Summer is in full swing, whether the rainy British weather says so or not.
And with it, more relaxed rules around socializing, dining out and gathering in groups. That’s thanks in part to a vaccine drive that’s allowed more than 70% of the U.K. adults to receive at least their first doses.
With signs of economic normalcy returning, there’s pressure for workers to think about returning to their offices, especially in the City of London, the U.K. equivalent of Wall Street. It’s not only a place where big banks and financial institutions have their headquarters; it’s also home to gleaming restaurants where power lunches were once common practice.
Though they were typically used to forge or maintain professional relationships and strike deals, the power lunch has been gradually falling out of favor.
“It’s a lovely thought that we all sit down and do a lunch like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’” said Russ Mould, investment director at London-listed brokerage AJ Bell. “When I started in the City 30 years ago, definitely. But now I think people are working a lot harder and there are frankly, a lot of rules and regulations around it.”
He says the very common and widely accepted practice of weekday business lunching has entered decline in recent years because of a raft of new rules covering bribery and coercion.
The Bribery Act 2010 updated U.K. laws that dated back to 1889 and made it illegal to offer, receive or fail to prevent bribes. When it went into effect in 2011, companies worried whether corporate hospitality would then be seen as an attempt to bribe. The Justice Secretary at the time, Kenneth Clarke said that events –– like sports games or working dinners –– would still be allowed, so long as “adequate procedures” were in place to stop unsavory activity.
But, according to Mould, that change in legislation sent a shiver down corporate spines.“I think there will still be a desire to meet people, but whether it’s over a nice bottle of wine and an enormous steak, I’m not sure that’s the case,” Mould said.
Rules are one factor behind this change in behavior and the pandemic, which has dealt the latest blow to the power lunch tradition, is another.
“We’ve got eight restaurants in the square mile of the financial district of London and they’re 90% based around corporate entertaining,” said Martin Williams, the founder and chief executive of M Restaurants, which operates several outposts, including M Threadneedle near the Bank of England. “We’re still working at only 50% capacity. That 50% is fully booked. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Banks like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs have signaled that they want workers back at their City offices after months of doing business meetings over Zoom. And Williams and his team have a plan to lure more of those workers through their doors.
“We’re working with some businesses, doing welcome-back-to-the-City packages for them which may be based around a set lunch, [or] gift cards to their workers as they return. We’ve got lots of CEOs from a lot of corporate and financial institutions who are regulars with us, and we’ve been quite bespoke about what we can create for them,” he explained.
Full reservation books are one indicator of a return to normalcy in the financial capital of the U.K. Suit sales are another.
London’s Savile Row is famed for its luxury tailors, producing custom suits costing upwards of $3,000.
“I can comfortably say the past four weeks since we opened up, we’ve had our best four weeks over the last 12 months,” said Taj Phull, head of retail at Huntsman, a 171-year-old Savile Row tailor that counts Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby and the British royal family among its clients.
Since reopening last month, Huntsman has seen a 10% jump in new customers, including a three-fold increase in younger female clients. Phull said that increase means both men’s and women’s two- and three-piece suits have been flying off the shelves. “It was funny, I was walking down the road three weeks ago and a merchant came up to me and was like, ‘How are you still selling navy suits?’ We’ve got the demand for it. Our clients are returning to the office and they want navy suits.”
After a year of isolation, London’s financial heart is finally starting to beat again. “I’m sure some people will be delighted to get out of the house and get back out there again. We will certainly be looking to get in front of customers and clients,” Mould said.
City workers are ready to don power suits to power lunches. But as case numbers of new coronavirus variants threaten the return to normal … businesses will be hoping this enthusiasm persists.
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