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After the bombs have gone…

15 September 2005

Now that the shock of the London bombings on 7 July and the attempted attacks on 21 July is diminishing, attention is turning to the longer-term economic impact of the atrocities.

The hospitality industry is vulnerable to such events, with businesses such as hotels, restaurants and pubs susceptible to any loss in confidence among visitors. And while, on the surface, the bombings have not had the catastrophic impact that some feared, underlying trends give cause for concern.

"The terrorist incidents have not caused the same level of collapse in the hotel business we saw after 9/11," says David Bailey, director at TRI Hospitality Consulting. Data from TRI's HotStats survey shows that while hotels in the capital suffered a 20% fall in room sales revenue in September 2001, the drop was a mere 3.5% in July 2005.

Bailey added: "The mood of most travellers has become much more phlegmatic. An incident that might have caused panic and mass cancellations five years ago will today create much less anxiety."

Lag in August The numbers for August, though, are difficult to interpret. According to online hotel consultancy the Daily Bench, revenue from room sales at hotels in London was down by almost 10%.

"This is not apocalyptic by any means - there was always going to be a lag in August as this is a month dominated by leisure guests," says James Chappell, managing director of the Daily Bench. "Signs are positive that business is coming back this September."

Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, estimates that the bombings will wipe about £500m from London's hospitality economy. Although this is a sizeable hit, Cotton urges a sense of perspective. "What you have to remember is that the London tourism economy is worth 15b" he says.

Had there been just one incident, the effects would have been less acute. On the weekend after the 7 July bombings, hospitality trade was down by 10% but, by the middle of the following week, the decline had moderated to 5%.

"The dynamics changed after 21 July," Cotton says. The weekend following 21 July saw sales at hospitality businesses in London drop by 25% and they were still down by 15% in the middle of the following week.

Tourism figures make even less easy reading. Forecasts for growth have halved since July. Before the bombings, tourism was expected to increase by between 7% and 8% year-on-year; now the estimate is between 3% and 4%.

Most worrying is that forward bookings remain weak. According to a monthly survey of members of tourism trade body UKinbound, July saw a drop in visitor arrivals of 7.4% and forward bookings were down by 9.3% on the previous year. Cotton estimates that the situation has since become worse, with forward bookings about 25% down.

The greatest repercussions have been felt at central London tourist attractions such as Madame Tussaud's waxworks museum. Outside the centre, sites have benefited from visitors not venturing into the heart of the city. West London-located Kew Gardens has seen a 15% rise in visitors, while the Thorpe Park and Alton Towers amusement parks have enjoyed 25% increases.

Restaurants and pubs have seen similar trends. While London's West End has suffered, restaurants in residential areas have boomed. "We have seen a displacement in trade, rather than losing it altogether," Cotton says.

Overnight growth Statistics from VisitBritain support this thesis. The tourist board's weekly Short Term Domestic Tracker has either been static or has shown growth in terms of the number of UK adults taking overnight trips in England since the terrorist events.

The City has remained calm since the bombings. After a short-term blip that affected all stocks, there has been little significant selling of hospitality shares.

Stuart Price, leisure analyst at investment bank Panmure Gordon, says that the 7 July bombings have had no material effect on investor confidence. Although the 21 July event has caused more jitters, the main fear is how underlying sentiment will change.

Investor thinking "There has not been an impact in terms of absolute numbers," Price says, "but the key is whether the bombings act as a catalyst for the hospitality sector in terms of investor thinking."

Investors are aware that the industry had already seen a slowdown in growth, particularly at high-street pubs and bars. Price adds that rising oil and utility prices and a weakening of the overall economy have further worried analysts.

But the capital is fighting back. Visit London has launched marketing campaigns worth £3.3m for September alone to help buoy sentiment. The bulk of the cash, £2.1m, is being spent in Europe, with 1m set aside for recapturing the North American market, and the rest aimed at UK visitors.

And research suggests that confidence may be returning. A survey conducted by Visit London found that the bombings were hardly mentioned by potential visitors to the capital. Most positive were people without children and those whose kids were no longer living at home.

More worried were people with families, who were more likely to adopt a wait-and-see attitude for the months ahead. The absence of further incidents is certainly critical - a hope shared by those in the hospitality business and beyond.

By Andrew Sangster

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