As we edge closer to the economy reopening in some capacity, we still have yet to face the reality that many businesses, in the hospitality industry in particular, will struggle to survive with the new (and necessary) restrictions and health guidelines that are being instituted.
With experience running some of the country’s most unique and innovative outdoor spaces, my team and I have observed a strong consumer preference for outdoor dining, drinking and seating. The desire for open-air experiences is greater than ever. As venues begin to reopen, having the ability to expand to an outdoor space is going to be critical. However, not every business owner is comfortable or experienced with an outside operation. It can be a volatile and uncontrolled environment that is subject to weather, enhanced cleaning to avoid pests and it is not always easy to deliver the right ambiance to your guests.
Nevertheless, adding outdoor areas to existing facilities may solve multiple industry and social challenges. Capacity that is limited per social distancing can be regained. Patron confidence can be reestablished by virtue of safer gathering spaces. After so many weeks inside, people’s desire to simply be outside can be fulfilled, which is an important mental health benefit. Further, there is a public health advantage by letting businesses facilitate a controlled atmosphere as opposed to the public taking socializing into their own hands and overcrowding parks or other areas
Our newest venue, The Anchor, is already an ideal location for an evolving world that safely and slowly opens back up – given its large outdoor environment and segregated widespread seating areas. It also feeds into a consumer base that is eager for summer outdoor relaxation and entertainment. I urge other venue owners to create their own outdoor option that is simultaneously shared and solitary. The Anchor is currently Boston’s only multi-story performing and visual arts venue, open-air wine and beer garden and special event setting. We hope that our success in open-air venues can set an example of how to keep people sociable and entertained as well as separated and safe. With over a decade of experience activating outdoor and public spaces, The Anchor only being the most recent example, we have collected years of feedback and proven strategies that demonstrate the strength and viability of shifting more attention and resources outside.
There is an entire industry at risk – in every city in America. Some municipalities are beginning to encourage the outdoor strategy, but it is time for the whole country to start thinking this way. Not every establishment is focusing on open-air areas – and it should. We also fully support the need for local governments to remove potential bureaucratic or administrative hurdles to enable more establishments to create outdoor areas whenever feasible. Navigating this new “normal” amongst COVID-19 is not black and white, it is nuanced. The creation of more outdoor venues will provide a runway for economic revitalization and potentially alleviate further economic damage without risking anyone’s health.
The obvious reality is that many hospitality businesses will limp toward reopening, but then be so far from a capacity that is going to enable survival. We could be on the cusp of an entire industry reshaping for the worse. Many restaurants, cafes, bars and small event venues will go under by the end of 2020. Even if they are allowed a critical capacity that would meet financial needs, patrons may not come out of fear.
The concept of enabling outdoor spaces could satisfy a lot of needs: naturally circulated air versus indoor ventilation and possible larger spaces for social distancing. Medical evidence points toward being outside as safer than indoor venues. Even without those observations, consumer preference is definitely skewed outdoors.
These newly established open-air seating and serving areas could be semi-permanent. Parking spaces, adequately wide sidewalks, and/or alleyways can transform into appropriately distanced patron seating. Temporary street closures could enable businesses without outdoor options to utilize a large, spaced out, shared venue with neighboring restaurants, cafes and bars. One of the world’s earliest adapters and thus far the benchmark for shared outside venues is Vilnius, Lithuania. The city has turned public squares into shared al fresco gathering. Cities and towns across the United States can and should do the same. While some cities have broadly discussed scenarios, the time for action is upon us and it needs to be universal across the country.
My own business has little to gain from others expanding outdoors as we have long made our niche in open-air venues. However, embracing both the challenge and opportunity of shifting more establishments outside can help scores of others. It will require collaboration, participation and innovation. The regulatory side needs to eliminate obstacles and embrace this notion. Businesses need to think differently and creatively. Together, the public and private sectors can save jobs, businesses, and the cultural fabric of so many of America’s neighborhoods. Moving outside may be the best tactic to mitigate further economic damage to an already devastated industry.
By Chris Sinclair
Founder, The Anthem Group