Dr Imelda McCarthy, Research Fellow at CREME and Johur Uddin (Skills Link and representing the Bangladeshi Catering Sector) reflect upon the benefits of social media marketing in the Bangladeshi catering sector and call for more support in this area for small businesses in the latest blog in our Voices from the Micro Business Community blog series.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on hospitality has exacerbated an already challenging outlook for the Bangladeshi catering sector, many of whom were struggling financially before then due to pricing wars and competition for customers.

One silver lining that we might take from the pandemic (and which may provide some solution towards past and present challenges facing the sector) is that it is forcing many caterers to adapt to digitalisation – even if they were previously reluctant. Such reluctance was apparent during a consultation exercise, convened pre-pandemic between CREME and restaurateurs from the Bangladeshi catering sector, where a preference towards more traditional modes of operation was expressed: ‘Let’s be honest, technology is something that is not in our industry’; ‘Technology is neglected because it’s all done manually.’ Even pre pandemic, restaurateurs were not blind to growing trends surrounding digital adoption and the potential impact this could have on their business for the better: ‘TripAdvisor has helped me… the last 50 reviews have all been 5 star, that’s how I’m getting new customers’; and the worst: ‘You’ve got to be totally focused on your customer or else that customer will post negative comments on social media.’

Mid consultation, Covid-19 restrictions on the hospitality sector forced many restaurants to close their doors or provide a takeaway only service. Johur Uddin observed that the businesses who were doing well were those who utilised social media to promote their services. This prompted a request to CREME to see if they could assist in addressing this issue.

Accessing support through public programmes proved difficult, so CREME called upon Aston University’s in house expertise, the Aston Business Clinic , to develop a solution. A team of Business School Graduates, O2O Consulting, were assigned the task of designing an Introduction to Social Media training course. The course included three components: theory, application, and evaluation. For many this was the restaurateurs’ first experience of working with the University sector, which triggered further interest in developing social media skills across the sector and calls for government support. As Robiul Hossain, a restaurateur who attended the course explained: ‘I benefited from the training with the Aston graduates. I am now exploring things further with a digital marketing consultant but not everyone can afford to go to an external consultancy, especially now as finances are really tight due to the pandemic. If this [type of training] was something the local authorities could provide it would be a great help because then we could do the digital marketing internally ourselves. It would also generate income for the local area.’

The value of social media is undeniable. It allows businesses to easily increase their visibility and engage with customers. However ease shouldn’t be confused with a relaxed attitude. If digital adoption is to have an impact it needs to be aided by government support that allows for the delivery of high quality training that is more widely accessible. This is currently lacking.