to be decent journalists – all the ones I know studied English literature. I think this is why I see the world perhaps a little differently to others (some would argue not just a little) – where others seek the headlines, I seek facts and want to come to my own conclusions about the implications. But in a world of Twitter and mass competition for the headlines, the operating practice of too many journalists has become to exaggerate and to rush out the headlines without the necessary due diligence.
But the headlines are affecting us. The general population is starting to believe transmission does take place in our venues rather than understanding the greater risk in their own homes for the same activity. Not only is this affecting the cities where millions of people have changed their working and socialising practices but also in the towns and villages I frequent, in which I have seen hospitality venues close at an unprecedented rate. While, in theory, the market should have grown, operators have not survived because of the combination of forced closures and social distancing rules. And with Christmas in hospitality just about cancelled, VAT payments and loan repayments due from April onwards, and rates and VAT kicking back up, the future still looks bleak. But how do we make the best of the situation?
The use of science is the new norm
As an industry, I feel we have to move to a new way, and that is to produce more credible and better science than anyone else. In the past 12 months, we have had the best, controlled experiment we could have ever had. In the first lockdown, hospitality was completely closed, which allowed us to do lots of work on the effects of removing hospitality from society. We are now entering a phase where you can’t just drink in a pub, but only eat AND drink, and so we will be able to gather even more evidence. And the statistics might be easier in this phase now the rest of our society is running more normally. We can also, of course, even now get our own scientists to present the evidence on Test and Trace and the positive effects of a covid-safe hospitality industry on the spread of the virus. We should all ask our industry bodies to walk around armed with a scientist at every meeting because this is now becoming the new norm – giving that scientist a wealth of evidence to support the cases they make.
I think there are several hypotheses we need to test to see what the mass of evidence says about them:
1. That the transmission of coronavirus is lower when people meet in hospitality than it is in the home because of the better adherence to rules and the ventilation in hospitality
2. That alcohol consumption goes up if you close pubs, as evidenced by the alcohol studies in the first lockdown
3. That obesity levels rise when hospitality closes, as again evidenced by the first lockdown
4. That hospitality, as part of web of social contact, plays a much bigger role in improving mental health than anyone previously understood and, in particular, in young people
5. That government rules are being broken on an increasingly frequent basis and the only way to manage this pandemic is to protect the vulnerable and let the rest of the population make their own risk assessments and get on with their lives
Of course, these hypotheses need testing to a greater degree than my limited search for evidence. There have clearly been other events that need to be carefully eliminated and their individual impacts understood. But this will only help to corroborate the evidence and give greater credibility to the end result, and some of the goals could transform our industry.
While hospitality has been treated shoddily over the past three months since the glory days of Eat Out To Help Out, our focus has to be on the long term for our industry as well as the immediate impact to try and rescue what has now become the most parlous state the industry has been in during my lifetime. This will be founded on changing entrenched government attitudes towards hospitality and developing a greater understanding of the total societal benefits. I, for one, am still hopeful the chancellor will understand the damage done and roll forward the VAT cut and the rates relief for at least another 12 months. While this will not save the many businesses that are now set to fail, it will breathe new life into hospitality, and I hope create a new wave of people in hospitality that recognises how talking, laughing, debating and just sitting near other people is something to be cherished and appreciated by society as a whole and not just us.
Alastair Scott is chief executive of S4labour and runs Malvern Inns
S4labour is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member