Covid-19 Bounce Back

When we sat down to discuss our annual North East Leisure Supplement two years ago, we planned to highlight the peaks and troughs experienced by the leisure industry over the previous 12 months, as we had done routinely for years. Neither of us could have imagined, within a few weeks of that meeting, that such monumental and world changing events would have taken place. We decided not to proceed with our publication at that time, as it felt inappropriate to be expressing views on the health of the sector as the whole world, not just the leisure industry, appeared to be looking into the abyss.

Two years on, and with the Coronavirus pandemic, hopefully, becoming a manageable part of our lives, we can start to reflect on what has happened, review the positive lessons we have all learnt, and think more confidently about how the leisure industry is placed to bounce back.

As professionals working in the leisure sector – with over 60 years’ experience between us – we have always been acutely aware of the tenacity and strength of our clients. However, in the face of ever-changing Government regulation, nervous customers and significant staffing issues, it would have been easy for operators to close up shop and ride out the storm on Government loans and furlough pay-outs.

On the contrary, many of our leisure leaders took the opportunity to develop and expand their leisure offerings, investing in the future and positioning themselves to be in the strongest possible position once the restrictions lifted.

Those decisions showed a confidence not only that “this too shall pass”, but gave a huge endorsement in the industry more generally. A major lesson learnt in the pandemic is that we are social beings and need to be in the company of others to maintain good mental health. Where better to seek out those interactions than in the bars and restaurants of our cities and towns? They are an integral part of our lives and of our future.

During the last two years, we have seen some of the most bold, creative and innovative measures taken by operators to keep their businesses trading and their staff in employment.

From restaurant operators developing “cook at home” and delivery services of the highest a la carte food, to bar operators creating exotic cocktail nights to enjoy with friends via Zoom; not to mention the reinvention of much of our street scene into magical outdoor spaces inviting us to linger even on the chilliest of North East winter nights.

These offerings became reminders that there was still pleasure to be taken in the most difficult of times. Many of the changes created through necessity have been so successful they are likely to remain.

Certainly, the continental cafe culture, that was a dream of New Labour at the turn of the century, is here to stay. Officers were always wary of the potential noise and disorder issues that outside drinking may have on a city centre. However, this imposed trial has clearly been successful, with pavement cafes being well managed; they have clearly added a vibrancy to many town and city centres.

The introduction of table service has also been welcomed by customers and operators alike. No more jostling at the bar and spilled drinks as you fight your way back to your table; this offering creates a more relaxed atmosphere with customers staying in venues longer.

Customers’ appreciation of their leisure time has also led to a change in what they want from a night out. The importance of maintaining a work/life balance is reflected in people’s desire to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy leisure at an experiential level. The sector has obliged by offering ‘Instagram-able’ afternoon teas, locally-produced artisan products and competitive socialising experiences aplenty, leading to a general uplift in quality.

Town centre bars and restaurants have seen a surge in popularity as people want to ‘stay local’ and support their local operators. That in turn has seen existing and new operators investing in town centres which will have long-term benefits and is set to continue.

Staycations have also increased interest in the region and tourism is likely to continue to increase as both the pandemic and Brexit see people keen to explore the UK.

As the world starts to unlock – hopefully we have been shut down for the last time – the true impact of the pandemic on the leisure sector will start to show. There will be a long-term impact and not all of it will be positive.

Some parts of the sector – theatres, cinemas and nightclubs – have been hit hard with the tightest regulations applying to them and that will take a long time to repair.

Staffing issues in the hospitality sector are at crisis level with some venues, particularly in the hotel sector, not operating at full capacity simply because they do not have sufficient staff to allow them to operate safely. Time will tell if the issue is purely down to Covid-19 or the fallout of Brexit, but changes need to be made to address the shortfall.

The “work from home” culture is here to stay to some extent, and that will inevitably impact on footfall in city centres. The partnerships between councils, responsible bodies, Business Improvement Districts and operators are more important than ever. Working together to create vibrant city centres with innovative offerings, which will give customers the desire and confidence to return, is key.

Article from our North East Leisure Supplement 2022, produced in conjunction with Sanderson Weatherall.

Sarah Smith, Head of Licensing and Gambling at Sintons – 0191 226 4897.

David Downing, Partner at Sanderson Weatherall – 0191 268 0151

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