Over the past two weeks the government has shone a ray of light upon what was building towards a foreboding number of months ahead for the hospitality sector. However, do Boris Johnson’s “roadmap” to recovery and Rishi Sunak’s budget announcement entail a season of Spring sunshine or April showers ahead for businesses within the industry? For Steve Chandler, managing director at RA Venues, the group’s teams are “in place,” and set to “deliver memory making experiences once again”.
Johnson’s four-stage lifting of lockdown will not have an immediate impact on firms who have links to the hospitality industry like RA Venues, an operator of unusual cultural and heritage venues across a number of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions. Only at stage two, with the potential reopening of outdoor venues on 12 April, will those businesses begin to return to some form of trading.
Further easing of measures will follow on 17 May through the opening of indoor seated venues, before Johnson’s “cautious but irreversible” plan is rounded off by the complete easing of restrictions for festivals, large weddings, conferences, and nightclubs on 21 June. For Chandler, the precise nature of the phased reopening has “provided a level of clarity” to support the firm in its efforts to “plan and prepare” for the coming months.
He adds: “Outdoor venues opening first makes perfect sense and it is encouraging to see the light at the end of the tunnel for indoor venues such as the museums reopening in May.” However, Chandler recognises that for RA Venues, all is not laid out as exactly as it may seem. “It will be interesting to see the finer detail on visitor number restrictions and how they are relaxed over time,” he says.
Now that a path to some form of normality has been laid out in full, has there been a change to RA Venues’ short and long-term strategy? Chandler argues that “given this is our third reopening phase,” the firm is in a good position to activate its plans. He explains: “The collective team support will be crucial. Our offers will be under constant review to ensure they meet government guidelines and the expectations of the guests.
“Digital technology will complement the experience and has been crucial in our quest to make visitors feel safe in our spaces. We are encouraged by the conference and events relaxations and are seeing encouraging signs of confidence in bookings beyond those of weddings. Our teams are in place, excited about the reopenings and ready to deliver memory making experiences once again.”
While Chandler notes that a transparent route to reopening has undoubtedly played a part in buoying the hospitality sector, he adds that the outlook of many firms hinges on government relief in the coming months. “Any government support for the hospitality industry is welcome,” says Chandler. “The more that can be done to help get the sector back on its feet the better.”
Some £65bn of financial aid has been pledged by Sunak in the government’s Spring budget, with a continuation of the furlough scheme and the 5% VAT also extended. Moreover, a new restart grant scheme will provide hospitality and leisure businesses with upward of £18,000 per premises.
Daniel Farrow, owner of Norwich-based pub and restaurant The Gatherers, revealed that he was “actually quite relieved” upon hearing of all the “further support announced for the period ahead of us”. Farrow had been set to expand his portfolio with two additional restaurants, but has been forced to open the sites as takeaway only, a typical theme for modern hospitality business ventures over the past 12 months.
He adds: “I think further grants are going to be a huge help to the industry and it’s certainly welcome news for us here at The Gatherers. The continuation of support on business rates also comes as a relief, and combined this support means that we can not only get back to business but also thrive this year and beyond.”
For RA Venues, a business that not only relies on hospitality reopening but also a cultural revival, the chancellor’s £300m addition to its £1.57bn culture recovery fund, including a further £90m for museums and cultural bodies, is gratefully received. Chandler says that the funding will go “some way to supporting the recovery and therefore footfall within the sector”.
The four-stage path provided by the prime minister in his “roadmap” to recovery announcement has evidently met the demands for transparency and clarity that the hospitality sector has been calling for quite some time. To then back this up a week later with an extensive support package in the chancellor’s Spring budget may just match the current seasonal changes, shining some sunlight on what has been a particularly dreary Winter for the hospitality industry.