Usually when you think of Arena events you think palatial venues, glasses of bubbles, canapés and of course a fabulous three course lunch. Not to mention the shared insights from those at the top of their game and the chance to catch-up with industry contacts old and new.

Well, that may be what you think of when you picture the Arena of old, but much as the rest of the industry has pivoted in these unprecedented times, so has Arena. Swap smart business attire for head-to-toe Sweaty Betty, a central London hotel ballroom for my dining room, bubbles for a mug of tea and a three course five star meal for a hastily eaten bowl of cornflakes and you have my new Arena experience. Not quite the same level of glam, but such is #lockdownlife and despite the current circumstances Lorraine and the team must be applauded for flexing with these challenging times as well as for raising much needed funds through attendee donations to Springboard Charity.

As social distancing and lockdown prevented us gathering in person, it was to the tech video conferencing platform of Zoom we thronged to hear what keynote speaker Johnny Kang, CEO of Bidfood Asia had to share on their learnings in the Asian foodservice market, specifically how it has been effected by Covid. He was also joined by his General Manager, Grace Zhang who manages their operations in (now infamous) Wuhan, China. And to give the UK perspective we had industry legend Dr Andrew Kemp MBE, Vice Chairman of Arena and Group Sales & Marketing Director of Bidfood UK.

So what were the key takeouts from this new normal Arena? My top ten are as follows:

1) Much like in the UK, Bidfood Asia has had to pivot to sell direct to consumer, introducing small pack sizes, splitting pallets and cases where they would have previously sold in bulk to foodservice accounts.
2) With foodservice operations now re-opening they have seen a move to ready-to-heat and deskilled pre-prepared lines as kitchens try to minimise staff numbers and implement social distancing.
3) Measures to keep the public safe have included restaurants being limited to 50% capacity, 1m distance between tables and a maximum of 4 per table, as well as body temperature checks and health clearance for people checking into hotels.
4) The good news is that the post-Covid rebound is happening quicker than expected (this is of course good news, only if there isn’t a second peak) driven predominately by consumers wanting to reconnect with friends. However, they are choosing to keep spend down whilst still meeting up which has seen the higher end, more expensive establishments like Michelin stared restaurants suffer.
5) Interestingly lunch has been the main winner as far as day parts, with workers meeting up at lunchtime with friends (whilst they are out of the house anyway) but staying home for dinner in the evening.
6) As predicted for the UK, Asia has seen an increase in demand for healthy, organic and vegan menu options across both B2C and B2B, as consumers look to make healthier choices and seek out ‘safe’/ ‘trusted’ foods.
7) Equally, consumers are upskilling as they cook more and look to recreate restaurant style dishes at home with adventurous ingredients which has led to a demand for online tutorials to guide home cooks.
8) Both Asia and UK counterparts stressed the need to work with suppliers and to flex with the market, helping to service sectors as they continue in the case of healthcare and come back online in the case of cafes and restaurants, etc.
9) Johnny predicted they would see around 75% return in the away from home market in the next 12 months – so we will see if this comes to fruition.
10) Finally, Andy Kemp made the point that although his business, much like many other foodservice wholesalers, has pivoted to B2C and may continue to drive revenue this way, they are at their very heart a foodservice wholesaler, dedicated to supporting the industry and hopefully seeing things bounce back in time.

It is true that China is ahead of us when it comes to Corona and we can certainly look to learn from their experiences as we travel through the unknown, of course with the caveat that the UK will doubtless have some variables not seen in Asia. However, working in partnership and the ability to be agile and flexible are possibly the two key takeaways from this very interesting Arena webinar. As we have seen things change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis at the moment, but hopefully we will see success stories come out of Asia to help inspire the UK foodservice and hospitality industry which is still reeling from the biggest body blow in living memory.

Here’s to a time when we have a ‘normal normal’ rather than a ‘new normal’, when the crowds will gather, and the bubbles will flow. Until such time stay safe and alert and together we will get through this.

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