Jim Parker: Will the Bay's lifeblood businesses survive what was going to be a Merry Christmas?

Torbay tourism leader Carolyn Custerson

Tourism leader Carolyn Custerson - Credit: Submitted

What a difference just a few, even a couple, of months can make if you are trying to run a business in the Bay's tourism and hospitality sector.

It only seemed like yesterday that hotels, guest houses, pubs and restaurants were making hay while the summer sun shined.

Hotels were full as holidaymakers opted to holiday at home instead of venturing abroad. There were queues to get into restaurants and pubs and attractions were brought back to life.

Businesses were making up for lost time and cashing in on the Staycation mania after seeing the pandemic close them down for months.

It may have seemed that they were in the money at last, but for many recovering from the impact of the coming of Covid and the lockdowns which followed from last March onwards would take a lot more than a late summer bonanza.

That's where Christmas came in.....

Bookings for the festive period from both visitors and event organisers were looking good. People were looking to meet loved ones and party after a miserable Christmas before.

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But then something called Omicron reared its ugly head. The new Covid variant started spreading like wild fire. The government didn't go into lockdown mode and as I write nobody really knows what dear ol' Boris will announce post Christmas after declaring the country free of any further restrictions at least for the festive weekend itself. We all know what is coming.

The government's chief scientific advisor Chris Whitty was to blame, if that is the right word, for giving us a taste of what was to become when he urged us not to mix. 

Tourism and hospitality business started to go down the pan from that moment.

English Riviera BID Company chief executive Carolyn Custerson said: ""The public are doing what Chris Whitty told them to do - do not mix with people because it is so infectious."

Booking cancellations followed swiftly. Mrs Custerson briefed Torbay MP Kevin Foster. She said: "I told him it was quite serious and the situation was deteriorating."

Torbay MP Kevin Foster

Kevin Foster - Credit: Submitted

She cited one hotel who had 250 people booked in - only 50 turned up. She said cancellations were running at 70 per cent (some are saying it is now 75 per cent. "It has been escalating," said Mrs Custerson. "It is also having a knock-on effect with staff being laid off a week before Christmas and with those in the supply chain."

Mr Foster contacted Chancellor Rishi Sunak asking for a support package. He told him: "Torbay’s hospitality and tourism businesses have been very grateful for the support provided over the last 20 months. It ensured they survived and mass unemployment was avoided. 

"I hope you will now consider what support can be offered to hospitality and their staff, from extending business rates relief and VAT reductions, to what can be provided to staff who have suddenly seen shifts cut back and income reduced."

Whether it had anything to do with Mr Foster's lobbying (it's not what but who you know) is neither here nor there but only hours later the Chancellor was announcing a £1 billion support scheme.

It includes one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises for businesses as well as using taxpayers’ cash to cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for firms with fewer than 250 employees. Cultural organisations can also access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.

How big a difference that will make for businesses in the Bay remains to be seen.

Mrs Custerson said: "Forward bookings for Christmas and the New Year were very strong. People were desperate to get out and meet people.

"Christmas was crucial. Whatever happened in the summer, Torbay still lost 50 per cent of its turnover since March 2020. It has not recovered from that turnover that it lost. You do not retrieve that. This Christmas was critical for cash flow and protecting jobs."

She added: "This time last year we had a support package which included five per cent VAT, business rates suspended and furlough in place. I know this has happened so fast, but businesses need support. I have told members to keep a record of the cancellations, record the reasons for the cancellations and record the value of the booking loss."

At least business for next summer is looking encouraging. Mrs Custerson says: ""I think we have a strong Staycation year ahead. Overseas holidays are going to be disrupted again."

The million dollar question is can businesses which sit at the heart of the Bay's economy survive that long? Time for Rishi to fetch out his Christmas wand - with a little nudge from Mr Foster?

* Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all. Thanks for all your support to me personally and to the Torbay Weekly.