It has been a turbulent and uncertain Christmas and New Year period for many bosses in Sleaford’s hospitality trade, travel and related businesses, thanks to uncertainty created by the emergence of the Omicron variant and mixed messages coming from the Government and experts.
In the seasonal build up consumers were faced with confusing testing restrictions on foreign travel, the Prime Minister’s increasingly urgent warnings about getting vaccinated, ‘Plan B’ telling staff to work from home, as well as advising against larger gatherings for Christmas parties. The unsettling influence has had a chilling effect on some aspects of the Christmas trade.
Joint owner of the Finch Hatton Hotel at Ewerby and Millers Restaurant in Sleaford, David Smith, says December was a pretty difficult month, with cancellations for big partiesat both venues.
He said: “We did have a lot of people booked in and then in one day alone we saw 400 covers cancelled for bookings in December.”
It was a similar picture at the hotel and they saw Christmas Day bookings drop from 136 to 85, Boxing Day was better thanks to new takers for cancelled tables.
For New Year’s Eve they opened the hotel facilities up to locals for a free hog roast and glass of prosecco with firework display for a £5 donation to the air ambulance. They raised £650 and topped it up to £1,000 for the good cause. “We just wanted to have a good time and see the New Year in, which we did,” said David. “The locals just wanted to let their hair down after a terrible couple of years.”
Reflecting, he said that December normally gets the trade through the lean months of January and February: “We employ 54 staff and everyone has to earn a living.”
But they were determined to see it through, having opened Millers in March 2020 just before the first lockdown and then took over and reopened the Finch Hatton in August of that year. “Both businesses have got through covid and are still here,” he said.
“We had a really good summer after reopening indoors and have developed a good reputation. I just wish the Government would make a decision and not put people off or scare monger. They should either encourage people to go out and enjoy life as it should be or not, otherwise we are staffing restaurants for nothing.”
The Government’s offer of new grants of up to £6,000 for businesses affected, such as hospitality, has not yet materialised and David said it would “not touch the sides” compared to what they had lost in December, which saw dozens of pre-ordered meals having to be thrown away after late cancellations, plus wage bills, compounded by employers discouraging overnight stays for staff, hitting the income from the Finch Hatton’s 18 rooms.
David appealed to ministers: “Close us down and bring in furlough to support our staff or let everyone who is up to date with their jabs go out as normal.”
He said it was difficult to plan for the future and the media were making the situation sound even worse: “You don’t know what’s happening tomorrow, but we will keep working hard and we are launching new menus at both venues, producing the best quality food and we hope people will come for that.”
It has been a struggle for Sleaford’s popular bar, restaurant and B and B, Watergate Yard, where co-owner Ryan Blankley reckoned trade was down by at least one third on pre-covid figures.
He said: “When the Prime Minister made his first announcement it put the fear of God into people and within hours we had lost several bookings from people feeling cautious and vulnerable and that pattern continued through December. It was the same for bookings in our B and B.
“We still had others walking in saying life goes on, but it was a very different Christmas and New Year than expected.”
The pub boss accused Boris Johnson of effectively shutting down the hospitality business. “In an independent hospitality business like ours, that crucifies you,” he admitted.
“What the Government has offered in compensation is nothing like what we would have taken and to this point we have not been offered anything.”
He said future plans hinged on unpredictable changes to restrictions.
Wife Hollie added that they could no longer make up for the quiet days when the weekends were no longer as busy –- consumer confidence had taken a knock, with people isolating too. “It is difficult to operate with the same margins that we had,” she said.
Marcus Hrubesch, who runs the Solo Bar and restaurant in the Market Place, says the less profitable nature of the hospitality trade has led his wife stepping away and retraining as a primary school teacher.
Overall trade has been 25-30 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels due to loss of customers and the Government advising people to stay away from pubs and restaurants without making it mandatory had been unhelpful.
As a result, several larger businesses cancelled their Christmas party bookings. “I am very lucky my regulars supported me throughout December,” said Marcus.
“We need to go along with what the Government states but the feeling from customers is we have to get on and try to live with the virus.”
He welcomed the £6,000 grant as better than nothing, saying the Government had been “more than fair”, commenting: “It is a hard trade to be in now and the pandemic has accelerated how it has changed and evolved, with businesses expected to offer a better customer experience.”
It has been a frustrating time in the travel industry with restrictions and limits on travel to foreign countries, despite the latest scrapping of PCR tests for returning travellers.
Manager at the Sleaford branch of Lincolnshire Cooperative Travel, Amanda Hurry, said: “The run-up to Christmas is traditionally quiet for all travel agents as the busier period tends to be at the start of the new year. We still had queries from people exploring their 2022 and 2023 options and enquiring about the latest restrictions, which we’re always up-to-date with.”
She said they can still help people by phone and over email and have started the new year with enquiries and bookings from returning customers and new one who want to shop locally and benefit from the security a travel agent backed by ABTA and ATOL can provide.
She said recent changes to testing requirements have boosted customer confidence.
“We’ve had quite a few enquiries about cruises so far which indicates that market is picking back up.”