Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be on the line if the country's cities and towns do not start to see footfall return, trade bodies and operators have warned.
A government campaign to encourage people back to their workplaces was announced the day after Pret A Manger revealed almost 3,000 jobs would be axed across the business as trade remained at 60% of pre-Covid levels.
Restaurateur Richard Corrigan, behind London restaurants Bentley's, Corrigan's Mayfair and Daffodil Mulligan, said this would be the tip of the iceberg if consumers failed to return in significant numbers, predicting job losses could reach the hundreds of thousands.
He said: "The fallout from this now is going to be absolutely savage. We need to get our cities working, we need to get our towns working, we need to get people out on the streets. People out on the streets brings confidence; empty streets do not benefit everyone.
"We realise now the nature of this illness: it's the aged, the infirm and the invalided who are getting the worst of this virus, and, of course, we don't want to see peaks taking over certain areas and overrunning hospitals – no one wants to see that – but there's a fine line between working and living among the virus or becoming unemployed.
"We have to get on with looking after guests and giving hospitality to people looking for hospitality, otherwise there will be nothing around."
The view from London
The combined impact of a reduction in office workers and tourists has hit central London particularly acutely, with UKHospitality and 90 business leaders – including David Loewi of D&D London, Martin Williams of Gaucho and Trevor Gulliver of the St John Restaurant Group – calling for a co-ordinated campaign to support businesses in the capital where, they say, tens of thousands of hospitality jobs are at risk.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: "Hospitality and tourism businesses in London rely in large part on the twin revenue streams of tourists and office workers. VisitBritain's latest forecast for inbound tourism to the UK in 2020 shows a decline of 73% in visits and a decline of 79% in spending. The estimated drop in London's international tourism spend is £12b. The latest estimates also show that only 30% of British office workers are back at their desks and only 15% of businesses expect the majority of staff to be back by the end of September.
"London needs its workers and tourism to survive. Unless action is taken to get people back into the city, hospitality and tourism businesses, retail, leisure and supply chain businesses, which combine to provide 20% of all employment in London, will be ruined."
Contract catering The government's television and newspaper campaign, which will launch this week to coincide with the reopening of schools, was welcomed by city operators and B&I caterers.
Allister Richards, chief operating officer of contract caterer CH&Co, said: "Together with UKHospitality, we've been championing the importance of encouraging people back to their workplaces and we're delighted that the government has announced a formal campaign to do just this. This is a huge step forward for the continued recovery and rebuild of the hospitality industry and our business. We wholeheartedly welcome this approach."
Chris Mitchell, managing director of the Genuine Dining Company, also welcomed the campaign, saying his business' priority since the beginning of lockdown had been to save jobs, something that could only happen with a return to workplaces. He added: "We have been advising our clients to get their food services back to normal as soon as possible. Offices need to be welcoming places that represent the conditions they left behind in March.
"The things people have missed out on while working from home are collaboration and socialising. This is what a workplace catering offer gives – it's the hub of the building and a crucial part of working life."
The government has asked employers to communicate the safety measures they have undertaken to ease the move back, and both caterers said they have worked with clients to develop their plans around social distancing.
Richards added: "We have continued to work closely with our workplace clients to understand their needs and to develop remobilisation plans that ensure we can reopen our catering services safely, in line with differing working practices and each unique environment, as they bring their people back to their offices – all in line with the physical distancing requirements and government guidance.
"With safety measures in place, together with innovative developments to our food offerings, service and delivery provisions that reflect the changing needs and demands of the workplace, our guests can return with confidence."
The City For restaurants, particularly those in the financial centres of the City of London and Canary Wharf, seeing employees return is essential.
Martin Williams, chief executive of M Restaurants and Gaucho, added: "The restaurant scene is a reflection of the City: a healthy mix of entrepreneurship and institutionally backed eateries have made London the culinary envy of the world for the past decade. Square Mile venues have arguably been the pinnacle of this scene and right now, many of these drinking and dining establishments require support.
"It's time for the City to return to the City, take the lead and become part of the Covid solution to the economic fallout."
Insight: Phil Roker, managing director, Vacherin
"We're in the unique position of catering solely for London businesses, so we have witnessed first-hand the impact of employees' reluctance to return to the City.
"We've reinstated our catering and hospitality services across our portfolio, with robust measures in place to ensure the safety of our staff and customers, all the while making sure that our cafés, restaurants, coffee bars and hospitality spaces are as welcoming as ever. The popularity of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme demonstrates that there is an appetite for food and drink away from the home.
"As foodservice caterers we, together with our clients, are supporting the government's campaign and encouraging the return to work by reassuring our customers that their office continues to be a safe hub to enable the ‘six Cs' that we recently identified in our paper entitled ‘The Future of Catering': culture, collaboration, creativity, clients, coaching and connection – and, of course, fabulous food and coffee!
"We're seeing a gradual increase in uptake in our staff cafés, but what's particularly reassuring is that hospitality and events bookings have seen a resurgence over the past few weeks. It seems that our clients do indeed appreciate the value of face-to-face interaction – and hopefully the nudge from government will reinforce this message."
See next week's edition of The Caterer for more on how the changing landscape of the city is impacting contract caterers
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