UKHospitality: The reset effect

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, ponders whether the number of office workers will ever return to its pre-pandemic level...

While in some respects so much has happened in the past year, in other ways time seems to have stood still during the Covid crisis. There has, thankfully, been great progress in some areas – most notably vaccine rollout – yet once again, as I sit to write for Contract Catering Magazine, I cannot escape the fact that we are still desperately waiting for movement around the government’s ‘back to work’ messaging. The prospect of pre-Covid levels of workplace canteen footfall feels some way off and we are yet to be able to meaningfully gauge how the general public feels about travelling into towns and city centres with confidence.

At time of writing, the debate and media furore around Covid passports rages on, with the current direction of travel being away from any mandatory means of proof of Covid testing, vaccination or antibodies. The whole issue is something of a double-edged sword for hospitality as a sector: on the one hand, the imposition of Covid Status Certification (the longhand and official label for Covid passports) would be a huge administrative burden on, for example, pubs and restaurants, while conversely, they may be just the sort of measure that could expedite the opening up of conferences and other larger events. Furthermore, should larger events begin to take place, representing a visible return to normality, the effect on public confidence to return to pre-Covid ways of life could be significant, providing a trickledown effect on things like returning to workplaces.

The received wisdom seems to be that society as a whole will not return to five-day weeks in the office, but there are other factors to take into account. With the burdens of hugely inflated rents and business rates having come under the microscope during the pandemic – due to the acute cost burden that they have come to represent for hospitality, retail and other businesses – it’s likely that Covid will have a ‘reset’ effect, bringing the cost of office rental down. That alone could mean that businesses and people who were previously priced out of working in cities might be tempted to renting urban office space.

Only time will tell, but what we might see is fewer people making their journeys into cities each and every day but overall journey figures rising to pre-Covid levels, as people who previously did not venture into town find it more desirable to do so. The question then will be how hospitality evolves to cater for this new profile of workforce.

However we emerge from this crisis, at present we are stuck in the stasis of empty city centres and offices, with little prospect of a sudden return of office workers or, for that matter, a wave of tourists to swell the numbers in museums and other attractions. UKHospitality is active in the collaborative efforts of initiatives to drum up footfall in urban centres by, for example, communicating the safety public transport, promoting our tourist destinations to overseas markets and, above all, lobbying governments across the UK to push the back to work message. Fingers crossed, next time I pen an article for this august publication, I’ll be doing so from my office in Holborn, watching busy London life pass by, just like the good old days!

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