Queues and cancelled flights may have encouraged UK holidays, but the cost of living crisis is gaining a grip on the nation
A fter pandemic lockdowns battered hospitality, a small ray of light came from the so-called staycation boom, which saw millions of Britons head not to the Spanish coast but to UK beauty spots such as Cornwall, the Lake District and North Wales in 2020 and 2021.
Families also explored less well-known, but no less beautiful British destinations, often for the first time, providing a boost for local operators by packing out restaurants and increasing room rates.
This summer Europe is open for business and fully-vaccinated travellers are once again free to book a package holiday or a week in a Tuscan villa. However, it appears that the appeal of a UK break is enduring and operators report that domestic bookings for this summer either surpass or are comparable to 2019 levels, even if most are not seeing the highs of 12 months ago.
There are multiple factors at play. The chaos seen at airports – Heathrow cancelled 61 flights in a single day in July – has dissuaded some from attempting an overseas break, while the cost of living crisis has led some to book a short staycation closer to home rather than a week or two overseas. For some though, this has to be weighed against the price of fuel – which reached almost £2 a litre last month – making long car journeys a costly undertaking.
Risk versus reward
In late June VisitBritain published a poll revealing that 39% of Britons were more likely to choose a staycation over an overseas trip than they were pre-pandemic. Of those planning a staycation, just over 50% cited wanting to avoid the risk of long queues or a cancelled flight, while 47% said it was due to UK holidays being cheaper.
Around the country, some operators are seeing staycation bookings come in at the last minute. Self-catering rental site Independent Cottages saw enquiries for the school summer holidays rise 23% week-on-week in the first week of July.
The English Lakes Hotels Resorts & Venues group has five hotels in the Lake District and north Lancashire, including Low Wood Bay and Lancaster House. Marketing manager Colin Fox said: "Reservations are higher now than the same pre-Covid period in 2019, but a little behind the same period last year."
Just down the road, Liam Berney, co-owner of Michelin-starred Lake District destination the Cottage in the Wood, is booked up for the summer, while Neil Kedward, managing director of Welsh hospitality group the Seren Collection, which owns sites including the Grove of Narbeth hotel, said the group's occupancy rates for May and June exceed even those seen in 2021.
Robert Richardson, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, believes such levels of demand are still being seen because "people are looking for certainty".
He said: "I'm certain I can get in my car and go from Canterbury to Dorset, but I can't guarantee I can get to Malaga right now."
However, there are suggestions that financial concerns may be stopping some from booking a break altogether. Suzy Davies, chair of the Wales Tourism Alliance (WTA), reported that "since the cost of living crisis came to the surface, staycation bookings have dropped off" among her members. "Some people are choosing not to go on holiday at all now," she said. "Some holiday parks and static caravan parks say they have even had people not fulfilling bookings because of the fuel costs."
Davies also pointed to independent operators being unable to compete with foreign package holiday deals currently on offer.
David Chapman, executive director for trade body UKHospitality Cymru, said in Wales, "the signs are that the staycation market is faltering a little". He suggested the lull might be "due to the cost of living position and indecision".
Similarly, chef and hotelier Michael Caines, of the five-AA-star Lympstone Manor and Michelin-starred restaurant in Devon, as well as the Harbourside Refuge in Porthleven and the Cove at Maenporth, does not believe the staycation boom will ever return to the heights seen in 2021.
"We're seeing more like 2019 levels of bookings this summer," he said. "We've seen a massive drop-off in bookings [compared to last year], and a lot of cancellations too."
Caines warned that the cost of living crisis is having an impact on the amount of money domestic tourists are spending, with "a huge uptake in people ordering just one course".
Keith Richardson, owner of Richardson Hotels, which has properties around the South West, is seeing a similar situation. He said: "Last year was exceptional. We're seeing very late bookings, but we're not seeing a surge like last year."
Chapman warned that combined with soaring costs, lower staycation demand "means the industry is not able to fill up the reserves chest to help the businesses prepare for the weaker winter trading times". Caines, whose sites have seen laundry costs go up by 25% and energy bills rise by nearly 50%, concluded: "It's getting quite extreme out there."
For many Britons, the pandemic appears to have sparked a lasting love affair with staycations, but hospitality businesses will still be fighting to survive this winter in order to be around to cater to that demand in 2023.
Glamping in Lincolnshire: ‘We're fully booked for the summer holidays'
Emma and Archie Dennis launched their luxury glamping business, the Nest, in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in July 2019.
The couple's lakeside site offers safari lodge-style cabins, open-water swimming, fishing, fire pits and spa treatments. A four-night stay for six people costs upwards of £750.
Emma said she and her husband have seen a surge in summer bookings in recent weeks – a relief after the picture seemed "quite bleak" at the start of the season. Bookings have come in from locals, and many are for shorter stays.
She said: "During Covid we were at 98% occupancy when we could open, and this year [so far] we're probably at more around 70% [occupancy].
"At the beginning of the season we saw a big dip so we invested in marketing. In the past six to eight weeks, we have seen a huge increase in bookings and we're now fully booked. September looks good."
Social media also played a part. Enquiries poured in when childhood friend, the former Made in Chelsea star and influencer Louise Thompson shared images of her stay at the Nest with her 1.1 million Instagram followers.
The pair are optimistic for the future of the staycation market, particularly as younger generations are "a lot more environmentally aware". Eco-friendly attitudes are leading some younger consumers to avoid flying where possible, and Emma is also encouraged by the Covid-era trend towards outdoors holidays such as glamping, where everyone gets "away from screens".
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