Can hospitality survive another Christmas lockdown? Specialist PR pros give advice

Hospitality comms experts have spoken to PRWeek about their strategies following a spike in UK COVID-19 cases and concern at the potential for the imposition of more Government restrictions.

Can hospitality survive another lockdown? (pic credit: Getty)
Can hospitality survive another lockdown? (pic credit: Getty)

Last week, in a coronavirus press conference held at Downing Street, Professor Chris Whitty signalled that people should not visit pubs or restaurants if they want to spend a safe Christmas with their families.

With the Omicron variant of COVID-19 making headlines as cases rise sharply, hospitality businesses are experiencing cancellations, and do not yet have the Government support that might be available if the country is in fact placed in another lockdown.

Hospitality venues are stuck between a rock and a hard place and must keep their businesses open while also following the Government’s advice and enforcing its rules for customers.

PRWeek spoke to hospitality PR specialists to find out what messages they are advising their clients to put out.

‘Crystal clear communication’

Jo Barnes, co-owner of Sauce Communications, told PRWeek: “Sadly, once again the hospitality industry finds itself in an impossible situation. Christmas is a vital trading time, even more essential this year given the last two disastrous years.”

Barnes explained that the agency’s clients are deluged with cancellations, staff absences due to self-isolation and uncertainty about how the latest wave of the pandemic will play out.

She said: “Given how communicable this latest strain of the virus is, we aren’t advising our clients to encourage their customers at this stage. The focus is advising them on specific comms issues arising – such as group cancellation policies, forced early closures – as well as encouraging them to lend their voices to the various industry campaigns for additional government support.”

Barnes said her agency was also advising clients on their comms strategies for alternative revenue streams, hampers, home delivery kits and gift cards.

‘Frustration, disappointment and confusion’

Nicki Hayer, managing director of NIMA, whose clients include restaurants Allium and Lucia, said it was important for hospitality comms professionals to go “back to our hospitality basics and be totally customer-centric in our communication”.

She added: “We have to think about what the customer is going through right now – which might be frustration and disappointment, but also confusion. With no formal lockdown in place, there is a heavy responsibility on the public to make smart decisions for themselves and their loved ones.”

Hayer said it was the responsibility of industry professionals to help customers make an informed decision in a rapidly changing situation.

She added: “Now it’s not the time for a hard sell [with messaging], but to consider the customers' concerns and either alleviate them or at least understand them.”

Venues must communicate their needs, too, and Hayer thinks it is OK for them to ask for notice of cancellation for a booking, or to specify that customers must wear masks if they come.

Hayer continued: “This period is stressful for both the customer and the businesses alike, so I do think that crystal clear communication, and sincere empathy for one another, is the way to keep moving forward."

Neil Kent, managing director of Chapter Communications, whose clients include Ginger Snap and Humdingers, agreed.

He told PRWeek: “We are advising clients to be completely open and transparent with their customers. At present the hospitality sector is in limbo and the cancellations are due to uncertainty. It is, however, still legal and can be very safe to visit hospitality outlets and attend events, as long as risk mitigation is in place.”

Reassuring customers

Anya McKenna, managing director of Hexe, has likewise been drafting messages for the agency’s hospitality clients, and said the main message has been one of reassurance.

She advised: “Let your guests know that you are doing all you can to keep them safe. Communicate with them where they hang out online and let them know the rules. Break it down and keep it simple.

“Sharing information on cleaning procedures and how you’re going above and beyond to help can also be super helpful to guests. Some of our venues are even providing lateral flow tests at the door, where vaccine passports are unavailable.”

‘Emphasise the data’

Mark Stretton, managing director of Fleet Street Communications, said brands and venue-owners “must major on personal choice while emphasising the data”.

They must also focus on how they have invested in keeping people safe, such as with better ventilation, hygiene and sanitation – in addition to comfortable outdoor spaces.

Stretton said: “All [these measures] mean that many hospitality venues are far safer places to socialise with family and friends than home.”

“Public confidence in this messaging is key, as hospitality has in the past been wrongly blamed for transmissions; [but] Public Health England data shows just 3.2 per cent of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19, are linked to hospitality. Venues should lean on this data and highlight all the measures taken to keep people safe, at every stage of the customer journey.”

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