Let’s not forget about the business and societal trends before Covid 19

York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson urges caution on snap decisions, based on short-term trends

The summer holidays are in full swing, and York is busy with residents and visitors enjoying themselves. That is more than many retail and hospitality businesses could have hoped for a few short weeks ago.

Hoteliers tell me that August’s occupancy rate is likely to be around 68% – down by about a quarter on a normal summer, but better than many predicted, which backs up national data that North Yorkshire is one of the most popular holiday staycations. 

When I’ve stepped out of the office for lunch over the past couple of weeks, the queues for cafes, bars and restaurants demonstrate that the Eat Out To Help Out promotion is proving hugely popular – in fact, it’s why I step out for lunch and has resulted in me using the next notch on my trouser belt!  I am hopeful that this will not just boost hospitality, but have a positive knock-on effect for retail and leisure.

Talking to BID colleagues in other towns and cities, it seems that, while every location in the UK has been hit by Covid-19, the impact has been very different according to which centre you’re in. York has seen some of the worst effects off-set by our tourism offer.

But those locations particularly reliant on the professional and office sector – Canary Wharf for example – are more badly hit. Here, hospitality businesses dependent on lunch meetings or after-work drinks, are struggling.

Take a broader view

York is not immune to this and it will become more apparent when tourism dies down. City leaders are beginning to speculate as to when some companies will repopulate their offices – might they choose instead to operate permanently via remote staff working from home? Our colleagues at the Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses will continue to provide us with good insight on this subject.

I am always an advocate of long-term planning, but I would also caution against making too many assumptions about the future at this stage. Undeniably, Covid-19 has had a huge disruptive effect on our economy and behaviours, but this must be placed within a context of social and economic trends over the past few years.   

By way of an example, at the time of the 9-11 terrorist atrocity in 2001, I worked in the aviation industry. Public confidence in flying reduced and air passenger numbers fell sharply in the months that followed. Commentators and consultants told us the industry had changed forever: we must act fast and re-plan terminal space and reforecast everything.

Yet, by 2002-03, the amount of air traffic surged and by 2019 circa 40% more air passengers travelled through UK airports than they did pre-911 (arguably not something to celebrate in the era of the climate emergency).

Getting the job done

At this stage with Covid, it is impossible for us to know any definitives. In regard to offices, I do not think that in York we will move completely to home working; at the same time, some of the new working practices picked up during Covid will stick, and let us hope those are the ones that allow flexibility; help reduce carbon emissions; support childcare etc. 

At the end of the day, surely it is all about getting the job done?

On that subject, a couple of big employers have told me some of the initial productivity first seen from mass home working has dropped off, and in one case start to reduce. Some of the reasoning given included impractical work space at home; feelings of isolation; and difficulties of remote management/ motivation. 

While many other companies still report positive outcomes from home working, again we will only truly know the social changes that Covid has made in time. If you look at the modern development of city centres, traditional retail space has been remodelled towards the leisure sector with a huge growth in restaurants, beauty salons and bars. 

Why? Because we are putting a premium on social experiences. And it plays a big part in our working lives. 

How much business and networking is done within local coffee shops, or a drink after work?  I suspect a huge amount, because as individuals we thrive on human interaction and it is where a lot of our creativity comes from – just look at the growth in co-working space/ business clubs.

So as we try to plan for a post Covid world, factors around health and finance will naturally drive a lot of business decisions.  But we should always bear in mind the social drivers that have been long-term trends spanning decades, and how they have shaped many of our businesses. 

Let’s not forget that some of the old normal is worth keeping as part of the new.