Keeping guests separated and discouraging them from congregating goes against the instincts of every pub owner, however, while COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the Government of British Columbia has enacted regulations that do just that. While, at their core, the Provincial Health Officer mandates are meant to discourage the spread of the disease, business owners are having to make adjustments. There are still ways to promote a sense of warmth and camaraderie for guests though, while remaining compliant with regulations.
To keep up with social distancing and maximum capacity restrictions, there may have to be fewer tables for patrons to sit at, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still have a good experience.
According to Greg Sandhu from Triibox Studio, a design firm in Kelowna, try to redesign your seating arrangement so that guests can face each other as much as possible. Not only does this encourage guests to talk to each other, but it can help create a sense of enclosure, which plays into the intimate atmosphere.
JC Scott, of JC Scott eco Design Associates in Victoria, says that the best solutions are often the least expensive. The last 18 months have been an exercise in improvisation anyway, so why not get creative? Use plants, art, or décor to create partitions or divided areas. “Homemade solutions are great,” he says. “I’ve been encouraging things like cafe curtains and see-through partitions.” If renovations are within the budget, though, Scott has a better idea. “Booth seating,” he suggests. “There is hardly anything better than a booth seat to create a sense of intimacy, security, and acoustic privacy.”
Acoustics can be a great way to encourage an intimate atmosphere. Acoustics refers to the way sound moves around a room. Since sound occurs in waves, these waves can bounce off of the walls, floor, and ceiling and help patrons feel comfortable and cozy, or weird and off-kilter, depending on how the room is set up.
“One problem a lot of restaurants have is acoustics. There are two solutions: one is to use acoustics to help people feel private and quiet, the other is to work with bad acoustics and have so much noise that they can’t hear anything but the person in front of them,” Scott laughs.
A lot of parallel walls, glass, and a lack of soft surfaces can make sound reverberate and echo, making a space feel vast and empty. You can quickly improve the acoustics in a room by adding “acoustic absorption” in the form of fabric panels or curtains or at least covering smooth, shiny surfaces that will bounce sound waves around. Test the acoustics in your space by simply talking or playing music in different locations and paying attention to how it sounds, as well as any other sounds you pick up in the area.
Like Scott says, noise, or lack thereof, plays a huge part in how guests feel in your establishment. Want a lively atmosphere? Play upbeat music at a higher volume. Conversely, slower tempo melodies can encourage guests to enjoy a quiet conversation.
Aside from being great for acoustics, soft fabrics and seats are essential for making sure guests want to hang out. “Use soft fabrics and cushioned seats that encourage people to sit longer and be more comfortable,” says Sandhu. “Can you comfortably lean forward with your elbows on the table or lean back and put your feet up, so to speak?”
Ergonomic, comfy seats encourage guests to keep the conversation going.
After rearranging the seating area, there are bound to be gaps in the floor plan, especially with dance floors and other “congregation areas” off-limits. “I love to use live plants to fill the space,” explains Scott. “Put heavy-duty wheels under potted plants, then you can move them around and use them as partitions without having to place a typical folding wall or something else.”
Live plants can add to a lively colour scheme, as well. According to Sandhu, warm, earthy tones are generally considered more calming and inviting. “There’s a psychology behind different fabrics, colours, and lighting—even different patterns of fabric evoke different emotions,” he says.
Colour psychology is the theory that different colours create different effects on the mood and brain. It may sound odd, but there are scientific studies showing how even the slightest variation in hue can change how a subject feels. For instance, red has been shown to inspire passion, conversation, and even hunger, while blue has been shown to slow the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and promote a calming atmosphere.
If your location is lucky enough to have outdoor space to expand into—do it! Temperatures are dropping, but guests still want to enjoy the outdoors. “You’ll see a lot of patios that use fireplaces to create that outdoor living room setting,” notes Sandhu. “When the sun is down and you want to encourage people to use the patio, make sure it has soft lighting and maybe some heated elements to keep people warm.”
He suggests that lighting with a warmer hue, similar to candlelight, creates a cozier space than bright, daylight tones. During the day, guests visit the patio to soak up the sun, so seasonal plants and bright colours are great for attracting the eye. In the evening, soft, warm lighting is better at encouraging good times.
Don’t forget to continue the intimate atmosphere outside, as well. According to Scott, the most successful patios are the ones that keep the same sense of enclosure and feeling of security and privacy outside and inside.
COVID-19 has certainly thrown everyone for a loop—the hospitality industry most of all—but with a little ingenuity and creativity we can come up with solutions that not only keep butts in the seats but keep those butts safe while they’re there.