What trends has the pandemic accelerated in leisure?

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What trends has the pandemic accelerated in leisure?

The Covid-19 crisis has been a once-in-a-generation challenge for the leisure sector which had been growing and developing strongly in the period pre-pandemic.  The sector has had to adapt and now that it’s reopening, which innovations will survive into the recovery?

The food and beverage sectors have seen the most innovation. Operators who had never provided delivery and click and collect takeaway have found their existing operations could provide these services, and that they offer a useful long-term extra income source and additional way of servicing their customers.  We are all fed up of take-aways, but can look forward to having even more choice in the future.

Many restaurant formats are likely to get smaller in the future with less in-unit seating needed and road access and parking being more critical. Many of the huge 5,000-8,000 sq ft restaurants of the 90s may have to be converted to other uses such as competitive socialising, cocktail bars and alternative leisure.

Outside seating in the UK was not that common with many operators even closing their outside areas or only using them for a limited period during the year. The pandemic has accelerated a trend to outside eating using partially covered areas, pods and outside heated zones. Demand for outside drinking and eating has been so strong that brewers are reporting shortages of beer!  Despite our appalling weather, better quality outside areas are here to stay and architects and developers will need to plan for future schemes to feature attractive outside areas for operators. We could see more flexible outside space as in the Scandinavian countries where roofs can be retracted, and large doors and windows fold back to open units to the outside.

The Covid restrictions have driven the use of mobile technology, with cinema-goers booking not just tickets but also their snacks before arriving at the cinema. We have seen QR codes introduced to bring up digital menus on mobiles and online ordering in restaurants which cuts down on cost and staff time for restaurant operators. Gyms are now more adept at pre-booking classes and personal trainer slots. Previously the sector had been slow to fully utilise the power of their customers’ mobiles but the use of mobile technology in the customer journey is definitely here to stay due to the efficiencies it offers operators, cost savings and opportunities for data-capture.

Now that it is reopening, leisure can start to engage with its customers fully again. It has taken a battering and not everyone has made it to this point but the sector that emerges will be leaner, fitter and more innovative.  The next five years could be a real renaissance in the sector and a tonic to the difficult times we have all been through.

Ashley Blake, CEO of leisure specialist Otium Real Estate and current chairman of the Leisure Property Forum.

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