It’s become something of a cliché — “the new normal.” But is it accurate?
The first part of the phrase, new, is certainly true. For those of us in hospitality, and in many other businesses, our current operating conditions are most definitely novel.
But what about the second part, normal? Do we now have to accept our new status quo as lasting?
In my opinion, yes, that is also true. The changes we’ve experienced since the arrival of Covid-19 are — to a greater or lesser degree — here to stay. I believe we must view our current operating conditions, and many of the changes we’ve been forced to implement to continue operating, as normal for the foreseeable future. Not just until we’ve truly eliminated or suppressed the coronavirus. Not just until there’s a vaccine.
The new normal involves severely limited international visitor numbers, smaller gatherings, social distancing, a heightened focus on hygiene, and a change to working from home. For the hospitality industry, as for industries like tourism, it represents the greatest set of challenges we’ve faced in many decades.
In the early stages, many industries — including hospitality — have been supported by the government, through measures such as the wage subsidy and interest-free loans. A limited number of landlords have offered relief, and some suppliers have offered discounts, but city councils have been more reluctant to help, leaving businesses paying for outdoor food and beverage licenses they couldn’t use.
When it has come, support for businesses has been useful, but for those operators who didn’t use the reprieve as a chance to adapt to the new normal, it may just have delayed what could yet prove to be the inevitable.
Some, with Trumpian optimism, may have assumed the end of government and other support would coincide with the end of the pandemic. When the support dried up, they’d be able to return to the old normal: trade would rapidly bounce back to pre-Covid levels. By using the subsidies and discounts merely to keep their businesses afloat — without addressing the longevity of their business model — they would have ensured their survival.
But if they assumed that, they were wrong. Sadly, in my view, the old normal now belongs to history.
In the short term, perhaps the next 24 months, we must become used to further Covid alert level changes.
While this week’s drop to level one in much of the country was welcome, the ultra-cautious move just to level two in Auckland (which I agree with) fell far short of what is needed to ensure the survival of many in the city’s hospitality sector. And even if Auckland joins the rest of the “team of five million” at level one in two weeks, the city’s latest catastrophe — reduced capacity on the Harbour Bridge — will keep it almost at a virtual level two.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all level shifts will be downwards. The recent news of a traveller testing positive five days after the end of his managed isolation period is a reminder, and a warning, that victory against this virus is a long way off.
Even more ominous, the series of pandemics in recent decades teaches us that when — or perhaps if — this virus is beaten, the next one won’t be far off.
If it has served any useful purpose, Covid-19 may have taught us that our pre-virus sense of security was false, and that those operators who viewed their entry into the hospitality business romantically, through rose-tinted lenses, were in fact blind to the possibility of domestic, or global, disruption to the marketplace.
We now know that some businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels) are too large and too costly to continue operating as before. We now know that the high rents, high operating costs — including staffing — and low margins of the past are unsustainable. We now know there will be more casualties, and that some operators might be advised to jump out of hospitality before they are pushed out by crippling debt.
I am concerned about the toll this will take on those operators. I am keen to see targeted mental health support offered urgently to my industry.
I am also keen to see the government ramp up its support for new and burgeoning industries to create new employment opportunities for those in hospitality and other customer-facing businesses who are bound to lose their jobs.
There is so much opportunity in new technologies, green energy and cannabis. There will be so much need. And there will be both need and opportunity to structure our post-Covid society so that it better meets our long-term environmental and social goals, including the reduction of wealth inequality.
But are our political parties, and are we, serious and bold enough to meet those needs and exploit those opportunities?
In hospitality, change — reinvention, even — is inevitable. We need developers and landlords to create smaller premises. We need operators to match their menus to smaller spaces, to turn their backs on romanticism and focus on achievable and more shockproof business fundamentals.
I can envisage chefs the calibre of Josh Emett or Al Brown catering for customers in 20-seat settings, offering more intimate (but more socially distanced) dining while keeping staff and lease costs low. And other operators building brands that give consumers bespoke artisan experiences at home.
This is what I see as not just possible, but necessary, in our new normal. And then I see the cliché “the new normal” disappearing; I see us accepting it as just plain normal.
Until the next pandemic, that is; until the next global crisis.
By then, we — in hospitality, in business generally, in our health and education services, in our communities and in government — will need to be better prepared than we were this time, for a new “new normal”.