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Leisure in a time of lockdown

After Covid-19 was confirmed as a pandemic in the UK on 11 March, the government quickly implemented strict measures to slow the spread of the disease. By 23 March all leisure and hospitality venues had been told to close down. This included all restaurants and cafes, pubs and bars, cinemas, theatres and galleries, museums, casinos, hotels and gyms and leisure facilities, and gradually we saw the UK’s festivals, gigs and sporting events get postponed or cancelled too.

The introduction of social distancing and the lockdown saw workplaces and schools close, bringing about an abrupt change to the way we’ve previously been free to play – the request to stay at home has put a stop to family get-togethers, social gatherings, birthday parties, days out, weekends away and even funerals.

While all sectors of the economy have been affected, leisure industries have been hit particularly hard.  But necessity is the mother of all invention and we have seen great creativity, innovation, and support across all sectors of the leisure industry in a bid for survival.

Out on the town: restaurants, pubs, and bars

With social distancing in place, the most buzzing and atmospheric areas of our towns and cities – cafes, bars, restaurants, and pubs - remain quiet, with many unlikely to re-open again post crisis.

Even before coronavirus, the restaurant industry was volatile as it felt the pinch from rising business rates, an increasing minimum wage and more recently a weaker pound post-Brexit. Even bigger chains with larger cash flows have struggled, with well-known mid-market chains such as Jamie’s Italian, Byron and Prezzo all closing shop permanently. A shocking statistic is that 45% of company insolvencies during the last recession in 2008-09 came from restaurants. More up to date data reveals restaurant insolvencies continuing to climb.

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So, needless to say the restaurant industry will be incredibly hard hit, along with the 3.2m hospitality jobs reliant on a buoyant trade and with up to one third of jobs already under threat prior to the launch of the Government’s furlough scheme (Independent). As the third highest employer in the UK, the hospitality sector has been given additional tax benefits by the Government to prop up businesses as much as possible.

In early to mid-March, Google mobility statistics show an 85% decline in visits to the retail and recreation sector which includes restaurants, bars, and pubs. 

Adding to an already dire situation, large scale events which would have attracted business into on-trade licences and pubs, such as Eurovision and the Euros have been cancelled.  

Restaurants, bars, and pubs are developing new opportunities and partnerships to help them survive. Some have signed up to feed NHS workers during the coronavirus outbreak, with the Meals for the NHS initiative, where public donations enable restaurants to feed nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers.  Lots of bars and restaurants have also set up vouchering initiatives for “buy now enjoy a free meal later”, in a bid to maintain a steady stream of income to cover overheads.  Big business is trying to help too; for example, Diageo has launched a £1m community fund to help bars and pubs pay a proportion of staff wages during this time.

Life online: socialising with technology

To keep in touch with friends and loved ones, people have embraced technology, moving to platforms such as Teams, Zoom and the previously unheard-of Houseparty app, embracing video calling across multiple households. Average weekly downloads of the Houseparty app climbed from 130,000 a week in February to more than 2 million every seven days in March, showing the scale at which people have moved their social lives online.

Let’s get (virtually) physical: sport and gaming

The Grand National was cancelled this year but organisers ran an AR version which aired on ITV in place of the main event. Forty runners lined up at Aintree to take part, using CGI technology and special algorithms to determine the outcome of the race.

In a similar vein to the Grand National, the F1 has recently launched the Virtual Grand Prix Series to replace postponed races, and the Premier League is in talks with its clubs to launch an esports tournament on Fifa 20.

Gaming is without doubt providing a temporary salve for those hungry for live event gatherings. Virtual gigs like the Marshmello live gig on Fortnite are attracting crowds of millions, esport viewership is rising (approximately 14% year-on-year) and spikes in Twitch and Steam activity all provide anecdotal evidence of a category surging during the lockdown. 

A new culture club: music and the arts

Devices such as mobiles, laptops and smart TVs have been the main way to keep us connected with family, but they have also kept us entertained with artists using these devices to reach us in our living rooms. Joe Wicks may well be keeping the nation fit with his 9am PE lessons on YouTube, but theatres, museums and artists have also been using technology (VR/AR) to bring their art to audiences, broadcasting recordings of plays, operas and art exhibitions online.  Live events companies like Secret Cinema have pivoted to offer ’Secret Sofa’ mass movie viewings online, while musicians and bands from all over the world have been streaming free gigs over Facebook or Instagram Live and performing collaborations from home studios. 

What next?

The impact of Covid-19 on the leisure industries is expected to be long-term so these organisations will need to continue to innovate and find alternative ways to reach and maintain contact with their fans and audiences. And similarly, brands that are heavily invested in leisure, sport, music, and the arts will also need to explore different ways to maintain and maximise their associations.

While consumer behaviour has changed dramatically in recent weeks, people are still engaged with leisure activities, just engaging in music, the arts, sporting events, gaming, eating, and drinking in different way. People are happy to hear from brands and businesses but crucially they do not want to see companies exploit the current situation. Those companies that are playing an active role in keeping us connected, fed, or entertained have permission to communicate but adopting the appropriate tone of voice is important.

Although movement is limited, people are still getting out, to exercise and shop, albeit in their immediate locality. The UK’s network of digital OOH screens sits in the heart of many communities and can provide one way for those brands still out there to reach these local audiences, with the capabilities to convey contextual and relevant messaging tailored to the audience and the area. But with the advent of social media and virtual events, it’s also not always essential for people to be at street level to see and experience OOH advertising. We’ve seen multiple examples of great OOH campaigns filling our social feeds in recent weeks.

As restrictions ease, pubs, bars and gyms are going to be amongst the last to open but people will be keen to meet with friends and family to experience things together. There will still be a need to eat, drink, celebrate and commiserate together in parks and gardens, all of which will need planning, shopping and potentially even dressing up as we ease out of our tracksuits.

We might find we return to the more intimate experiences, the boutique under-50 event, or multiple events over shorter periods which will allow brands to interact with their consumers, even if on a smaller scale.

The next article in our ’#NowNearNext’ series will look at what we can expect in the leisure industry as lockdown eases and we begin to find ways to play again.

Alexandra Porritt, client strategy director, Posterscope

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