A FOODBIZ SPECIAL by MISE EN PLACE & MEP TV
Mise En Place Magazine together with MEP TV recently hosted a live stream FoodBiz event titled “A Look Outdoors While Indoors”. The idea and title of the programme perhaps does not need much explanation as we all know why we are indoors more than out these days. To keep the spirit alive for the foodservice and hospitality industry, our moderator Katty Lai from Mise En Place Magazine reached out to some friends from the industry in the region to get a view of what’s been happening on the ground in the country that they are in.
From conversations with 2 guest speakers in Shanghai, we managed to gain some great insights on how things were in China when COVID-19 hit and how it has been ever since. Our first guest speaker was Mr Andrew Clayton, General Manager, T&S Brass, Shanghai who is also the Sales Director of T&S Brass for Asia Pacific while our second guest speaker was Mr Charles Biddle, General Manager, Technology for Hospitality of DKSH, Shanghai.
Below is a short recap of some of the conversation with our esteemed guests which revolved around 3 segments in particular:
1. What happened on the ground in China when Covid-19 hit;
2. How China is coping today despite Covid-19 still being present;
3. The future in China and how Covid-19 has changed the hospitality industry.
Segment 1 – When Covid-19 hit China
In the first segment, one of the first few questions that we posed to our speakers was about their experience of the market when COVID-19 first hit the country in December 2019. We wanted to know what was happening on the ground in China for businesses especially, when the virus first hit and Wuhan went gone into lockdown.
“Back in December 2019 and early 2020, we were in the midst of Chinese New Year celebrations and it’s common that everything is usually quiet during this time as everyone is on holiday. But when I got back from Japan, everything was eerily quiet and it was very surprising to see that there was no one in the airport or on the streets!” Andrew recalls.
Charles also recollects that he had had a business trip planned to Wuhan in December 2019 but cancelled it because he became aware of a virus outbreak there. Instead, he went back to America and returned to China in early March 2020 and what he saw was empty streets and empty buses in Shanghai which was so shocking for the country’s biggest city.
When asked if there were already strict SOPs in place by the time he returned in March, Charles further recalls that upon emerging from quarantine, China had already implemented a QR code system which could be accessed through AliPay, mobile payment or WeChat messaging system and this system tracks where your phone has traveled to and any exposure that you may have had based on other people’s cell phones.
To the question of whether businesses were still running as usual at that time, and if people were working from home or at the office, it was a mix of both for the employees at DKSH and T&S Brass before March but by late March 2020, everyone was mostly back to work with strict workplace SOPs in place.
For other businesses in the hospitality and F&B industry, needless to say, hotels were hit the hardest as they had no international customers from January to July 2020. During this time, food delivery in China experienced a huge boom as restaurants didn’t open till mid-March and most people preferred to eat in their own enclosed office with close colleagues than at a restaurant. However, when schools began to reopen by late April 2020, there was a clear change in consumer behaviour. People started to fill up restaurants and that has continued on until today.
With movement restrictions in place, business was affected during the first half of 2020 for both T&S Brass and DKSH in China. But the second half of the year showed vast improvement as business grew stronger, almost exactly as it was in the fourth quarter of 2019. During this time, even the hotel industry began booming once again with close to a 100% occupancy as Chinese tourists who used to travel abroad for holidays were now travelling within the country.
Segment 2 – China today in times of Covid-19
While most countries around the world have been going through a second or third wave of the Covid-19 outbreak, China has managed to contain the outbreak to a certain extent. According to Andrew and Charles, there may still be ripples of Covid-19 in China but there were no waves.
“There are some isolated cases here in Shanghai and when this happens, the whole city will shut down and no one can travel in or out of that city. After 3 or 4 weeks, the problem would have been resolved. In fact, I would say that the second wave never really occurred. In the past 3 weeks, there were quite a number of Covid cases which caused a lot of concern but that seems to be weaning. In the whole of China, there are usually less than 500 cases a day and sometimes less than 100 cases a day, so it doesn’t look like businesses will be impacted when we return to work after Chinese New Year in 2021.” Andrew shares.
To the question of what occurs when Covid cases increase, Charles explains that there will be some SOPs implemented. “In the past few weeks (early January 2021), I have suddenly had to present my QR code in order to enter the office with cameras nearby to show our body temp as we enter. This SOP has re-started as we didn’t have to do this from June till December 2020.” Charles explains.
Despite the slight increase in Covid-19 cases in early January 2021, it appears that people in China are still able to dine out as per usual. According to both Andrew and Charles, there hasn’t been much change from July 2020 as every restaurant in most shopping complexes appear to be packed, which is normal in Shanghai. “If Covid-19 remains stagnated and barring any resurgence in this outbreak, 2021 could be a better year for business and the country as a whole” said a hopeful Charles.
Segment 3 – The future in China and how Covid-19 has changed the hospitality industry.
When asked what had surprised Charles and Andrew the most about the pandemic and economy in China throughout the whole of last year, both replied how surprised they were at how little has actually changed in the F&B and hospitality industry in the country. Covid-19 did not seem to change or improve hygiene practices in China as was happening in other countries around the world. “We had been hopeful that there would be more hygiene regulations and that would have also been good for some of our products that are well set-up to control hygiene or have very high hygienic selling points but sadly, this did not happen.” Charles expressed.
Ghost kitchens may become an emerging trend in the future but what may come sooner is more connectivity between equipment which will have huge implications for hygiene control. There will be an increased need for hygiene especially as China’s population grows older with the need for elderly care.
“We also hope that we will all be able to travel out internationally again. There are a lot of people who are still stuck outside waiting to re-enter China, so we hope that maybe in the 3rd quarter of 2021, further travel restrictions will be relaxed, or travel is allowed to designated places in the region like Hong Kong or Taiwan. We also hope that more foreign companies will be able to participate in the upcoming HOTELEX SHANGHAI in March 2021” adds a hopeful Charles.
We would like to thank both gentlemen for their time and we look forward to a Hot Pot with them soon!
To listen and watch the live stream of this FoodBiz event, do log on to our Hospitality by Mise En Place Facebook page or access this link.