With potential restrictions on international travel and customers lacking the confidence to go abroad, operators are hoping that the UK's domestic leisure profile will benefit from a surge in holidaymakers. Ben Walker finds out what's to come.
As UK hotels reopen, those with a strong domestic leisure profile have the best chance of rebuilding their revenues from the outset. With the restrictions and ongoing uncertainties surrounding international travel, there is even the prospect of picking up extra bookings that would otherwise have gone abroad.
Open countryside, seaside and rural settings, kids' clubs, large rooms with balconies, the space and facilities to work while on holiday: these are some of the common requests taken by travel bookers right now, who note that guests want to return to familiar, tried-and-trusted properties.
"In the last couple of years there has definitely been an emphasis on looking for new adventures and new experiences, for example, going to Georgia for a long weekend instead of Paris," says Rebecca Masri, founder of luxury travel company Little Emperors, which has 100 UK member hotels. "That's now gone. There's so much uncertainty that people want to go to familiar places."
Appetite for travel
Hotels should therefore focus their marketing efforts on their existing customers. Staying in the luxury end of the market, Pride of Britain Hotels chief executive Peter Hancock says his member hotels are feeling "very cautious but optimistic".
For the 47 hotels in the marketing consortium that are not in London, 85%-90% of demand is domestic and leisure.
"We know there is this huge pent-up demand. People have been stuck at home. We've got a lovely offering for them that is easy to get to. Just get in the car," he observes. In a survey of 8,000 Pride of Britain customers, 80% said they were willing to drive three hours or more to stay in one of its hotels.
However, a weekly VisitBritain/ BVA BDRC survey points to low, but growing, confidence in travelling. Only 28% of UK adults who would ordinarily book a domestic trip said they felt confident of taking one in July to August, rising to 50% in September to October.
We know there is this huge pent-up demand. People have been stuck at home
When asked why they felt unconfident, the top reason was ‘restrictions on travel from government (national).' Concerns over catching Covid-19 came in third place.
Meanwhile, the staggering of reopening of hospitality across the UK appears to have caused confusion among consumers over when and where they are allowed to travel. Northern Ireland reopened on 3 July and England the following day, while a staggered reopening has started in Wales and Scotland.
When looking at actual bookings, there are plenty of positive stories that show consumer attitudes can change rapidly. The Best Western group, with 280 UK hotels, reported a surge in bookings after the downgrading of the Covid-19 alert level on 19 June.
Other consumers were eager to book even when news about reopening was still sketchy. Over the course of 72 hours in May, Little Emperors took £2.5m in bookings, more than it had taken in the whole of 2020 before then. The spike followed the prime minister's first announcement on 10 May that some parts of the hospitality industry would reopen from July.
Masri says: "Demand for the British countryside has soared this summer. Most booking requests are for July. I think people are just so desperate to get out. People are looking for something to do, whether it's kids' clubs or outdoor activities. Also, as people have got used to working from home, they now want to situate themselves somewhere else to work."
Through the Little Emperors site, the Four Seasons Hampshire is the most popular UK destination, followed by Beaverbrook Hotel & Spa in Surrey and Chewton Glen in Hampshire. In fourth and fifth places are the Balmoral, Edinburgh, and the Four Seasons on Park Lane, London.
Demand for London hotels, which is 79% international, will take longer to return. Consequently, the number of London hotels open before September is limited. Normally, the Connaught is the most popular London hotel with members of Little Emperors, says Masri, but it is yet to announce a reopening date.
"The reasons people would come to London for the summer, like Wimbledon or weddings and events, have all been cancelled," she adds. "The summer sales are great, but do people want to be in a shop right now? I can't imagine there will be many international guests."
In contrast, confirming the attraction of both seaside and rural settings, rooms revenue at Home Grown Hotels is up 16% for July across all seven properties. Head of marketing Lotti Bruce says: "Unsurprisingly our most rural property, the Pig at Combe, which has a good range of outdoor rooms, cottages and large open public spaces, has seen a real spike in bookings for an immediate getaway. And you can't get a room at the Pig on the Beach for a weekend now until October."
At Sawday's, whose collection includes independent UK hotels and B&Bs, booking enquiries increased 33% week-on-week during the first half of June.
It seems likely there will be some ‘repatriation' of overseas leisure demand this summer, plus the lengthening of short breaks into holidays.
Bruce says: "We have seen an increase in longer stays this year compared to last summer, from 1.8 to 2.1 nights, which would suggest, as has been widely predicted, that people are looking at a domestic getaway." Office for National Statistics data shows that UK residents spent £62.3b on visits overseas in 2019 (compared to £28.4b spent by overseas residents on visits to the UK).
Hancock adds: "Normally, throughout the summer we have millions flying abroad for their holidays. This year many will not want to do that, so that should, in theory, extend our season. People prevented from going to their villa in Spain might very well be tempted to spend a week in Cornwall or Scotland. I am certain that we will see quite a lot of one-week or two-week UK holidays this year."
Malcolm Bell, chief executive at Visit Cornwall, also has a longer season in his sights. "We're not marketing for the summer because we believe we'll be popular enough. We are now marketing for the autumn and winter," he says. "What I would hope for the younger and senior markets is a much stronger September and October. A holiday in October will be more pleasant because there are fewer people around."
Just as it is inevitable that overall demand will be reduced, capacity will be down too, due to risk assessments, social distancing and those businesses that choose not to open immediately.
At the St Moritz Hotel & Spa in Cornwall, the management team realised their existing restaurants and bars would not give them the desired capacity under social distancing rules, so they have built a pop-up facility, nicknamed the Anti-Social Club. The new concept consists of 16 private dining rooms, with a maximum of 96 covers. The individual dining rooms are all accessed from outside, with service provided from a central atrium, and all food and drink is delivered via a set of hatches. The design means that waiting staff don't need to go into the dining rooms, and the individual, staggered dining times mean that guests won't run into each other either.
Operators have to perform a careful balancing act. After more than three months of closure, there is the imperative to start generating revenue again, which needs to be achieved with sensitivity to the potential concerns of guests, staff and local communities.
Hancock recognised this while thinking about Pride of Britain's marketing message. "We started with ‘welcome back', but then our research told us that actually not everyone is ready to come back and we accept that. We don't want to insult them. We want to reassure them, so we chose ‘ready when you are'. We're ready and we're looking forward to seeing you whenever the mood takes you."
Bruce at Home Grown Hotels adds: "We are mindful of the communities that our hotels are a part of. We do not in any way want to make them feel vulnerable by opening up the area to new visitors, so we will be ensuring that we have enough space to accommodate all guests safely on our own sites."
The recovery starts now
Operators and employees will have a range of feelings about reopening, and some lifestyle businesses will choose not to open straight away.
Ian Gregory, owner of Fullers Earth B&B in Dorset, says: "Welcoming guests back? Yes, if it's safe and practical to do so. If we have to implement so many safety measures that if it turns out to be impractical and overwhelms us, we will probably not do it at our time of life. We'd rather drop a year. So far, we're probably £5,000 net out of pocket."
"We could not think of a time when people are craving some comfort and care more than now"
Complying with social distancing rules is something entirely new for everyone. Businesses will only fully understand what is involved once they are open again.
"We know that we face many challenges and unknowns ahead, and until we are actually in the operation and up and running, it is very hard to know how everything will come together," says Bruce.
Success also hinges on clear guidance from government. "It could be a really good second half of the year," Hancock concludes, "but much depends on what further measures are introduced or relaxed."
Whatever happens, there will be plenty of enthusiastic employees who simply want to get back to work. Bruce says: "We are itching to reopen. We want to get the staff back and working and doing what they love. We could not think of a time when people are craving some comfort and care more than now."
UK holidays in numbers
It is sometimes said that the volume and value of domestic holidays moves up and down, buffeted by forces such as recession, heatwaves, overseas terrorism, Brexit and the weak pound. However, looking at official data over the last 10 years, we could equally observe how remarkably consistent domestic leisure is in spite of such events.
This year, there is no getting around the hole in revenues left by almost four months of lockdown, but the solid and sustained track record of domestic holiday-making bodes well for the first stages of recovery. Source: GBTS/VisitBritain
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