This article was originally posted by The Australian Business Review on Thursday, 21 October 2021.
As lockdown begins to ease in NSW and Victoria works through its own roadmap, we’re naturally seeing pent-up demand for some semblance of normality – and what’s more normal than going to the pub and enjoying the company of your friends?
We’ve had more picnics than we ever thought possible, but there’s an enormous desire to sit in a pub, cafe or restaurant with the people we love, without all the pre-planning and weather contingencies. Hospitality transactions on NSW’s Freedom Day were 40 per cent higher than our previous record for a Monday, with poor weather – although, interestingly, it was venues in the suburbs that were particularly busy, rather than the city.
Of course, while the desire for normality is there, there’s no getting away from the fact that things are different. From venue caps to changes in ordering and everything in between, we’re taking steps toward a new “living with Covid” phase. As we enter this phase, none of us truly know how it might unfold in Australia, but we do know that hospitality and small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will need to prepare for a different world. We’ve seen it first-hand with our customers in the UK, where businesses can face major disruptions if a team member contracts Covid-19.
Aside from likely challenges, we hope some changes will be short term. Others will change the way in which businesses operate forever – but, in some cases, they’ll be for the better.
Take technology, for example. New research from Salesforce shows that 89 per cent of SME have moved their operations online in the past year, while more than half (57 per cent) say they wouldn’t have survived the pandemic if they had been using technology from a decade ago. And you might recall me&u’s story of scaling our customer service, a transformation that has been crucial in equipping us for the pandemic’s unpredictable shifts.
We’re seeing this in hospitality, too. Before the pandemic, for example, table ordering software like me&u wasn’t widespread – today it’s essential. Customers are far more accustomed to it, it streamlines processes behind the scenes and it’s become an important element of customer service.
‘Human interaction will always be a critical part of the hospitality experience, but automation and artificial intelligence can help pick up the slack’
As a testament to its growing use, in a period of only a few weeks we’ll be onboarding more than 400 new venues to use me&u technology and digital menus. Since many of these venues weren’t even trading a couple of months ago, it illustrates the desire to not only get back to business but to establish altogether new ways of working.
Despite the desire to get back to business, SMEs and the entire hospitality industry are grappling with a serious labour shortage. Hospitality has traditionally relied on a largely expat, sometimes transient, labour market. While this may bounce back next year with borders reopening, venues still need immediate solutions and ongoing options for future dips in the market.
Human interaction will always be a critical part of the hospitality experience, but automation and artificial intelligence can help pick up the slack – upselling food, for example, or explaining specials – and free employees to focus on the tasks that demand a human touch. This offers some consistency and reliability regardless of the ups and downs of our labour market. It’s the type of operational change that can make a business stronger, both now and in the future. In fact, Salesforce’s research reveals that 63 per cent of SMEs say they expect long-term benefits from the operational changes they’ve made since the start of the pandemic.
There will no doubt be challenges in this new phase, but many businesses are already taking steps to become stronger, more resilient and more efficient – changes that will improve experiences for customers and employees alike, and put us in good stead regardless of what the future holds.
Asheesh Chacko is chief operating officer at me&u.