Signs of a late surge in party bookings are bringing a sprinkling of festive cheer to hospitality operators – but reservations remain considerably down on pre-pandemic numbers.
Venues have reported that bookings are starting to increase with the appetite for turkey, tinsel and trimmings apparently not lost. Juliette Keyte, managing director of Red Engine, which operates experiential venues under its Flight Club and Electric Shuffle brands, said that despite hesitancy around early bookings it had seen a huge increase in enquiries in the last three weeks, adding that "Christmas 2021 is looking strong".
Steve Chandler, managing director of Restaurant Associates Venues, part of Compass Group, has seen a similar trend.
He said: "There's a real pent-up desire for people to come together. We are social animals and I think we are starting to come out of hibernation. It's a slow build, but that momentum is moving in the right direction, and we're encouraged with what we're seeing. In a pre-Covid year you would see the majority of Christmas covers secured by the end of September. This year it's later but we're not surprised by that."
Paul Jackson, managing director of Searcys, which runs event spaces including those in the Gherkin and Barbican in London, has also seen momentum building. He said: "Christmas bookings are still at around 60-70% for the same period pre-pandemic, but it's too early to tell. Each week is different, this week has felt busier than last week, and it will keep moving on."
Chandler said that across many of the RA's venues, which include Somerset House in London, M Shed in Bristol and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, festive bookings had seen a shift away from exclusive parties to ‘joiner events', which see attendees from different businesses or groups celebrate together in the same space. The events company has also seen many opt for a more relaxed style of celebration, rather than the traditional dinner and dancing.
Jackson has also seen businesses look at different ways to celebrate the festive season with their teams. He added: "Some businesses are saying staff don't need to go back to the office until January, so they may potentially not bother with a Christmas party, or they may do hybrid activities like wine tastings online, we'll certainly have some of those, but nowhere near the numbers people were predicting at the start of the year.
"We're seeing a complete mix of requirements – some companies may have had to let people go during the pandemic, so they've had to temper down what their Christmas party looks like and not go mad – instead of some form of entertainment just opt for dinner and a disco. Others fared extremely well and want to have everything."
Despite signs of improvement many businesses are bracing themselves for what could be a difficult season. Rob Pitcher, chief executive of Revolution Bars Group, said his venues had seen a dramatic change in the size of festive bookings, with the majority for 20 or 30 people rather than 200.
He added: "Christmas is the key period for us, but we're well behind on corporate bookings. It is gathering pace but we're well short of where we'd normally be at this stage."
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