Hotel news

Uncertainty over reopening a ‘nightmare scenario’

Janice Gault, chief executive, NI Hotels Federation.

Uncertainty over whether the current Covid-19 restrictions will come to an end on Friday, November 13th is a ‘nightmare scenario’ for the hospitality sector, says the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation.

“The challenges of the unfolding health and economic crisis brings to the fore the difficulties facing the hospitality sector,” said Janice Gault, chief executive. “There have been many inflammatory statements, with the hospitality sector firmly pitched against the health mandate.

“The irony that the semantic route of the two words at the centre of this battle come from the same source, only adds to the poignancy situation. Hospitals and hospitality come from the word ‘hosp’, a word which means guest. With a shared first four letters, the roles of both have a considerable overlap: sheltering people, offering a safe haven and looking after guests remain at their core.

“Hotels are a key element of the local economy straddling tourism and hospitality sectors. The tourism economy is severely constrained. Overseas travel has stopped with restrictions on travel in Europe, Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The last set of regulations in Northern Ireland closed hotels, hospitality and unnecessary travel.

“After three long weeks, there is still no clear idea when we will re-open or what re-opening will bring. In order to trade viably there needs to be a sustainable framework agreed for hotels and the wider industry.

“The extension of furlough has been generally welcomed but behind this measure lies a substantial cost. The removal of the furlough bonus is a telling move. This, coupled with the five-month extension, is bringing a new focus to staff reduction and redundancy for businesses. Staff costs of 20% plus NICS and pension contributions have taken their toll in October.

“Whilst an employer contribution to wages is not required for the coming months, there is still an expense for furloughing staff. The cost per person is between £25 and £30 per week. The estimated cost for hotels is circa £1M per month. This is not the only cost.

“After four weeks of no trading, hotel businesses are covering fixed costs and furlough contributions. The bill for the current four-week closure is £7m. Adding to the pain is the loss of the sale of 280,000 bedrooms, over 200 weddings and the cancellation of Hallowe’en festivities.

“I am saddened to see the open versus closing narrative unfold and the contribution of the sector being ignored. Hotels have invested over £5m in structural changes to make premises safe, trained staff and pivoted their operations. There have been additional operational costs, all of which we have taken on the chin and yet demonisation of hospitality has continued.

“Our primary responsibility is the health and well-being of our staff and guests. The outbursts and vilification of the sector over the last week has been damaging. As an industry that has operated responsibly and invested in measures to trade during the Covid-19 pandemic, we greatly value our reputation. It has heightened anxiety and further eroded consumer confidence. However, the greatest damage is the uncertainty which prevails. After three long weeks of closure, we are no closer to returning to trading than we were in October.

“The nightmare of the Friday 13th re-opening trundles on. There are no winners in this dilemma, with hotels most certainly one of the biggest losers in an increasingly worrying situation.”

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