Liberation Group’s managing director of pubs and inns, Jayson Perfect tells The Morning Advertiser (MA) that he’s never spent so much time in front of a screen.
Since last orders were called in pubs across the UK on 20 March, Perfect – who joined Liberation-owned Butcombe Brewery from Palmers Brewery as MD in November 2016 – has swapped air miles and time on the road for Zoom calls and quizzes with general managers across both the British mainland and the Channel Islands under what he’s dubbed ‘Project Stay Together’.
Since closure, Liberation Group announced it would not collect any rent from its tenants for the duration of the shutdown, to a maximum six-month term, after which the group would then cancel 50% of headline rent and offer further packages of bespoke support measures available on an individual basis.
Whether you spin it as 73 days, 10 weeks and three days, or almost one fifth of 2020, it’s been a long and costly dry spell for the sector by the time Perfect speaks to MA on 1 June. However, he stresses that patience is paramount in starting to turn the tide on the novel coronavirus crisis.
“One of the key things is there are no prizes for rushing this – there is no gold medal for coming out first,” he tells MA. “We will do this properly, we will do this effectively, and we will do this only once.”
The undercurrent of Liberation Group’s shutdown is that “perception is key” according to Perfect, meaning that a focus on maintaining consumer confidence in the Liberation Group is an “absolute must”.
“When the Government mentioned 4 July, I’m happy to say we were way ahead of that,” he says. “We already had everything in place, all the stakeholders across the company had already bought into what the strategy was.
“We need to do everything we can to ensure our consumers and our teams – when they get back to work – feel comfortable in the environment they’re in because what we don’t want to do is take away from the amazing experience of coming to a pub.”
The world’s your oyster
Perfect, who is originally from South Africa, says that monitoring the evolving post-lockdown situations across Asia, through Europe and as far afield as New Zealand and Australia has been crucial in devising his Liberation strategy.
“It’s been handy but frustrating at the same time because you’re constantly watching different countries take different approaches,” he says. “I’m very lucky I’ve got family and friends around the world so I’ve been in contact with quite a few of them asking how it’s working. I’m finding my favourite word at the moment is ‘hypothesise’ – we’ve been doing a lot of that.
“We’ve all watched how New Zealand had an extreme lockdown and has come out of it slowly and I think they’ve almost eradicated it from the country now, which is amazing to hear.
“The family over there are quite confident in going out because they’re confident in how it was dealt with and is being dealt with by premises. They do have social distancing, which they’re all adhering to, but they’ve all just been quite mature about going about their daily lives and trying to get back to a semblance of normal.”
Testing the waters
Even though the geographic spread of Liberation Group’s pub estate seems smaller than that of Perfect’s social circle, the Jersey-based group finds itself plotting a different post-lockdown course to operators based on the British mainland.
The group currently operates 68 predominantly freehold pubs across Jersey (44 pubs), Guernsey (22 pubs) and Alderney (2 pubs) on top of 30 pubs across Somerset, Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and Wiltshire through Butcombe Brewery – which it acquired in January 2015.
“What a lot of people don’t see sometimes is we have to put another two hats on because Jersey and Guernsey have their own Governments with their own laws and their own rules,” Perfect explains. “They release them on a weekly and daily basis, and we have to adapt accordingly to those as well as the UK.”
Yet, despite potentially choppy waters, Perfect counters that running pubs on Jersey and Guernsey – which are currently loosening lockdown restrictions faster than the UK mainland and are expecting to open some pubs in June – offers a unique opportunity to test drive any reopening plans for sites on mainland UK.
According to Perfect, these will revolve around a phased reopening comprising sites boasting the company’s largest indoor and outdoor trading areas where social distancing and consumer confidence boosting elements of service can be successfully implemented. Perfect explains he’s already spent a number of days in trade lugging furniture around empty sites to try and visualise post-lockdown trade.
“We’ve got robust four-week and two-week reopening plans for our teams depending on the size of the business and when they’re phased in,” he continues. “Within that is an immense amount of training for our teams – that doesn’t matter whether you’re a head chef or a kitchen porter – you’ll get the same level of training.
“We want to trial this in those sites and then roll it out accordingly – and that does help with the UK.”
Approach to social distancing
“We are quite lucky in having Guernsey and Jersey and being able to open and trial what we’re attempting to do as a reopened, new-look Liberation business,” Perfect continues. “There’s a lot of noise about two metres being unfeasible for our businesses and I absolutely stand by that as well with the rest of the industry in saying that it is extremely difficult to consider opening our businesses at two-metre social distancing.”
While he explains that Liberation Group has passed up the chance to reopen sites on Jersey and Guernsey under two-metre external social distancing, Guernsey – where Perfect explains there hasn’t been a new case of Covid-19 for more than three weeks at the time of writing – announcing plans to cut distancing to one metre offers an ideal chance to dip a toe in post-lockdown waters.
“Where the rule changes to one metre internally and externally it becomes a percentage game,” he continues.
“You can then look at your business and start asking how many times a day you’re 100% full on all covers. The reality will be there will only be certain sessions during your day when you’re 100% full so, therefore, you can remove tables and create that distance between.
“It doesn’t have to be a massive visual difference and my whole point to our teams is that anything we put in that is encouraging or showing social distancing needs to be something we can use in our business moving forward to enhance the way it looks and feels.
“I don’t just want to put big Perspex screens up everywhere to make people feel like they’re sitting in goldfish bowls, I want distancing measures that we can use. If we distance our tables far enough apart, we could put some nice plants in between, some fantastically designed doors that we could utilise separately to create private dining rooms afterwards. It is about perception and where we are absolutely going by the letter of the law, it’s important that we do that.”
Perfect continues that, as an industry, pubs need to work to ensure that the experience they offer customers post-lockdown closely resembles the one they remember from before the novel coronavirus outbreak – even if it is under social distancing or amid behavioural changes.
“Talking to people through Asia, and then into Europe more recently, consumer behaviour is being dictated to by businesses – that’s the feeling I get,” he explains. “So if you go into a business and it feels like you’re walking into a clinical setting, that is not very inviting, and there’s no atmosphere, consumer behaviour changes.
“We’ve also seen Twitter saying that all the employees can work from home evermore. We’ve got lots of people who travel a lot who, like myself, have realised that through Teams and Zoom you can effectively communicate a message very quickly across several islands up and down the country. That allows time to then be at home and the possibility of going to the pub earlier in the evening, or possibly in the afternoon to have some lunch.
“As such, we’re looking at all the different offers – from breakfast to afternoon – and want to allow our consumers to come in at any time they feel comfortable. We don’t want to dictate to them in any way shape or form. It’s going to be difficult enough coming out of this as a consumer and as a business so the more flexibility we can offer as an industry, the better.”
But is there anything that Liberation Group has done for, or learnt about, its customers during lockdown that it plans to implement when sites reopen?
According to Perfect, the winner of the Best Food Offer gong at both the 2019 and 2020 Publican Awards has not only had a huge focus on revamping its menus but hastened its adoption of digital solutions across its estate.
“We closed all the pubs, obviously, but we’ve continued to brew in both Jersey and the UK, and to pretty good success,” Perfect explains. “Our volumes may be down, but our online market has been exceptional in the local vicinity around Bristol and Bath, and in going to supermarket trade. The lesson we’ve taken from that is that there is definitely an appetite for online and we want to focus on that when we come back – on our food in particular.
“We want to ensure we can offer that level of food to people who want to come and go home. With that in mind, all of our menus will allow for a takeaway option when we reopen.
“Not only that, we were working on an app to launch in the UK and now we’ve escalated that over this lockdown and I’ve pushed for us to get not only the app to order and pay within our businesses but, equally, a takeaway, click-and-collect element to that too. We’re very excited to roll that out and it goes back to giving consumers the flexibility. We want to put decision-making back into our customers hands again.”
Inspired by public demand
By the time sites start to reopen on 4 July, pubs will have been closed for 106 days – or 28.96% of 2020. During these weeks and months, Perfect tells MA that he’s been inspired by the public clamour for the long-awaited return of the great British pub.
“It’s really important we start to remind the British public of how amazing the British pub is – not that you need to, by the way. The number of people who talk to me about ‘when are you opening your pubs? I can’t wait to come back’ has been really inspiring and it should inspire all of us to go out of our way to ensure we do look after our teams and our customers are much as we possibly can.”
What’s more, Perfect says he’s enjoyed seeing column inches dedicated to different takes on how and when pubs will reopen.
“I find it challenging,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and the Jersey press may be saying one thing and Guernsey press may be saying another thing. The UK press might be saying, ‘pubs aren’t open until December’ then two weeks later you open the newspaper and it says, ‘pubs open 4 July’.
“You’re constantly adapting. It’s a good challenge and what it has done is kept me, in particular, on my toes – and our senior team. We’ve had to adapt very quickly to situations and run scenarios effectively to ensure that we’re ready to go. It excites me.
“We want to make sure we come out as a smarter, leaner business that’s a bit more streamlined and understands what our consumers want and that comes down to consumer confidence, team confidence and communication.”
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