Lecturer in consumer behaviour and consumer psychology at Regent’s University and London College of Fashion and often speaks at industry events, recently Future Stores, Global Female Leaders, and delivered workshops for Desigual, Natwest, NPD Group and Disney. Kate and her associates worked on varied projects with brands like Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser, Desigual and many start-ups (e.g. SnugShack) and agencies (e.g. CrowdDNA). She has also advised Swarovski on their new store concept.

We are talking to Kate about our guests’ behaviours, how they are changing in the face of  Covid-19 pandemic and when will we get back to normal. We also seek her advice in what we can do in our businesses to help our guests find their comfort.

“Working from home is a romantic vision, but it only works if it comes by choice. It becomes a challenge when we do not have control over our work life balance, and this is precisely what happened during the pandemic”

— Kate Nightingale, consumer psychologist, human brands expert

The Initiative: Covid-19 has made 2020 an unforgiving year for the business. The vaccine is on the horizon, but businesses continue to struggle. People struggle, everyone desperately longs for normality. How long do you think it will take to switch back to the normal type of life after the crisis is gone? When will we settle back in new routines, and most importantly when will we start enjoying regular dining out and travelling? When will people get their peace of mind back, start playing an active part in the hospitality industry and contributing to it?

Kate Nightingale: It is not going to take us long to become active again, once we start seeing the effects of the vaccine. We are so desperate for normal life again, and we are taking every opportunity we can even now. Obviously perpetuating fear in media is not helping our sector, the raising cases push us back and make us think twice though. The government is not helping out with putting new solutions. The times are hard and we live in fear to a certain extent. For as long as the service providers are limited with the safety precautions, the fear intensifies, and we naturally feel a bit reserved it is harder for us to have an amazing experience. But on the other hand, it is the safety precautions that help us feel safer, they need to be very perceptible, in the sense of ‘I know I’m safe, but I don’t necessarily need to keep seeing all the posters all the time’. One thing is certain now, we will not go back to exactly the same types of behaviours, we have already changed our routines. Our comfort zones have moved. We have changed the ways we are catching up with friends, the way we work. The hospitality industry needs to notice things are become much more local now. Localness has been growing considerably for quite some time now, and this tendency has only been intensified in 2020.

TI: Does this mean the human topography of cities is changing? Last year we interviewed a great guy, MPS Puri,who was saying these tendencies – increase in working from home will reduce the number of office workers, people will prefer to live further away, closer to nature and therefore also will dine and drink out more locally. This would impact the role of city centres, which will slowly become more for tourists than the local communities. Would you agree with this?

KN: Yes and no. Working from home is a romantic vision, but it only works if it comes by choice. It becomes a challenge when we do not have control over our work life balance, and this is precisely what happened during the pandemic. All the new regulations and restrains are taking away our ability to control things, and in psychology the control means safety. Other aspect is that for many the ability to go to the office or to a co-working space is enabling me to create clear boundaries between my personal life and my work. There are many people who now are slowly starting to realise they do not actually want to work from home. They like having their own desk, with their favourite plant and a framed holiday picture and they still need the home to be owned space, for the family, wellbeing, and above all mental health. The past six months were, and still are, a huge social experiment in this area. We slowly start realising the reason people don’t like offices, is not because they prefer to work from home, but because they are badly designed. They are unified, not considerate of different personality types, not fit for variety of demands, different co-working projects and social interactions. Some big companies took notice and now embrace the impact of the space on productivity and ability of people to better communicate and interact with each other. Places need to be designed in the way that is detrimental to our wellbeing. So yes, when you are forced to work in a room with illuminating white walls, grey desks and cold sharp LED lighting, you might at first prefer to work from home, but it doesn’t mean working from home is ideal, it just means you feel more comfortable in owned space. So I don’t think that this will be a permanent switch, people will go back to working form office spaces, but they will need to be redesigned.

TI: What do you think the future holds for hospitality and tourism? You have mentioned the local hospitality units are more likely to come back to life soon, as they already were during the summer, and they are more likely to sustain their business. What about the other parts – hotels and hoteliers? I have spoken with a professor from Oxford Brookes University and she was comparing a lot of data from the SARS outbreak in China. She said that in SARS’ case, from the moment the WHO announced the world free of SARS, it took usmore or less 3 months to go back to normal. Do you think we have a chance for such a quick recovery?

KN: We would be extremely lucky. First of all, SARS posed rather local than global danger. There were no international quarantine measures. The current Covid-19 pandemic resembles to me much more the same of threatening event as the London attacks or 9/11, where it directly touched our standard way of living, so we will need longer to figure this out. We are still in a constant state of fear and anxiety, we have already become a bit different. I guess, after the vaccine has been introduced and restrictions lifted, it will take at least six months, up to a year for people to start going back to their pre-pandemic social routines. I don’t think we will go back to the same reality we lived in before Covid. We will want to stay closer, our travels to start with are going to be more Europe based, we will explore our countries a bit more. We will be less interested in big cities and our preference to rural areas will continue to rise. We will prefer small boutique hotels. We will appreciate conceptual thinking more – individual business owners will need to find ways to make their own ways and communicate them, the big players will need to drive their attention towards catering for communities. Such a differentiation of brands was already becoming quite strong before the pandemic, this tendency is now only intensifying. Being flexible in experience and design, being reactive and conversant with the customer base will become the new norm. Hospitality has always been strong in this field but mostly in the areas of service, but it is now the time for the hotels and restaurants to start smart designing their spaces. Times for one purpose built is over, the meeting room needs to be able to be transformed to a massage room, private dining area, pop-up bar… Especially in the centres of big cities, where the local community is mixed up with work commuters and tourists.

TI: What about the role of hospitality in the community? The roots of hospitality are in creating the feeling of being together, synonymous with caring for one another. The true hosting of guests is about creating a unique experience but also about creating bonds. The pandemic has naturally turned our hospitality world on its head because of the imposed distancing from each other. There is no home away from home now – would you say this could potentially change the role of hospitality in the longer term?

KN: The more we are being pushed away from each other now, the bigger will be the role of restaurateurs and hoteliers in bringing people back together. There are quite a few important reasons for that. First of all human contact and relationships are the most important for our overall wellbeing and physical health. We have already seen this aspect of our life being depleted over the last couple decades with the development of tech. Even before the pandemic, our need for belongingness was no longer been strongly supplied for, majority of our relationships were not very intimate and on a superficial level. In the era of globalisation and social media we are more likely to have friends on the other side of the globe but the friendship itself is less meaningful. Tech has already created a lot of loneliness and social isolation, now the pandemic intensified those problems and brought mental health issues on the top of that. Hospitality in its best form is the cure for those issues and is delivering many solutions. It creates intimacy and relationships that is built on interpersonal trust. Hospitality also creates destinations within communities so likeminded people can create bonds. How to develop this even further? The answer again is hidden in design details, specific space arrangements, sensory perception.

TI: Following that thought – what do you recognise as the most important elements of company culture that would help bring the so much needed security? Afterall the insecurity today runs not only through our guests, but also through ourselves – the employees, the employers and the business owners. The constant changes in governmental directives, financial hardship – genuine smiles are harder to come by, reassuring others is very difficult. What elements of culture in our organisations could help us strengthening the resilience of our people?

KN: I would say three things. Purpose, transparency and community. Purpose creates meaning in people’s lives. This becomes especially particularly important when we don’t have full control over other aspects in our lives. Creating a close-knit community where everyone’s voice is valued, respected, appreciated and actually taken into the account is crucial for creating the sense of stability in life, which we all lack at the moment. As a business you would benefit here not only by growing your employee’s engagement, but also from the creativity that flows from a wider group of people. Transparency, or in other words – honesty and authenticity, sincerity, integrity, as similarly as important. The brands and companies that were escaping to methods of deception for financial gains, would be now very quickly discovered as frauds. Everyone needs to be extra transparent now, even more so when the situation is difficult and organisations face serious challenges, when the leaders go through the same emotional issues as their team members having honest conversations is really creating your own community, where everyone gets the space and is allowed impact. Transparency develops people and their potential. Talking about people at this stage of global crisis roots future progress. Too many brands and companies have their values statements beautifully written and communicated across the board, and when looking closely into the operation and practice, they do the exact opposite. We can no longer count on our people to be actors that perform on the stage in exchange for salaries. Everyone has the need of being involved, people want to give themselves when they believe in what they are doing.

TI: You have mentioned smart design as the opportunity for creating better experiences within hospitality. What advice would you give to us in this area?

KN: People build their sense of belonging within specific areas at their workplace – be it the personal office space, which would not work in hospitality, or the areas where teams can socialise. We worked with the hospitality business on few occasions, but I find this industry quite resistant to change. Trying to change things around would also involve Front of the House areas and this idea sounds quite scary for experienced hospitality providers, however the changes I have in mind are almost on a sub perceptive level. I have learned over the years that the tiniest changes make sometimes the biggest impact. It is the brain that picks those subtle changes up on a subconscious level, later then to transpose the effects into behaviours, perceptions, decision making and everything else. The things I would suggest are changing colour schemes and lighting in the staff corridors. The music has great impact, as well as the general feel of the materials used around – the softness and hardness of the furniture. The shape of the fonts used in all communications, including internal announcements. There is quite a lot of scientific research that we have thoroughly studied and in all fairness different things work for different spaces, so if you wanted to find out – you would need to hire a behavioural psychologist that specialises in design of workspaces.