By David Hopkins
The vaccine passport has now rolled out in Ontario, and with it comes increased uncertainty and complications for restaurant operators, who have already faced incessant turmoil and scrutiny over the past year and a half.
While the details of the vaccine passport and its enforcement vary from province to province, the gist of it is fairly straightforward. When entering non-essential indoor businesses, such as restaurants, bars, clubs, events, and more, guests must present their proof of vaccination and often a government-issued ID.
While many obvious concerns follow from this new mandate, the general notion in the hospitality industry right now is a sense of unpreparedness in terms of understanding the rules, knowing how to enforce them, and determining how to keep operations running smoothly on top of it all.
While this is a consumer-focused mandate at its core, rigorous restaurant staff training will be key to successfully navigating this rollout; there is a shift in restaurant focus from ensuring guests have a good time following the rules.
The industry is already facing a staffing crisis, as many restaurant workers left for careers in other sectors over the course of the pandemic and aren’t looking back. Now, operators are being forced to get by and strive to continue providing a 10 out of 10 guest experience with bare-bones staff and a lack of skilled workers. Out of necessity, they are hiring those lacking experience and skill and instead beefing up training in an attempt to find and retain employees. The vaccine passport rollout only muddies the situation, as even seasoned restaurant workers aren’t completely clear on its power and role, let alone hospitality novices.
Restaurant operators should count on and plan for conflict and confrontation. It occurred throughout the pandemic, with masking and social distancing requirements in place, and will only intensify with additional mandates.
As a result, extensive staff training in resolving conflict and mitigating confrontation is critical. This includes training staff on standardized responses and protocol for certain situations that are likely to or have already unfolded at your establishment. Run through a range of scenarios with your team and ensure that everyone is on the same page and briefed on your establishment’s response and procedure, as well as the government’s regulations. For example, we recommend checking customer vaccine passports and IDs at the door rather than at the table. This way, the rules are black and white from the start, and it won’t be as difficult to get diners to leave their table rather than leaving the entrance.
It may also mean hiring additional security staff to bolster and protect staff and enforce rules. Many restaurants are turning to security staffing companies for additional insurance now, as regular restaurant staff are often already overburdened with duties at work or not in a position to manage certain levels of conflict.
While there have already been examples of restaurant and customer pushback around vaccine passports since the rollout, there is hopeful data suggesting that it will encourage diners to get their shot. A recent survey we conducted focused on consumer attitudes regarding returning to restaurants, 66 per cent of respondents said that being vaccinated was an extremely important influencer in their decision to return to indoor and outdoor dining. The outlook is promising in Europe as well. France introduced their passport on August 9, 2021, and over one million citizens signed up for vaccination appointments the day after it was announced.
As always in the hospitality industry, communication is incredibly important. As much as possible — on your website, social media or signage — manage customer expectations ahead of time to create a seamless experience. Let people know what to expect and what to prepare for when dining at your establishment; if diners come prepared and patient (with their vaccine receipt and ID ready), they can still have an enjoyable restaurant experience.
It’s easy for this to become a polarizing issue, so it’s crucial to share the message that restaurants are simply following the government-mandated rules rather than taking some kind of stance; they still strive to create great guest dining experiences. But the consequences are significant. In Ontario, restaurant owners face a minimum fine of $1,000 if they violate COVID-19 protocol. In B.C., it is $2,300.
A few weeks into the passport rollout, it’s clear that this new mandate will not be without challenges. But, as with everything throughout the pandemic, restaurants will pull through with rigorous training, clear communication, and fierce resilience. While this added checkpoint brings complication and confusion, we’re optimistic that it also brings us one step closer to a new normalcy and ease of operations for restaurants in the future.
David Hopkins is president and founder of The Fifteen Group, a leader in restaurant profit maximization. With offices in Toronto and Vancouver, The Fifteen Group has helped over 1,000 restaurants achieve their profit goals.