Author: Diana Alvarez
For five weeks over June and July, we ran an intensive short course exploring the relationship between COVID-19 and interdisciplinarity. Participants were invited to write a blog post relating to the work they’d done during Explore ID, and, in what follows we present one such blog.
This piece aims to apply the principles of interdisciplinarity to the challenges faced by the British hospitality industry, which has been particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 epidemic. Diana, a professional within the sector and passionate advocate for London restaurants, sought to explore tangible ways in which to leverage the tools, methods and knowledge from across disciplines like urban design, sociology and virology to create a positive future for hospitality in Britain.
On the 23rd of June 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in parliament that pubs and restaurants in England would be allowed to re-open from the 4th of July, as long as they followed the social distancing guidelines laid out by the government. The much awaited re-opening has presented a new set of challenges for an industry that has already been seriously damaged, not only by the lockdown, but as a result of unsustainable business practices that had become widely normalized within the industry.
Despite being the third largest employer in the UK, accounting for 3.2million jobs through direct employment in 2017 and a further 2.8 million indirectly, the restaurant sector is characterised by a disproportionately low profit margin compared to other sectors, and dropping, averaging at 9% before the crisis. These businesses also largely rely on service charge to supplement staff wages, which are often set at barely above the minimum wage. As a result we have witnessed how the government’s furlough scheme has led to millions of hospitality workers receiving 80% of the national minimum wage, in some cases equating to less than ⅓ of their usual salaries.
The pressure on the industry is unfortunately further exacerbated by the current negative response from consumers. Having been open and operating for a few weeks, restaurants across the country are sounding the alarms about an increase in “no shows” which are characterised by guests booking a table, then confirming their visit and finally not turning up on the night without letting the restaurant know. Under the government restrictions, and with consumers’ health as a priority, it is virtually impossible to make up for the loss of revenue and food-waste caused by an epidemic of empty tables.
In such an unsustainable system, where restaurants are struggling to keep the doors open, it is imperative that we explore ways to face the current challenges of keeping businesses afloat in the short term, while also thinking strategically about the future in a more solutions-oriented way.
The hospitality industry is full of creative and innovative leaders who in the last decade have had to adapt to significant changes in consumer habits that have required a fast response from businesses. One might argue that leaders in this space could draw on tradition, experience, and creative insights alone to shape the future of the industry.
However, in order to build a safe and resilient future for the hospitality industry, I propose an interdisciplinary approach. As such, I have framed this exploration under the superconcept of sustainability, drawing from the knowledge and research methods usually associated with a range of disciplines to create a socially, financially and environmentally sustainable system. This initial proposal, which lies at the intersection of architecture, urban planning, virology, material design, sociology, economics, politics and ethics, could draw the roadmap for progress for a much-loved industry that has suffered greatly, but could thrive under a new order.
The rise of the restaurant delivery format was already influencing business strategies as early as 2018, but the lockdown has established its dominance in cities. Architects will be able to adapt existing and new restaurants to a delivery-forward model, including “walk-in pickup lanes”, making restaurants more flexible and resilient to future crises that take diners out of venues for long periods of time.
How might we redesign outdoor eating so that it permeates larger sections of our outdoor spaces? While we have succeeded in pedestrianizing many high streets, city planners will need to reconsider the use of public space, to include sheltered but ventilated areas for dining that reduce the risks of cross- contamination currently heightened inside restaurants.
They will also need to consider how neighbourhoods should include a range of services to meet the needs of smaller communities, and how reducing travel distances for necessary goods and services like supermarkets and pharmacies may also reduce the risk of transmission across largely populated, urban areas. Specialists might use quantitative research methods like modelling to understand the implications of certain design features on contagion rates and so inform restaurant and public space designs moving forwards.
Virologists will need to work closely with both architects and planners to inform their designs in a way that limits contagion. Material scientists will need to collaborate with virologists and designers to create and distribute materials and surfaces on which this virus – and potentially other hazardous organisms and toxins – can be neutralized, preventing contagion.
Sociology will be key in understanding and protecting the diverse makeup of high streets, and to promote the cultural preservation of this intangible heritage that so greatly benefits local communities and the intercultural makeup of cities like London and across Britain. Some of the methods we might use to gather the information we need to solve this problem would be qualitative, in the form of stakeholder interviews of restaurateurs and community members, to understand the full impact of hospitality on different groups.
Similarly, we might look to economics to understand the impact of low wages within the industry on employees and their communities, and explore ways in which the existing imbalances can be mitigated through preventive measures, such as deposits for booked tables and the replacement of discretionary service charge with higher prices, in line with the true value of the food and service delivered.
These proposed changes will need to be brought together through policies and social agreement, in which it will be imperative to clearly communicate to the consumers the role they play in the lifecycle of a restaurant and in the wider economy, as well as the ethical implications of their decisions and actions. While the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been a lifeline to operators throughout the month of August, there is room for a more profound transformation in consumer attitude towards the hospitality industry- a transformation that could replace utilitarian and exploitative behaviour both towards and within the sector with a more collaborative and productive mentality. We might look at the role of psychology in marketing to explore ways to shift the public’s point of view on this issue.
While it is clear that many disciplines could contribute positively, there is no precedence for interdisciplinary cooperation to solve a problem of this scale. Considering the size of the hospitality industry, its key role within the British economy, and the millions of lives that are affected by it, we might explore the creation of a government task force, led by an interdisciplinary project manager, as a way to bring together the specialists from various fields to work collaboratively. While each discipline could put forward their plans, it is essential that an interdisciplinarian, with big-picture understanding of the interconnectedness of fields, unites them coherently. This would reduce the likelihood of negative implications that might arise from single- discipline thinking, known as the “expert problem”, while leveraging the knowledge from across various fields to create a sustainable, balanced and informed solution.
2. Restaurants close to the brink as profit margins tumble, Imbibe
3. Hill and Szrok service charge statement, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCQ4mlDnapQ/
4. Primeur no show statement, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCiNy6QnR0Y/
5. What do the 2020s hold for restaurant delivery? Big Hospitality
6. UNESCO declares French cuisine “world intangible heritage”, The Telegraph