What Happens When You Pivot Your Hospitality Business Online?
I have a dark day every now and then. A dark day for me is feeling anxious, fearful, demotivated, resigned and a touch of despair all at once. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have these, especially now.
I had one of these days when I closed my hospitality business Kindred on the evening of the 17th March, 3 days before the mandatory closure of all hospitality venues in the UK. Everything was switched off, food was given away and staff were sent home, without knowing (at that stage) whether I would still have jobs for them tomorrow.
2020 was going to be our year. We had been operating for just 15 months, and with a lot of the teething issues out the way, we were ready to take Kindred to the next level. The energy in the space was addictive. We’d worked hard at building a community of people who wanted to connect with each other, so some of my favourite moments were seeing a group of members, previously strangers, sharing cups of coffee and their goals for the week. Or seeing the same members come back in the evenings with their families to have cocktails and enjoy our live music nights. So for me, it was close to heartbreak when, without ceremony, everyone was sent home, lights were turned off, doors were locked.
The beautiful thing about human nature is that we can rally in a crisis. People turn to teach one another and share ideas, offer each other support beyond what’s expected, and creativity thrives.
Within a day of closing, we had a plan. Everything we had relied on in Kindred; the beautiful interiors, the delicious food and drink, the engaging events, had all gone – for now. The only thing we had left to offer was perhaps our most valuable asset; our community. So we put everything online, and we opened to everyone. From the following day we had community check-ins on Zoom, where members could say what they wanted to achieve that day, and be held accountable for their productivity, (recreating our coffee club in house). We started a Slack channel and WhatsApp group; we shared business advice, and sourdough starters, and poetry. We put on free events, live music nights, quiz nights, online supper clubs and TED Circles all online. Our members all pitched in, offering workshops, online workouts and drawing classes. The Kindred community spirit was as strong as ever, perhaps even stronger, as people seemed determined to rally and be there for one another.
Done well, hospitality is about creating spaces that foster community and connection; feelings of belonging and recognition, and that sense of being seen and valued.
Many hospitality businesses have been battling with the conundrum of how to make money during this time. Even with the support offered by the government to businesses like mine, which has been gratefully received by me and others, there are still costs to meet, and it’s hard to think of ways to meet those costs that don’t put you in significant debt in the long term. Many of us have considered takeaway and delivery options; but for larger venues like ours, we had to be able to guarantee we could make a certain amount of money every day in order to even open the doors. Where the majority of the menu is not well suited to takeaway, it just wasn’t a viable option for us. That’s all before we start considering the potential risk to our chefs in having to travel to and from work, rather than stay at home.
Instead, we decided to put vouchers online; things that people could purchase for themselves to use in the future when we reopen. We now offer discounted annual membership vouchers that include a free ‘pay it forward’ membership for someone who has struggled as a result of the pandemic, discounted private hire vouchers, and food and drink vouchers with 10% discount. We also started a NHS party fund; promising to throw an all-inclusive party for local NHS staff in the borough once the crisis is over, and offering people the opportunity to contribute to it. We were hearing from our community that people were keen to support us, so we asked people to buy these products as an investment in our survival, and to believe in our future.
The most important thing for me was to stand by our values no matter what. The first thing we did when we closed was reassure the team that they would be supported through this, which was made a lot easier by the government’s furlough scheme that was announced a couple days later. Though the majority of the team had been furloughed, we made sure to keep them in the loop, encouraging them to participate in our online events so that they still felt part of the journey. In return, they were patient and understanding, engaged in the community, and supportive of our decision making. We’re choosing to see this as borrowed time. No money is being made so everything can be paused, instead taking time to reflect on how we might improve; fix old problems that have irritated us for too long and make plans to take Kindred to the next level when we are able to return.
Hospitality is so much more than serving food and drink, and the pandemic has shown us that. Done well, hospitality is about creating spaces that foster community and connection; feelings of belonging and recognition, and that sense of being seen and valued. Though I have a dark day every now and then, and fears for what the future may hold, I feel enormous pride at what has remained. Through stripping everything back and closing the doors, we’ve amplified what had been holding us up the whole time. The strengthening and deepening of human connections during this time of crisis is what the heart of Kindred was always meant to be about, and we’ll be a stronger business because of it.
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