Pub and bar groups look to be in line for bumper Christmas party trade in London with bookings on the up, but the industry warned rail strikes could hurt total hospitality spend in the capital.
A host of both London-listed and private bar and pub companies all told the Evening Standard that Christmas bookings in the capital for the next four weeks are ahead of last year and in some cases above pre-covid performances in 2019.
The respondents were: Fuller's, Young's, Revolution Bars, Stonegate, Greene King, Barworks, Nightcap and Three Cheers Pub Co.
Trade body UKHospitality estimates the festive period in London will generate around £4.5 billion in revenue for the industry, with sales coming from pubs, restaurants and hotels. But chief executive Kate Nicholls said a typical amount on an average year would be closer to £5 billion.
Nicholls said the potential decline is "owing to rail strikes interrupting plans and denting consumer confidence".
She added that a recent RMT pay deal will help provide some certainty for consumers but "what we really need is all parties in the ongoing dispute with ASLEF to reach a resolution" that avoids this week’s planned strikes and any further disruption throughout December.
But Nicholls sounded upbeat about underlying consumer appetite for celebrating.
Rob Pitcher, the boss of cocktails specialist Revolution Bars, said Christmas bookings in London are running about 25% ahead of last year and about 10% ahead of 2019 as "corporate guests see the value in providing great experiences for their teams".
He added: "With hybrid working there is a greater need for team bonding when the opportunity allows and when better than the festive season."
On the strikes he said: "After almost two years of strikes, I do think people have become very resourceful and will find a way to get to their works Christmas night out. We all deserve a good party after the last few years.”
At Fuller's bookings are already more than 15% ahead and boss Simon Emeny said: "This is the first Christmas since 2019 when employers have been able to confidently pull their teams together to celebrate the festive season."
Greene King CEO Nick McKenzie said: "Reservations for this festive season across our pubs and restaurants are already looking very encouraging, with bookings increasing by double digits in London compared to last."
Simon Dodd at Young's said: "Party bookings of all sizes are strong and continuing to grow, surpassing last year and 2019 levels comfortably, with our City and Central London pubs leading the way."
David McDowall, chief executive of Slug & Lettuce and Be At One owner Stonegate Group said bookings are up "even against a very tough comparator with the World Cup". He added: "This is fantastic news for the sector, which has faced unprecedented challenges from cost inflation, stretched consumer budgets and the devastating impact of last year’s train strikes."
Sarah Willingham, a former Dragons' Den judge who leads bars operator Nightcap has seen growth being led by smaller groups, with high demand for christmas nights out and brunch tickets. She has seen a decrease in demand for large corporate parties, with in some cases "budgets being tighter than previous and of course, the ongoing uncertainty around rail strikes causing some level of nervousness amongst bookers".
Marc Francis-Baum who leads Barworks has seen good trade in 2023 and December numbers are looking ahead of last year, although he pointed out that "everything costs more to run".
Mark Reynolds, co-founder of Three Cheers Pub Co said: "The big difference this year is that customers appear more confident in their bookings. They started making plans earlier in the year."
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: "After a tumultuous few years, December remains the golden month for the success of London’s pubs and brewers, as well as the rest of the UK’s, as our sector looks to a new era of prosperity."