Stage 3 restrictions have come into effect for regional Victoria and hopefully for metro Melbourne soon.

You can just hear the clattering of keyboards as hospitality managers type the numbers into a spreadsheet trying to make it work. And for some, it won’t. Well, possibly not with the lower-cost, high-turnover model that has been the default for most venues in the past and considering the limit of customers allowed in a space.

The hospitality industry will need to seek out other ways to make this work, at least for now and possibly for the foreseeable future.

Mitchell Harris Events Regional VictoriaHow COVID has forced some operators to reconsider how they do events.

Mitchell Harris in Ballarat is one business that has always made small experiences a part of its product mix. The Curious Winemaker series has been running for 6 years and has not only provided revenue diversification for the business, but a unique opportunity to connect with customers.

“The Curious Winemaker event gives me the chance to really go deep into the winemaking process with the customer,” says winemaker John Harris.

“Attendees get a chance to learn more about the winemaking process, and hopefully we end up with a loyal customer at the end as well”.

Just before the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus shut down the restaurant and wine bar, Mitchell Harris had released tickets to ‘Taste of Spain’ and ‘Taste Local’ dining experiences intended to be held at the restaurant.

“We had to quickly turn these into takeaway events instead and really were unsure if it was the sort of thing people would be interested in doing at home. We hoped to receive orders for around 10 to 15 and ended up with 120 for Taste of Spain and 130 for Taste Local”.

The positive reception of these at-home experiences has given John and the rest of the team cause to consider how these will be run in the long-term.

“Now that we can open the venue again from next week we are already planning our next themed experience. This time we are thinking of running the event inhouse as well as delivering to people at home. The recent crisis has forced us to rethink how we deliver our themed dining experiences.”

A rising consumer trendAustin co regional experiences

Of course, it’s not as if the recent COVID-19 crisis was the catalyst for small group experiences, it’s been a rising trend for years now.

A 2016 survey, conducted by event ticketing company Eventbrite, observed that the popularity of pop-up dining events had grown 82% in the previous year. Airbnb launched Airbnb Experiences in 2016 to complement its marketplace for peer-to-peer accommodation. There are now more than 40,000 experiences listed on the site, with the majority of bookings falling into the Food and Drink category.

In the retail world, some retailers are forgoing traditional brick and mortar stores and are instead putting the same budget into experiential pop-ups that leave visitors with a visceral memory and plenty of Instagram photos. A new market for ‘short-term’ retail leases has been created as a result.

Here at One Hour Out, we were quick to note the popularity of small-group, hands-on experiences and have been pleased to see our marketplace for these types of experiences grow in popularity.

By attending some of these experiences myself, I have had first-hand insight into the types of people that go and what they get out of it. Attendees are quite the mixed bag; from a small group of ladies on a ‘girls weekend’, to ‘food/wine/art/craft nerds,’ to a lovely lady I met at an event in Gippsland who hands family duties over to her partner once a month for some special ‘me’ time.

Everyone I have spoken with has expressed the same desire for attending: to learn something new, visit a new place and meet new people.

It’s a powerful combination and I believe shows people are looking for something more beyond the standard ‘eat, drink and leave’ experience that is the norm.

Search within for the perfect concept

When it comes to developing a small-group experience, the best place to start is to think about your business, your brand and the community around you.

Consider what it is that makes your business unique? What is the ‘special sauce’ in what you do? Is there a special talent hiding amongst your staff? What is different about the space you work in? What is its history? Who are your neighbours, what’s their ‘special sauce’ and how could it be combined with what you do in new and interesting ways? Aligning your answers with an understanding of your audience’s interests will reveal a wealth of ideas to put through a lens of the ability to access the right resources and reach profitability. And in current conditions, how can this concept be delivered in a way that aligns with current restrictions and keeps both staff and customers safe.

seville estate small group experiencesWhen it came time for Seville Estate to reopen the restaurant with a 20 person limit, the team started to seek out other options to ensure this next phase was actually sustainable for the business.

“Normally the property homestead is rented out as accommodation”, says hospitality and experience manager Tony Layton.

“However the way space is laid out, with a central kitchen and two dining rooms at each end, we realised that it is much more valuable to us right now as an extension of our dining room”.

A small-group, private dining experience with a $120 per head set menu was launched that gives customers a dining option that also caters for some peoples ongoing anxieties around COVID-19 by hosting group bookings away from the main dining room and implementing ‘low contact’ service.

“This new private dining experience, in a historic homestead, has also provided us with a whole new story to send out to the media and promote on social media. It’s already received a lot of interest and bookings are going well”.

For information on how to keep small-group experiences safe for customers and staff, read: Workshops & Experiences safety in the face of COVID-19