This was to be the year of the "Great Staycation", when the British public stayed in the UK and the hospitality industry reaped the benefits. But then, 2009 was also billed as a "barbecue summer" - and look how that turned out. Tom Vaughan reports.
The hype was outstanding - pictures of grinning men with hankies for hats were dug out by newsdesks the country over, monochrome reels of bygone dads licking lollies in Blackpool were shown on the TV news, along with Morris Travellers trundling to Torquay and well-groomed 1950s families giving a thumbs-up in breezy Boscombe.
The point that was being laboured, back in April, was that the British public looked set to holiday at home this year. We even ushered in a new word for it - staycation. It's a vacation where you stay at home. And 2009, it was predicted, was to be the revival of holidaying in Britain - the "Great Staycation".
Then, feeling left out, the meteorologists chipped in. Impressed with the ease that the newsdesks could crowbar a term into our everyday lexicon, they gave it a go themselves and came up with "barbecue summer". Thus, 2009 would be a barbecue summer, they promised - a summer to dust off the barbecue and grill meat all day, every day, should you so want, because it was going to be a hot few months.
We were certainly promised a lot this summer. And, sadly, not everything delivered - not by a long stretch. We all now know that those salivating carnivores, waiting expectantly for the sun to give them an excuse to char a perfectly nice piece of meat, were the summer's ultimate losers as July and August proved damp squibs.
But what of hospitality? What did a year that promised so much actually deliver to the beleaguered industry?
Well, first things first, the public did indeed all rush to the seaside. They didn't wear hanky hats or sing along with Redcoats, and most of them didn't sit astride ageing donkeys on wind-swept beaches like in those 1950s reels, but they did flock back to our seaside resorts. A poll for Virgin Money Travel Insurance found seaside resorts were the most popular destination for staycationers. Bournemouth topped the list of 66 places, with other South Coast towns Brighton and Portsmouth in second and third place respectively.
In Blackpool, visitor numbers for the first eight months of 2009 exceeded the whole of the partially recession-free previous year. A large part of this, says head of VisitBlackpool Natalie Wyatt, was down to day-trippers. "The three most important aspects for attracting individuals to visit Blackpool are the Pleasure Beach resort, the coastal location and the family-friendly attractions, accounting for 54% of all visitors," she says.
In line with this, visitor attractions nationwide have seen a boom year. Figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) - which represents 42 organisations in charge of 1,600 tourist venues - reveal a 3.4% rise in overall visitor numbers between 1 May and 31 August this year, with some of the venues reporting their strongest-ever figures.
But did more day-trippers equal fewer hotel stays? Apparently not. A survey of 50 smaller properties by the Good Hotel Guide, found that 50% reported an excellent year, 46% said they had a good year and only 4% saw below-average bookings.
The trend, it seems, has been to scale-down holidays, rather than abandon them. Families or couples that might have previously gone for a weekend away, have gone for a day trip instead, and those that might have opted for a week away, have chosen a short break. As early as February this year, bookings site Hotels.com reported a 29% rise in short breaks, and Robert Barnard, partner for hotel consultancy services at business advisers PKF, says that the increase in short breaks has been something of a deliverance for some businesses this year.
"What has played into some hotels' hands is that people have opted for shorter, more frequent holidays, rather than a couple of long ones. As such, this leisure market has been the salvation for some hotels," Barnard says.
The term "trading down", when used in reference to British holiday-makers opting to stay in the UK for the summer, might be unpopular with tourist boards, but it's hard to deny that it's a rather apt description for the boom in budget sector holidays this past year.
The Camping and Caravanning Club has followed an Easter that saw bookings rise by almost a third year-on-year with a similarly frantic summer at its 1,400 member sites. This year is close to being one of the club's best years ever, with about 100,000 new members joining over the past 18 months.
"Interest in all forms of camping has reached unprecedented levels this year because of the tough economic climate and our membership has benefited as a result," says club director general Robert Louden. "Despite the indifferent weather of the summer, our clubs sites were brimming," he adds.
And the caravanning and camping bug certainly seems to have bit. Self-catering operators Hoseasons and Park Holidays UK have already announced that advance bookings for 2010 are up by 60% and 66%, respectively, on last year's figures. Cottingham-based caravan and motor home manufacturers Swift Group achieved all-time record sales of £28m at the International Caravan and Motor Home Show in October - a £10m increase on 2008.
So far, you'd be mistaken for thinking that the staycation was an unmitigated success, despite the weather. So what that we couldn't have all the barbecues we wanted? The public flocked to the beach, pumped money into small hotels, caravanning and the budget sector and dulled the heavy hit of the recession on hospitality.
Undoubtedly, says PricewaterhouseCoopers director Stephen Broome, some areas saw success, but others wouldn't have seen a bit of that staycation cash-cow.
"It certainly would have had an impact in some locations - but if you look at the industry as a whole, the effect of the staycation was fairly modest. It helped some locations such as Bournemouth and Blackpool but it would have been of no help to less-attractive inland cities such as Birmingham or Manchester, say. If you look at the typical profile of those that stay at home, it tends to be the low-cost holidays and the budget sector that they opt for, which is of little help to mid-market businesses."
Bournemouth was the most popular destination for staycationers
In fact, nationwide, August proved a poor month for hotels, with room rates and room yield both down across the country, according to PKF. And despite the idea of the staycation proving some sort of salvation for the hospitality industry, there were 53 hotel insolvencies in the April-June period, according to figures from accountancy firm Wilkins Kennedy, which equates to one hotel company going bust every other day.
While leisure visitors might have kept some hotels afloat, and even provided them with a bumper year, the lack of corporate business has meant that 2009 has, despite the staycation, been a fairly poor year for hospitality.
James Berresford, chief executive of VisitEngland, certainly takes a balanced view of the past year. He says: "Because business tourism has struggled so much in the past few months, the amount spent on tourism has not increased. We are not out of the woods yet by any means. We will continue to get some good results from leisure tourism, but put alongside the corporate side, the whole spend will not look great."
Barnard agrees. "The staycation has certainly helped, especially from a leisure point of view. But the trouble has been, and is still, corporate business, which is in short supply," he says.
Has the staycation merely proved a one-off cash injection for caravanning and the seaside? Popular opinion, in this case published in The Guardian, seems to be that the staycation will continue, "so long as the recession and the weather holds". Undoubtedly, money won't be too forthcoming in the next year or so, which might keep holiday-makers in Britain again.
Speaking to The Times, Peter Long, chief executive of Europe's biggest tour operator, TUI Travel, dismissed talk of a long-term consumer shift towards staycation summers as "complete nonsense". And a look at public opinion (see page 27) shows that the weather will always prove a stumbling block to summer holidays in the UK.
However, Berresford, who has been in his role since April this year, does not believe our dodgy weather need prohibit the long-term continuity of widespread staycationing. He sees the tourist market's direct competition, not as summer holidays in the heat, but short breaks.
"Much of our product is actually weather-proof," Berresford says. "You don't go walking in the Lake District wanting 100°F temperatures. We shouldn't be spending limited resources trying to change people's minds about the weather. We should be fishing where there are fish."
And Berresford, along with director of strategy and insights at VisitBritain Patricia Yates, is confident that 2009 can be a turning point. "Holidays are one of the personal things that say something about you," Yates says. "While 30 years ago, staying at home at a resort was fashionable, this year, staying in the UK has come back in fashion. And it's important we work together to keep it in fashion."
The key to the next few years, says Berresford, is a clever marketing of Britain's most popular areas. "What we have in this country is high-profile brands. The Cotswolds, Hadrian's Wall, the Lake District - we need to be pitching those places more and more against places such as Paris, Budapest and Brussels. We need to present England as a box of chocolates and make sure all these areas are enjoyed equally."
The immediate results of the staycation may be a mixed bag - small hotels in short-break destinations and budget sector accommodation might be over the moon about the past 12 months; others, notably the host of bankrupt hotel companies, are likely to be heartbroken.
Rallying talk from VisitEngland is of the future, of a "lost generation" - the younger age band for whom foreign travel has been as easy and cheap and, therefore, more enticing than holidaying in Britain - rediscovering its own country. But it's not clear that the success the past year has brought in some quarters will continue once the recession finally fades.
The future may bode well for some areas of hospitality - short-break destinations and budget-sector businesses notably - thanks to the staycation, but only so long as the past year is not seen as some sort of deliverance from the recession, but an opportunity to build.
"We have to be opportunistic and it has been a great year to be just that," Berresford says. "But unless we keep the momentum up, it'll be wasted. We can't let the positives of the staycation be just a flash in the pan."
In September, the Guardian asked online readers for their reflections of the staycation. Here is a cross section of the replies.
"Vile staycation experiences due to dirty, poorly run campsites and hideous weather. Now fully intend to put every penny aside to get back to France next summer. Even the kids are promising to save their pocket money to go towards the trip."
"My wife and I never bother leaving the country. We've always taken a couple of trips to the national parks each year, and just enjoy a break from the city. This year, the campsites and hilltops have been far busier than usual. I expect the novelty will wear off by next summer - especially since the weather has been particularly poor this summer."
"Why should we have to put up with such shoddy service standards in this country? With so many people staying at home this summer, the tourist industry should have taken the opportunity to remind everyone just how wonderful our country is - both campsites I stayed at were fantastic in terms of location and so on, but let down by shoddy service/management and dirty, grubby standards. What's wrong with keeping a place clean, having a bit of hot running water and expecting good manners and polite service from the owners? Sadly, it will certainly be Vive la France again for us next year if we can afford it."
"We are obsessed with moaning about the weather. In the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, it rained, the sun shone, it rained again, the wind blew, and it was bloody fantastic. Harris, its next-door neighbour, would just be bloody weird if the weather didn't change a bit. They're as exotic and welcoming as anywhere in the world, cheap and hugely enjoyable. In the south of France I was asked where I got my (slight) suntan. It was the west coast of Lewis actually".
STAYCATION: A YEAR IN STATISTICS
- Fourteen per cent more Britons holidayed at home and, compared with the same period last year, 2.6 million more trips and 9.1 million extra nights away from home were taken between January and June.
- Outbound travel saw a 17% drop.
- Five percent fewer overseas visitors visited the UK during the three months through to August, from 7.7 million a year earlier.
- For August, room rate in London was down 7% on the same month last year and occupancy dropped from 83.7% last year to 81.8% this year. In the regions, rooms yield was down 11% and occupancy also dropped from 74.8% to 72.4%.
- 53 hotel companies went bust in the April-June period.