What will hospitality look like in 2023?

Composite of food images

Every crisis pushes people to want something different.

In the 1920’s it was a movement towards freedom. The boisterous Charleston bore no resemblance to the constraints of Victorian-era dance. Jazz’s flamboyance personified freedom. Women cast off the restrictions of corsets, domestic tradition and social rules to shorten their skirts, work, drink and smoke and vote. Coyness gave way to public displays of affection. Technologies that further the cause find their place: cars replacing horses allowed people to travel, not just further, but in style.

This was the Roaring Twenties, the era that helped to heal – or at least forget- the atrocities World War I.

The 2010’s, the credit crunch crisis was no different in opening new behaviours. It came in the form of names like Heston, Shannon, Gordon, Peter, Curtis, Neil, Ben, David,  Tetsuya.

In most industries, it takes one of their own to know the names of those who have reached the top. Not in hospitality, however. Punters who have never spent a day working in a kitchen or restaurant dining room know exactly who is being referred to in the above list.

The rise of the celebrity chef after the GFC had a lot to do with escapism, typical during recession years. Only in that recession, we had visual media and global connectivity in our pockets. Chefs painstakingly assembling intricate dishes wasn’t just a spectacle. It was a showcase of life at its best.

Unlike the celebrity chefs of earlier days who taught us how to repair split mayonnaise or glam up our dinner parties, these chefs gave us the antidote to financial insecurity. We embraced them. As soon as our circumstances allowed it, we flocked to the altars of their kitchens, the multi-million outfitted venues, auditoriums for these chefs’ performances.

We arrived brandishing our social media accounts about, and turned eating into a status symbol. Not for what we could afford, but because we were in the know about where to be (seen online) eating. A new term hit our lexicons: food porn.

As we continued to feed our insatiable appetites for the next food experience, it suddenly stopped as venues where people gather were forced to close.

Will we see a bounce back or a 'new normal'?

If history and current social indicators are anything to go by, we can expect to see both, then neither.

A bounce back scenario will see a return to previous conditions. This will happen at first as months of lockdowns and restrictions ease. The initial rush to will catch up with friends and family and on missed events will present themselves as a bounce back.

‘New normal’ is the phrase used to mean any new habit or attitude that replaces a previous order or pattern. Many in the industry are longing for a new normal of a sustained bounce back facilitated by heightened cleaning and sanitation, better contact tracing mechanisms, and the holy grail, a vaccination.

To see this as the future of the industry requires a view based on a very small snapshots in time. If we pull the lens back however, we should see the full picture of why neither is likely, or necessarily even desirable, for hospitality’s future. Using it to build the future is a high risk approach.

The state of hospitality 2020

Before we get too misty-eyed about the return of the industry of old, here are some facts to remind ourselves of:

  • The underpayment/wage theft issue hasn’t gone away. While we were focused on lockdown rules, legislation has gone ahead to remedy past and on-going underpayments.
  • Our literally insatiable appetites for the next dish that outdid the last in terms of perfection or novelty was going up in direct proportion with the pressures on chefs and decrease in their mental health. The desire for more while paying less  created a high-pressure environment of long hours for some and not enough regular hours for others.
  • The sudden unemployment of hundreds of thousands of workers will turn people off from the industry in the future and encourage them to seek safer options.
  • The longer the pandemic continues, the more time people – often the best and brightest – will have to retrain for other industries.
  • Pandemics are coming thicker and faster, a trend experts say is set to continue unless the food supply chain is overhauled:
    • Spanish flu, 1918
    • Asian flu, origin: birds, 1957 (39 year gap)
    • Hong Kong flu, origin: birds, 1968 (11 year gap)
    • AIDS, origin: chimps, 1980s (~12 year gap)
    • SARS, origin: bats, 2002 (22 year gap)
    • Swine flu, origin: pigs, 2009 (7 year gap)
    • MERS, origin: bats, 2012 (3 year gap)
    • Ebola, origin: bats, 2014 (2 year gap)
    • COVID-19, 2019 (5 year gap)
  • Hospitality is sensitive to disposable income and recovery depends on economic recovery.
  • The industry was losing their customer connections, data (that they never gathered anyway) and profits to third-party apps. The loss of the main point of connection – the dining room – has increased the strength of apps further.

The view for 2023

We know enough about disruptions now to plan for its future. The trap to avoid is to think the visible and immediate impacts, and ignoring the slow-moving, nuanced micro-shifts. The first type of change is just change; the second type is disruption.

So, instead of modelling the future on the past, we should look ahead two-ish years. The two-year view is presumptive, rather than calendar-driven, to allow for the time it takes for invisible attitude shifts and technology adoption to gather enough momentum to establish, coalesce and normalise.

People didn’t ditch their pre-WWI habits, inhibitions and wardrobes in a day. The Roaring 20s emerged about two years after the war. Similarly, two to three years after the dotcom bust of 2002, we saw technology like Facebook, Yelp, Gmail and Skype establish and take off.

By 2023, we might see:

  • Food is less manipulated and processed; natural will have a high premium
  • Tastes become simpler as people cook more for themselves and discover old family recipes
  • The industry will welcome simplified, more natural presentation of food that takes the unsustainable pressure off people to keep upping the ante
  • Automated food preparation will increase, not just driving down costs and removing workforce reliance, but to  produce more contact-free food (yes, I know, early automated food preparation didn’t take off, but almost all ground-shifting technologies fail at first)
  • Health-first consumers who have grown, picked and sourced their own food with more attention, will expect venues to cater for their personalised needs – only feasible through technology
  • Expect hospitality ecommerce to look a lot like retail ecommerce post-GFC
  • Customer service, the series of transaction-based activities, will be decidedly old-school as customer experience becomes vital to building relationships that happen even in the absence of direct customer contact
  • Kitchens and dining rooms may split into different businesses as managing them become more complex

A new role for chefs

As hospitality evolves, chefs will be less the person at the stove or on the pass, to become the trust centre of the industry. We will rely on them to know and verify where food has come from, how it has been processed and the credentials of the producers who provide it (factory processing or cultivators). When we buy their food, we will also buy the integrity of the food supply chain.

Chefs will spend more time client-side, understanding where and how their food fits the needs of their customers’ cultural preferences, heath issues, tastes and family dynamics. Personalisation will reduce the need to source out-of-season produce. Wastage will plummet as intelligent technology and on-demand recipes replace menus once designed to titillate, and the flawed science of anticipating diner demand.

What will actually come to pass isn’t just based on wait-and-see. It’s also going to depend on the actions of the early movers.

Moving early is low risk because you get to learn in a learning world.

We know what happens to industries that move late.