Hospitality operators have seen a steady increase in bookings for Christmas parties next month but with many businesses reluctant to confirm until the last minute, it's still "all to play for".
"In normal years pre-Covid we would have seen the majority of Christmas business already secured way before this point," said Steve Chandler, managing director at Compass Group's Restaurant Associates Venues division.
He told The Caterer: "By the end of September usually the business is 90% and you just get a few stragglers towards the end of October and then very limited activity in November. But this year we're still seeing enquiries coming in every single day.
"We're still not at the finishing post because those enquiries are still coming in… It's still all to play for because it's not finished."
Although he said targets had been "really difficult one to gauge", the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, one of the group's biggest venues for Christmas bookings, is expected to exceed its target for the season.
This target was "slightly less" than 2019, he said, accounting for nervousness and uncertainty around potential Covid restrictions, however Chandler added that he "wouldn't be surprised if we're not close to [2019 numbers]".
"We initially saw more hesitancy than previous years, but since late September enquiries have picked up at a phenomenal rate with all key dates sold out, and most early week slots booked too," said Juliette Keyte, marketing director of Red Engine, which operates experiential venues under its Flight Club and Electric Shuffle brands.
Since restrictions lifted in July, sales have been up 24% like for like on 2019 for the group, while in terms of group size she said it ranged from smaller socials of six to full floor or whole venue takeovers.
Meanwhile, Paul Jackson, managing director of Searcys, said: "Enquiries are going steady but now it is all about conversion – there is a reluctance to confirming large corporate bookings straightaway which I think is more to do with the slight concern for the return of some form of restriction."
The group operates at venues including the Barbican in London, 116 Pall Mall and the Pump Room in Bath.
Jackson said restaurant bookings were strong, especially for festive dinners and afternoon tea, while private dining rooms were already booked out most weekdays for corporate meetings and parties. Venues such as the Honourable Artillery Company and the Gherkin in London only had a few dates remaining available, while the Orangery at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was ahead of its 2019 bookings.
Chandler added that in the three years pre-Covid there had been a downward trend in bar spend. "It'll be very interesting to see what happens this year in that it's probably two years since teams have come together and celebrated Christmas," he said. "I'm anticipating that may well provide encouraging signs in terms of that revenue that comes through."
Mark Hardy, general manager of the 230-bedroom Cavendish hotel in London's Mayfair said he expected that people "will be looking to make up for lost time".
As for 2022, Chandler predicted: "The indications that we're getting at the moment are, from a corporate perspective, that there'll be ever more confidence from January onwards."
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