UK hospitality firms’ festive hopes decline as Omicron fears hit bookings

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Rex/Shutterstock

Bosses of pubs, restaurants and hotels across the UK are warning they are already receiving cancellations of bookings for Christmas parties and events amid fears about the Omicron variant, just as hospitality businesses were hoping to welcome many customers during the crucial festive season.

Surinder Arora, the chair of the Arora group, said customers had already cancelled events due to take place at the 16 hotels it owns in and around London.

“It is definitely having an impact on our bookings, not just on bedroom bookings but also meetings and events,” he said. “A lot of them are being postponed.”

Arora said businesses had been delaying meetings and events planned to take place at the group’s newly opened hotel in Surrey. He added that travellers who were booked to stay at the group’s hotels next to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports were cancelling their December trips because of concerns about quarantine regulations.

News of the Covid-19 variant had come at a difficult time for the hotel industry, Arora said. “We were trying to rebuild our business, us and the airlines, after the 8th of November when the US opened up, we all thought that was a step in the right direction.”

Large and small venues across the UK have reported cancellations. Colin Wilde, the managing director of Castle Rock brewery in Nottingham, said he had had “a handful” of cancellations of Christmas parties and wedding celebrations booked for December at the 20 pubs the company operates across the east Midlands.

“It’s too early to say if it’s all of them, it’s certainly a handful,” Wilde said. “I think there is a bit of nervousness and employers are wary about getting people all together.”

Christmas trading is vital for hospitality venues, many of whom rely on making enough money in the festive period to get them through the leaner months at the start of the new year. The loss of a second Christmas season in a row would be extremely damaging for many businesses.

“It’s the last thing we needed at this time of year. I’m hoping Christmas won’t go the exact same way as last year,” Wilde said. “When we have debts to pay, loans and VAT, what we need to do is generate income”.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UK Hospitality, said its members were starting to see bookings cancelled, which would have a serious financial impact on their businesses.

She said there was no doubt that fears about the Omicron variant would “have a dampening effect just as we were about to head into our busiest trading period, and any drop in revenue pushes businesses back to loss-making as government support like grants and furlough has fallen away”.

Hugh Osmond, the founder of Punch Taverns, said: “We are seeing that some of the people in large organisations who organise bigger events are taking the cautious view because I guess they feel some overriding responsibility. We are not seeing that in young people.”

“Social interaction is, after food and water, the most important thing for a human being’s mental health,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Related: ‘Having to close would be a disaster’: Omicron is ominous for hospitality

The prime minister said on Tuesday that people should not cancel upcoming parties and gatherings, only hours after one of the UK’s most senior health officials urged people to reduce their social contact.

Sacha Lord, the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, said he had been informed by operators of several hospitality businesses across the city that they had received cancellations on Monday for Christmas parties.

“They needed a good December behind them,” Lord said. “Now this has thrown a grenade in.”

Lord and Osmond unsuccessfully brought legal action against the UK government in the spring, when they tried to bring forward the date for pubs and restaurants to be allowed to serve customers indoors.

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