How COVID-19 could impact hospitality design: the distributed restaurant

No industry has been as badly impacted by the current pandemic as the hospitality industry. Sales at restaurants in the US are expected to decline by over 207 billion during the next three months according to the National Restaurant Association. Venues in London are already reporting a 47 per cent drop in year-on-year footfall. If the situation persists into the summer, the World Travel and Tourism Council projects a global loss of 75 million jobs and over €1.9 trillion in revenue. The question now is, what comes next – what can be done to convince consumers to book again and how to better prepare brands for similar events in the future. 'When the global lockdown starts to be lifted and we begin to find what many are calling “The New Normal” for the hospitality and travel industry, there won’t be a “business as usual” bounce back, but instead a rethink and collective adaption of what hospitality means,’ Philippa Wagner, head of Ennismore's insight division, tells Frame. In the first instalment of this two-part series we look at why hospitality brands should embrace their forced conversion into media-come-delivery providers.

The hospitality industry is far from being strangers with social media (more like co-dependents), but its quickly become the key conduit to maintaining any sort of relationship with absent patrons across all verticals, not least as brands quickly develop delivery services for the first time and need to differentiate.

‘As we shelter in place, seeking solace, normalcy, and comfort food, media-savvy chefs are hellbent on serving it to us via podcasts, social media, and streaming channels,’ explains Forbes columnist Jennifer Leigh Parker. ‘Their common cause: Order take-out! Try one of my recipes! Or, better yet, just watch me cook something so sensational that you relate to me on a deep human level and choose to patron my restaurants as soon as we reopen.’

Reopening won’t be an end, however. This combination of media (be it social or a more advanced form) and delivery is reengineering the idea of the hospitality business as something that can exist in both a distributed and a consolidated way. If you can’t be on premises, then there’s a palette of takeaway products, in-home experiences, video and conferencing formats that can bring something of a brand’s ethos to your door.

Top photo: Courtesy of Bon Appétit | Bottom photo: Courtesy of Kitchen Theory

One early responder was fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which has started organizing ‘Chipotle Together’ sessions on videoconferencing site Zoom and social channels like Instagram. Featuring a roster of celebrities and musicians, these streams aren't just about providing entertainment to distanced customers, but also driving sales, with time-limited codes for free entrées revealed during the broadcasts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, experience-design studio Kitchen Theory has created a ‘Multisensory Dining at Home’ service consisting of a four to six-course menu, tableware, table dressing, playlist and sensory elements including texture cubes, projectors, wireless headphones and levitating plates. The evening is presided over by a virtual chef.

Hotel operators are also adopting similar tactics, especially in Asia. Meliá Hotels has started sharing recipes from the head chef of its Shanghai property on WeChat, as a series of GIFs. Competitor Marriott has launched a four-week series of online Cantonese cooking classes filmed across four of its Guangzhou hotels. Meanwhile, Hilton has been alternating cooking tutorials with workout classes. Indian hoteliers are taking a more product-driven approach, however, with InterContinental Chennai offering food deliveries for regular customers of its onsite restaurant, while the Taj Hotels group has developed a series of food and wellness hampers.

To an extent these brands are playing catch-up with established media entities moving in the opposite direction. Last autumn Condé Nast food-title Bon Appétit announced that it was creating its own virtual restaurant with delivery platform GrubHub – we’ve previously written about the publisher’s future plans to open hotels.

Top: Doko Bar by Waterfrom Design in Shenzhen, China. Read more here. Photo: Kuomin Lee | Bottom: Dyce Dessert Parlour by FormRoom in London, England. Read more here. Photo: Marcus Peel

Some brands are going further by engaging consumers on unexpected entertainment channels. Diner chain Denny’s is taking advantage of a surge in interest in gaming, creating a brand account on online services for all the major console platforms and giving discount codes to players it meets during each session. It hit the maximum number of friends for a single Nintendo Switch account in one day. Airbnb, which has seen bookings free fall since the start of the outbreak, has accelerated its pivot towards being a more experience-led proposition, by creating a platform for its hosts and guides to stream paid-for digital tutorials in everything from wine tasting to Olympic rowing.

This enforced period of innovation will leave many of these hospitality brands irrevocably changed, and likely for the better, given that returning to previous models will likely be impossible. If hotels, restaurants and bars aren’t viable as a standalone option with reduced customer density, maintaining these new marketing and revenues streams will be a necessity.

This will see several pre-pandemic trends gain wider adoption. Outlets such as London’s Dyce Dessert Parlour and Shenzhen’s Doko Bar, both of which offer environments attuned to photographing food for social sharing, are well placed for a future in which premises are as much stage set as service space. Similarly, Starbucks’ experimental pickup-only store, which opened in New York at the end of last year, will likely now see a much faster and broader rollout. Restaurants, which have for several years struggled with the increasing through-flow of delivery drivers on the restaurant floor, will start to reshape to accommodate them and pick-up-only customers more effectively.

Together, these forces mean that the idea of a hospitality brand as something tied to a specific place and time will switch to something more diffuse.

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