As the leading foodservice agency, jellybean is proud to have partnered with Arena to sponsor an exclusive boutique online event gathering foodservice sales and marketing professionals together to exchange insights around the challenges of the past year, and those of the months ahead.

Nothing quite beats the thrum of a room full of people deep in conversation, but until better days return (which they surely will) the resulting informal Zoom event, which included two breakout conversation sessions, was extremely well patronised, enjoyable and insightful.

With branded suppliers, wholesalers, and operators all in the mix, we had a variety of differing viewpoints all with useful insights and observations. It was great to see familiar faces, meet and converse with new people, and hear all about how foodservice professionals have adapted to the ‘new normal’ and risen to the unprecedented challenges the sector has seen over the past year.

It was not all doom and gloom however, as there were a great deal of positives and learnings for which the Covid crisis has served as a catalyst. Below we’ve highlighted some of the core themes that came out of the day.

The need for agility – Plans set out at the end of 2019 or the start of 2020 went out the window and it’s fair to say that at the start of the pandemic everyone was working ‘on the fly’. Being responsive, often on a day-by-day basis and planning for a completely different world brought obvious challenges, but for many it was also greatly rewarding to be able to help in what has been the biggest national crisis of our lifetime. Innovation, pivoting, and agility characterised the start of the pandemic – as they say, ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ and this was certainly the case.

Three very different lockdowns – The first lockdown was for everyone a shock to the system and many found that despite sales falling of a cliff they had never worked harder (to sell so little). With operators like rabbits in the head lights, along with the rest of us, there was a real sense of urgency and crisis mode kicked-in. However, as time went on with openings and closings and two further lockdowns momentum and engagement waned as the industry found itself punch-drunk from multiple blows through the year.

A hunger for practical content from brands – The one thing most brands found was that especially during the first lockdown there was far higher engagement from operators with time on their hands. Eager for advice and content to help them navigate the unchartered road ahead they engaged with digital content like never before. Content around opening and closing, mental health, setting up click and collect and delivery were all highly popular, especially with independents.

The opportunity to do the right thing – Brands took the opportunity to do the right thing and embrace the ‘we’re in it together’ mind-set, diverting stock usually used for consumer sampling to front line staff, donating product to food banks and care boxes, even preparing meals for NHS front line workers. As well as actively helping customers and supporting the sector with practical advice on opening and closing, charitable donations and flexible terms. All of which will be remembered by the operators in the long term. As it is safe to say those brands that did the right thing will have built brand loyalty like never before.

Building partnerships – One of the real positives from the past year has been the strengthening of partnerships through adversity. A willingness to work for longer term goals rather than short term gains has seen suppliers and wholesalers, brands and operators, work together to find a way forward. It is hopefully a legacy of the pandemic which will help the industry move forward together.

The furlough ‘go slow’ – Many found doing business a challenge with contacts furloughed and uncontactable, or on flexi-furlough, meaning everything took twice as long to move forward. In addition, there is concern that as we come out of lockdown yet again, there will be a further collapse of operators when the support for furloughed employees is removed.

Changes in the way we communicate – Not only did the focus of content change, but the way in which it was delivered did too. The industry had long been slowly moving to more digital and social comms, but the pandemic accelerated this ten-fold. With operators keen to get the latest news updates and advice online, trade news portals saw record breaking traffic figures.

Whilst in-person events, trade shows and Ra Ra days ground to a halt, they popped back up online with virtual trade shows, Zoom sessions and briefings, as we found a way to keep on keeping on.

Whilst at every stage of the supply chain, brands sought to utilise their social media to maintain contact and communicate with their customers, stakeholders, and suppliers. Interestingly LinkedIn, and in particular it’s messaging facility, has seen a renaissance in recent months, as furlough left work emails unread, offering a direct way to get in contact.

Where possible brands sent direct to homes, as offices lay empty, be it press packs, meal kits and of course product samples. Making the most of getting product into the right hands when they had time to experiment in the kitchen.

And of course, the obvious one, considering the event’s context, was of course Zoom and Teams, which have kept everyone meeting (if only virtually) and offered real time efficiencies, as meetings that may have taken a day with travel now may just take an hour. That said, there is little doubt that real life meetings will resume when possible, but it is likely they will be fewer with more day-to-day contact covered virtually now we are all experts!

It’s personal – Interestingly, despite the lack of real-life interaction, for many seeing work contacts in their homes with their dogs and children has broken down the formality that many work relationships once had and helped build more personal relationships, which go deeper than the usual email and telephone call exchange. So, although the dinners and beers may have gone, in their place we have seen people in their natural habitat with all the challenges of working from home helping to create more ‘real’ interactions.

Embracing Technology – It is said that the last year equated to five years when it comes to the take-up of technology in the sector. With click and collect, contactless payment, mobile app ordering and delivery now a way of life. Operators have had to embrace technology as a means to survive and moving into 2021 this will continue. This is especially true in sectors like contract catering where they will need to re-work their traditional model to accommodate more flexible working, which is likely to see office workers dropping down to 3 days in the office rather than the previous 5. Vending, micro-markets and reduced staffing will all come into play with the reliance on new technologies at their core. Indeed, for brands there will be challenges ahead to leverage new technologies, such as app ordering to ensure impulse purchases continue through a screen rather than at a till or bar.

Trust in food – As the crisis has continued there has been an increased interest in sustainability, provenance, traceability (as well as animal welfare and waste reduction) driven by a need to trust our food. Something that will doubtless continue post Covid.

Don’t go silent – The importance of marketing your way through a crisis was laid bare by multiple delegates – both operators and manufacturers. One operator had had to furlough almost all of his staff but made a concerted effort to retain the marketing team, using social media as a practical customer outreach tool. He spoke of bonds strengthened between brand and customer, even when the business was unable to operate as normal. This approach had not only provoked a spike in positive customer sentiment, it will, he hopes, result in a dividend of greater footfall come May.

Doing more with less – With sales hit hard, it is likely that budgets will be under pressure, so marketers will need to work smarter with less. For operators however, consumer comms to encourage them back will be crucial with PR and social campaigns high on the agenda. Many branded suppliers will be looking to rationalise their range if they haven’t already, to allow for quicker production of core items in order to meet the anticipated demand.

City vs. Country – Re-opening for sectors like hotels seems a long way off, something they are not happy about considering all the work they have done on their Covid secure protocols compared to non-essential shops. It is likely city centres will be hardest hit and businesses will remain under severe pressure for the rest of the year. Especially as we are unlikely to see the previous levels of business and tourist travel coming into London for some time. Conversely UK holiday destinations like Cornwall and Devon are likely to see a boom, as some will still be likely to avoid air travel this year, instead opting for a UK based holiday. One operator said he had already had to take on extra staff to cope with customer demand for a hotel based in Dorset but was yet to see such interest translate to his London-based businesses.

Crystal balls required – Upon re-opening, one of the key issues will be gauging what the demand will be, how many people will continue to work from home, how this will impact food to go and travel, how many will stay in hotels, eat out etc. Planning stock levels for operators and ensuring supply will be hugely challenging without any real precedent to go by. Having experienced wasted stock as operators and schools are forced to shut with little to no notice, and then a lack of stock when sectors begin to open again, due to the time it takes to close/open factories and storage units etc, it is unsurprising that operator forecasting is in demand.

Challenges ahead – Obviously, the sector will be hoping for a strong package of support in the budget, but aside from that there are worries around increased costs, Brexit causing delays to imports and raw materials, packing supplies (with the recent issues around carboard availability) and labour availability. There are also so many unknowns. When will schools and hospitals reintroduce hot food at scale? Will Eat Out to Help Out return? Will the dates proposed actually happen (as these are earliest not definite)? So, as the rest of the country happily looks forward to a summer of freedom the sector has a lot of unknowns to contend with. As to how suppliers can help, offering solutions and support around managing costs is an obvious one. As is remembering the importance of creating sustainable relationships where both parties can benefit – continuing that partnership mind-set. Many didn’t expect the return of large-scale events until 2022, so with the roadmap setting out that these can take place from June 2021 there is a lot of planning and forecasting to do for some.

How can agencies add value? – The clear feeling was that creative thinking is where agencies can really add value. Offering up campaign ideas to drive cut through and engagement and helping brands take a step back and do different. Something we at jellybean pride ourselves on.

Thanks to Lorraine for organising this great Arena session and to Peter Backman and Peter Green for facilitating breakout groups along-side the jellybean team of myself, Nick and Cass. If you’d like to talk more about some of the points raised, or if you have a challenge that you feel jellybean, as a leading integrated foodservice agency, may be able to help with please do get in touch.