Pubs face the near-impossible task of balancing the need to help people feel safe and to feel normal again as the hospitality industry asks for clearer government guidance and the COVID-19 alert level is reduced from 4 to 3.

An analysis, carried out by Subsector, mimicking the decisions that need to be made by pub groups in the current pandemic, identified that re-opening with a minimum social distancing (1m, using outdoor space) would have the biggest impact for their organisation. Staying closed would be the worst option, despite the desire of customers and staff to feel safe and protect their communities. The analysis was carried out using Subsector’s algorithmic decision model, the N2D Method®.

Balancing business and people

The analysis assumed 3 business objectives for a theoretical organisation owning a group of pubs. The objectives are focused on the survival of the organisation:

  • Generate revenue
  • Generate footfall
  • Protect the business from future lockdowns

Pursuing these objectives was then balanced with the needs of the people pub groups serve. This included: customers (regular and irregular), staff, product suppliers and local licensing authorities.

Subsector made educated assumptions from; personal experience, the views of people in the industry and pub customers. Based on this, a set of 11 needs were identified for the assessment. These included needs focused on safety through COVID-19 such as; the need to feel safe, the need to enforce social distancing regulations, providing job security and protecting local communities. They also included desired outcomes such as socialising, feeling normal again, celebrating special occasions and enjoying a pub atmosphere.

The challenge faced by the industry is that to achieve their business objectives by serving people’s highest priority needs, they find themselves having to strike the almost impossible balance between providing a recognisable ‘normal’ pub experience and ensuring everyone involved feels safe in the environment.

If pubs cannot achieve this fine balance, they may find their business at risk of failing customers who may, in turn, choose to avoid the experience altogether. As pubs have been in steady decline in the UK, this could be the final straw for many establishments. Getting this right could be critical to long term survival.

Needs Matrix showing the most important needs of the most important people

Needs Matrix showing the most important needs of the most important people

What do we do next?

While it is useful to understand the priority needs, for organisations finding themselves in this situation, what matters is the decisions taken next. The analysis used the N2D Method’s ‘Initiative Scorecard’ to compare the potential impact (for the people and organisation) of several courses of action:

  • Staying closed
  • Operating as an off-licence with a take-home service
  • Providing home delivery of food & drink
  • Opening with 2m social distancing using outdoor space
  • Opening with 1m social distancing using outdoor space
  • Re-opening to ‘business as usual’ pre-COVID operations
  • *‘Zoom’ pub experience with home delivery.

*While the Zoom pub experience might not appear to be a credible option, including it allowed us to understand if the physical environment was key to an impactful course of action.

The analysis found that opening with 1m social distancing using outdoor space was the best course of action, with 2m distancing coming a close second. This recommendation takes into account; the organisation’s objectives, the needs of the people the organisation serves, the importance of these needs to all of these people and the value to the organisation. Additional dimensions of the cost and time needed to implement a particular course of action were added. Staying closed was the worst option of the set, making this an incredibly undesirable option for organisations wanting to survive the pandemic. This is a view shared by the Founder of Oakman Inns who have vowed their pubs will reopen on 4th July and demanded more clarity from the government.

Due to the Method’s ability to carefully balance conflicting needs in order to understand what will have the most impact, re-opening to ‘business as usual’ pre-COVID operations is an unattractive proposition for everyone. This suggests that it would not make business sense to pursue this over minimum social distancing, even if it were a legal option. A course of action like this risks alienating the people the organisation needs to serve, therefore harming the organisation’s chances of success.