How going virtual helped this small bar support staff

After a weekend that saw some of the on-premise open back up across the country, and venues react to almost daily changing news of what applies to them, we all know that we’re far from saying goodbye to this pandemic.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, Australia is fighting a two front war during this pandemic – one on the health side as we battle the COVID-19 virus itself; the other on the economic side, as businesses try to cope with a new normal.

I’m not one to usually quote politicians, but looking at how Australian venues have weathered this crisis, you can see exactly what Morrison is talking about, a fight. Our bars are strong and won’t give up easily. 

For some bars who have pivoted and adapted to the guidelines, there’s a positive side – a permanent diversification of their offering. This is the case for the Fox Hole in Sydney, who moved a core part of their venue into the virtual world, in what started as a temporary move but has since transformed to be a continuing fixture. 

Pre-pandemic, The Fox Hole had one of the city’s longest gin menus, and helped customers explore the spirit through tasting experiences they called ‘Explore Gin.’ The 90 minute experiences covered seven gins over four styles and were matched with canapes. Managing Director James Harvey-Fiander said they were all about sharing gin with everyone, newbies and aficionados alike. 

“Our in-house experts will guide you on a journey through the history of gin, hopefully learn new things and help you to find what you like, the kinds of gins you’d like to explore more and enjoy the diverse world of gin,” Harvey-Fiander explained.

After the pandemic caused venues to close their doors however, the Fox Hole team managed to transport Explore Gin events into an out-of-venue experience, in a recreation as close as possible to the original. With the same amount of gins, a dozen garnishes and accompaniments and a Zoom video call with an in-house expert, it has everything you need for a tasting (except ice of course). 

Harvey-Fiander said it’s all about extending the Fox Hole’s love of making memories, in a time when these memories need to be made remotely. 

“Our team vision is for our customers to make great stories at The Fox Hole and we have always seen innovation as important, COVID19 just made that innovation urgent and crucial,” Harvey-Fiander said.

“We think you’ll want to tell stories to your children and grandchildren about what happened in 2020 and so, to help you make some great new stories while also maintaining a physical distance, we transformed our Explore Gin experience into a boxed experience.”

At the start of the pandemic’s business shut downs, the future was uncertain. Would bars be closed for weeks? Months? Who was to know? Hence, the Fox Hole wasn’t sure how lasting the boxed experiences would be.

“It’s been an interesting journey over the last month because I guess when we first set out, we expected it to be a temporary arrangement to do some of our things virtually and that we’d just go back to normal,” Harvey-Fiander said. 

“That thinking lasted for maybe about a week and then we thought, wow people actually love this, this is going to be a forever thing. So we’ve basically committed to continuing doing virtual experiences.”

“Like many in the hospitality industry, some of our staff weren’t covered by JobKeeper, our commitment to them continues beyond where the government stopped. The boxed experiences have enabled us to create a new stream in our business so we could keep more of those people employed and build a complete bridge to the other side of this period. To continue the metaphor, we’re excited that it’s looking increasingly like a brand new road for us to go on a new journey after this is all over.”

Harvey-Fiander also described how they’ve continued to pay the wages of permanent staff not covered by JobKeeper as usual and offered paid sick leave for casual staff. They wanted to provide some sort of reliability in uncertain times.

By supporting staff above and beyond the stimulus and minimum requirements, there’s been a flow on effect to customers. Which is great of course, considering virtual experiences and venue innovations like can only be counted as success stories if there’s a strong customer base supporting them on this journey. 

Their first day of reopening on Friday was overwhelming, seeing the bar at full ten person capacity constantly for 12 hours.

“It’s a community thing, two thirds of our customers are regulars who are here very often and they’ve been really keen, especially seeing the late kind of targeted rescues from the government, I think they’ve been very keen to come and support us to make sure we’re still here on the other side,” Harvey-Fiander said. 

“The real success story for us has been the gin experiences… we’re just trying to make something out of all of this.”

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