Bars, restaurants hotels, and other businesses in the hospitality sector face some of the biggest challenges in reopening their doors to customers in a way that meets COVID-19 social distancing regulations.
Simply reducing seating is not a financially viable option for businesses already operating under severe economic strain, and a growing number are turning to specialist design firms, new technology, and industry experts for help.
Architectural firm MASS Design Group is used to dealing with epidemic crises. Founded a decade ago, it redesigned hospitals in Africa during the Ebola crisis, and treatment centers in Haiti after the earthquake. Now the company helping restaurants in the U.S. to start redesigning their operations and maximize seating under new social distancing rules.
“Within the building footprint itself, restaurants should investigate different types of seating options to safely add density back in,” says design director Caitlin Taylor. “They also need to have clear signage on display to explain new protocols and manage the flow of people and sightlines between kitchen and dining, which can help build trust with customers.”
Some restaurants may be able to extend the barrier between indoor and outdoor seating by opening doors and occupying proximate outdoor space, although this requires some changes at the policy level, and may mean creating more space for pedestrians to allow restaurants to occupy spaces like the sidewalk and parking lots for seating.
Taylor adds: “In both of our existing case studies with Porto and Little Donkey, two restaurants located in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, respectively, we’ve proposed adapting what was formerly used as kitchen space to ‘exchange zones’ to mark the transition of food, supplies, and people and carry out donning and doffing procedures.”
Technology will play a crucial role in how well the sector adapts to reopening. MASS is using Autodesk tools for urban context modeling to rapidly build environments using data to simulate different scenarios.
“In the pre-opening phase, simulation technology can be used to understand how a space is currently used and what it would look like if it had to accommodate 50% fewer people or a pre-determined route to enter and leave the restaurant,” says Autodesk vice president AEC Strategy & Marketing Nicolas Mangon.
A newer technology in the architecture space is generative design, which uses AI to optimize design options for different criteria to retrofit the space, such as the best seating layout or how people should move safely within the space.
App and mobile technology will also have a role to play in keeping customers safe and venues operating viably. Wi5 is a mobile ordering solution that enables customers to place orders and pay for them on their own devices without having to download an app or to register, often a turnoff for customers that can cause delays in ordering.
CEO Prask Sutton says: “With Wi5 hospitality businesses can serve their customers more quickly and easily, removing queues at the till or bar, and eliminating delays caused by staff manually taking orders and payments. In the post-COVID 19 world this solves a huge problem.”
Wi5, which operates on a simple fixed-priced subscription model based on the size of the business, also helps maximize revenues. Removing delays from ordering and paying significantly increases table turnover, which will be crucial for hospitality businesses operating at reduced capacity.
The focus for many operators will be on outdoor seating, as long as they have the outdoor space and the money to invest in heating and waterproofing. In Germany and Austria, for example, venues were able to reopen by keeping a 1.5-meter distance between diners, staff wearing masks at all times, and the banning of buffets.
Many cities are also expanding outdoor opportunities for restaurants. In Amsterdam, some restaurants have imagined little ‘greenhouses’ for outdoor seating at a distance. In the U.K., the government is planning to permit some pubs and restaurants to sell food and drink outside their premises, before they are tentatively slated to begin reopening in early July.
“Pulling lessons from the type of outdoor cafe culture seen in European cities like Rome and Paris, cities from Tampa, Florida, to Las Vegas to Portland, Maine, are opening sidewalks and closing streets to create large outdoor dining rooms,” says Taylor.
Hotels face the same issues of managing space and services and the added challenge of managing guests and room turnarounds to allow for any COVID-related cleaning and hygiene regulations.
James Berkeley, managing director of Ellice Consulting, works with several U.K. and international hospitality operators and outlines the key points that the most dynamic businesses are actively focusing on, ahead of re-opening.
He says: “Many of those close to large demographic areas had 65% to 70% of local business. For them, the key is how to maximize that potential while accepting that food and beverage, for example, the breakfast buffet, is a non-starter and that they will need to rethink how they use their space.”
High-density accommodation and eating spaces, often found in mid-tier hotels, have a real problem, and space will need to be re-configured. “For example, the meetings and events business won’t be coming back fast,” says Berkeley. “When it does, ballrooms that might have hosted 500 people in the past will have capacity seating limits of 250.”
He also believes that the reinvention of the housekeeping role, and accountabilities, can be ‘cost neutral’ to the property by making intelligent adjustments to the mechanics of housekeeping in rooms. The speed of the room turnaround is as important as the quality of the work undertaken. Where housekeeping shifts clash with new arrivals and checkouts, shift hours could be adjusted on a flexible daily basis rather than a weekly roster. Incentives, such as free coffee or soft drinks in a comfortable lounge could encourage customers to adhere to check out times.
Perhaps the most important element of any re-opening strategy is to do it only when it is profitable to do so. “What is the point of opening, only to have an even more loss-making business?” adds Berkeley. “Demand is a function of ‘need’ to stay, eat, and be entertained safely, so visual cues at the entrances of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses will be essential.”