Northern Ireland was the final country in the UK to open its indoor hospitality yesterday and, despite businesses only having three days' notice, demand was strong with operators looking forward to a bumper bank holiday weekend.
"There's a great buzz, a great energy around the place… it's almost like when we opened for the first time back in 2017," Yvonne McIlree, director of sales and marketing at the 119-bedroom Titanic Hotel Belfast, told The Caterer. The hotel was at 50% occupancy from Monday to Wednesday and fully booked from Thursday to Sunday for the bank holiday weekend. It also has weddings booked every weekend into August.
Aaron Logan, assistant head of operations at the Galgorm Collection, which includes the 125-bedroom Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in Ballymena, County Antrim, said occupancy was "really strong" with just one room to fill on Monday night and 100 bookings for afternoon tea. The hotel was at around 97% occupancy for the rest of the month and 98% occupancy for June.
"The summer months are busy, with lots of weddings coming up at the resort, which will keep us on our toes. So it's all looking positive from our end, thankfully," he said.
"Friday, Saturday, Sunday is packed, which is great, and occupancy is strong over the next few weeks," said Andy Carson, general manager of Belfast's 74-bedroom Bullitt hotel, which reported occupancy of 30% on Monday, rising to 70% on Wednesday and a full bank holiday weekend.
"[Indoor reopening] was only confirmed on 20 May, but the messages over the past couple of weeks have been pretty positive. As soon as the announcement was made, we saw another spike in bookings," he said.
"We've got some way to go before we're back to pre-Covid levels of business, but it's going in the right direction."
The hotel opened for outdoor dining at the end of April, but Carson expressed relief at the reopening of indoor dining, as the biggest challenge in recent weeks had been the weather.
"Northern Ireland is definitely not Spain," he said. "I've worked in hospitality for 20 years and I thought I'd seen it all, but it's only in the last couple of weeks seeing people sitting under an umbrella in a poncho drinking a pint in the lashing rain... They didn't care that it was wet and rainy, they were just glad to be out. There's been a really positive feel-good factor about.
"This time around feels so different to the last two lockdowns and reopenings, in that there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel now."
The hotels The Caterer spoke to reported little to no international guests, but McIlree said she saw it as an opportunity for the hotel to focus on growing its awareness among English guests.
"The north of Ireland, particularly Belfast, hasn't seen a great deal of tourism from England in comparison with Scotland and the Republic," she said.
However, Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, added that it was not ‘job done' now businesses have reopened indoors. He said: "With extensive restrictions still in place, many businesses will still struggle to break even, let alone make a profit. It is vital that we see these restrictions removed as soon as possible and engagement from the Executive as we begin the long road of rebuilding what was Northern Ireland's fourth largest private sector employer pre-Covid."
Neill said that attention must now turn to the reopening of music venues and event spaces: "Immediate focus is required on the programme for their reopening and the resumption of our famed music scene," he said.
Carson agreed: "That's a massive part of what we offer at Bullitt – we're very much into art, music, culture, and that's something that's been stripped out of our offering and it's very important that we get that back."
He also reported similar staffing issues as seen in other parts of the UK, and said the business was "very, very short" of staff. He hoped the government would step in and champion the sector as a place to work, with opportunities opening up for those who had lost jobs in the retail sector.
"Just because we're open doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet," he said.
Logan added: "We're busy, we're back on, but support needs to stay in place for a while yet until everyone's back on."
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