A £40m support package for hospitality businesses in Northern Ireland has been described as "totally inadequate" by Beannchor Group managing director Bill Wolsey.
"Any funds that we get in from government are gratefully received, but £10,000, £15,000 and £20,000, depending on your rateable value, is not going to be anywhere near what business everybody has lost over this period," said Wolsey, whose company owns five hotels including the Bullitt Belfast, 23 pubs and the Little Wing Pizzeria chain.
It was announced earlier this week that nightclubs in Northern Ireland, will have to close from 6am on Boxing Day. From 27 December, hospitality businesses will be restricted to table service only, with tables limited to a maximum of six people, or 10 people from a single household.
To compensate, hospitality venues will be eligible for a one-off grant depending on their rateable value of £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000.
"For our pubs we'll be getting £20,000 – we've probably lost about £200,000 per pub," said Wolsey. "This will be a further blow to the smaller pubs that people rent from us."
The group's hotels saw "practically all" corporate bookings cancelled this month following concerns over the Omicron variant of coronavirus, with business down about 15%-20%, while its pubs were down about 30%.
Wolsey said: "It's a stressful situation for us, but our business is a big business and it's a strong business. But for some of the publicans and some of the smaller restaurateurs in Northern Ireland, the whole of December probably accounts for up to 25% of their profitability, probably even more. So for them this must be a hugely stressful period. And for some of the smaller places to be offered £10,000, it won't go anywhere near saving them and I would say, come March, there will be some very difficult decisions made by a lot of people as to how they can continue."
As for January, he said it was "looking grim" with further cancellations being seen across the group's hotels. He called for an extension of the UK's VAT cut and another six months added onto the business rates holiday.
"There's been all sorts of talk of further grants and mini-furlough," he said, "I don't think we want or need any of that, a much more targeted approach would be the VAT and rates."
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: "This support will mean that business owners and staff can breathe a small sigh of relief and go into the holiday period with at least some sort of short term security.
"Not everyone will get what they need, but this is a start at such a critical juncture."
Colin Johnston, managing director of Galgorm Collection, was more positive. "It's been very challenging but it hasn't been all disappointment," he said. "We took a view that it wasn't going to be Christmas 2019, but it was going to be a lot more positive than what last year was. We wrote a conservative budget. We decided not to do huge Christmas party nights. We didn't want to put a lot of work and effort into it and then potentially it might not come off for us, so we decided to stick to our day to day restaurant business, hotel and spa bookings, and really just focus on the leisure side of the market. It has genuinely paid off – the cancellation rates on that side of the business hasn't been anywhere near what the corporate side would have been.
"We've managed to maintain a very steady level of business. It's not a normal December but it's better than what November was. If anything it's slightly ahead of where we'd hoped. I suppose it's all about what picture in your own head you painted about how your December was going to be."
Galgorm Collection operates Belfast restaurants including Parisien and Fratelli and hotels including the Rabbit in Templepatrick, the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn and the Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort.
Johnston said the business had been keeping waiting lists, allowing cancellations to be replaced by new bookings, with "decent numbers on the books" this side of Christmas, with bookings for next year looking "very strong" and corporate business postponed into the spring rather than cancelled.
However, he expressed concern about businesses such as nightclubs being able to pay staff wages with the grants not expected to be paid out until the week commencing 10 January at the earliest, two weeks after nightclubs were ordered to close.
"Get the support to the people that need it," said Johnston. "You can't let people go without wages. Get the money to the people."
Chef-restaurateur Michael Deane, owner of seven sites across Belfast including the Michelin-starred Deanes Eipic, said the Christmas trading period had still been "pretty busy" despite a 15%-20% drop in turnover and January was looking "quite strong".
"We lost all the corporate stuff – the parties of 20, 30, 40, the appetite seemed to die for all of that. But people recongregated in sixes and fives and fours and spent a bit of money enjoying themselves in their own bubbles," he said.
"I don't know what sort of profit is going to be left at the end of this, but the doors are still open. People are still using restaurants."
His business has continued with social distancing, masks and table service even since the requirement to do so was dropped.
"We're lucky enough we've been able to remain open up until Christmas Eve, but we've still got the Bounce Back Loans that we took in, the overdraft. Trying to manage a business in this climate is very difficult," said Deane.
Photo: Shutterstock / Stanislavskyi
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