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Has the guest experience changed forever or will we snap back?

‘Guests are no longer happy just being a face in the crowd.’

When a crisis comes along, there are those who are quick to adapt; there are those who just got with it; and those who fear the sky is falling.

The kind of crisis determines the consequences, of course, but hospitality — and bars in particular — are usually pretty well placed to weather any storm. After all, the saying goes,  when people are happy, they drink to celebrate; when people are finding it tough, they’ll drink to commiserate.

Then a pandemic comes along. 

Seemingly designed to hit hospitality the hardest, the last 18 months of the pandemic have changed the way we do things in the bar. The question is, however, how long will that hold? Is it a temporary change, holding only until we snap back to normal? Or are we really at the beginning of a new normal? 

Adaptability and change is what we’ve learned through Covid,” says Kurtis Bosley of Sydney’s Corretto and the soon to open new Manly venue, Banco.

We are all becoming pretty damn good at finding ways to create exceptional guest experience, no matter how we do it,” he says.

Melbourne has been the Australian city hit hardest by the pandemic, suffering one of the longest lockdowns in the world. That means that guests, when they were eventually allowed to venture back into the bars, were a little bit shellshocked and wanted a little more care from their bartenders, says Hayden Lambert, co-owner and head bartender at Above Board.

The pandemic made us think differently about our service style,” he says. Speed, and our ability to make drinks, led us to overhaul our procedures and some of our methodologies. It brought about a much needed change and has helped us adapt. This naturally leads to a better guest experience. 

Now we spend less time pontificating on the cocktails and more time with our guests allowing, hopefully, for better interaction and our signature ‘Bad Banter’.”

When bars returned from the pandemic shutdown, they were only allowed to do so with restrictions in place — some of which, like the mandate to have everyone seated with service to the table, have stuck around.

When reopening everything had to be table service so we adapted the bar’s service to that,” says Dimitri Rtshiladze, owner of Foxtrot Unicorn in Perth. Which we then realised was a better way of running the space and managing numbers and tables,” he says.

Luckily for Maybe Mae in Adelaide, they had already shifted to a table service model a year before the pandemic hit. But that didn’t mean they could rest on their laurels, says bar manager Nick Corletto.

We had our systems and service flow prepared already, coming back into service and delivering a polished guest experience without skipping a beat,” Corletto says. 

We focused on the realisation that reopening with only a quarter of our capacity, we had to make sure that guest experience was second to none.”

What this move to table service highlights is the need to have everyone in the venue — not just bartenders, but hosts, servers, and anyone touring tables — up to speed on what the venue offers. That means more knowledge across the team on spirits, how the cocktails are made and what goes into them, and what sets the venue apart. It’s a total hospitality approach, and increasingly, it’s what guests expect.

The pandemic also changed the punters.
Although the change in service style was driven by pandemic restrictions on venues, when the punters did come back, they were more valuable than ever.

Coming straight out of lockdown, this meant they were staying put in one bar for most of the night. That however has begun changing.

Guests from what I’ve seen aren’t bar-hopping as much as they’re afraid they won’t get in places,” says Bosley.

I think in the beginning [people were] probably staying put with venue capacity limits,” says Rtshiladze, now I feel that it’s back to normal with the tables turning over a lot in an evening.”

Some customers hold their seats as long as they can,” Lambert says. Where others value the need to visit their favourites, like bees pollinating flowers — jumping from one to another.”

Lambert does say, however, that his guests’ connection with Above Board has become more important since the pandemic, as customer appreciation of what bartenders do has grown.

Our guests want to be regulars. They want to be invested in the experience, they want to be challenged with new ideas,” says Lambert.

They feel like they have a vested interest in your bar, especially if they supported you during lockdown. I think they are no longer happy just being a face in the crowd. They are more likely to introduce themselves. They enquire about the general goings on with our day to day life. It feels like there is a common shared experience that defines our current community,” he says.

Corletto is seeing the same thing in Adelaide, he says.

Guests are gravitating towards [our] suggestions on drinks, which indicates they are missing the feeling of being served or looked after; they’ve been making their own choices for longer than they are used to, and the novelty of surprise and the experiences chosen for them has been rejuvenating,” says Corletto.

Over in Perth, where things have been looking up a lot longer than for the rest of the country, Rtshiladze is finding guests appreciate their bartenders more.

I think people seem to appreciate hospitality venues a lot more now,” he says. There must have been some hectic realisation about a month into lockdown that their make at home drinks actually sucked, and that having a professional make it is worthwhile.”

The takeaway here? “I think people are just more appreciative of good service,” Rtshiladze says.

And that’s the point. As we — hopefully — make it through to the other side of this pandemic, service has never been more important. Guests are looking for more from every experience, from every team member in the venue; it’s no longer good enough just to know the floor, or just to know the bar, you’ve got to own the whole experience. 

Bartenders need to evolve to wait tables, waitstaff need to be able to make drinks — it has never been more important to adopt a total hospitality approach, with teams made up of multi-role players who can work across all aspects of the experience.