Colin Neill: Dates provide hope for return of the hospitality sector

PULLING PINTS: Only when everyone as the opportunity to fully reopen with no restrictions will we see the full picture of the commercial impact of the pandemic on the hospitality sector
Colin Neill

THE last week has been bitter-sweet. We now have hope on the horizon with indicative dates for the reopening of the hospitality industry, but know that we still have weeks to go to get the doors open again.

Our industry looked on with shock last Thursday morning as reports in the media detailed an elongated time-frame that was simply unacceptable to the sector. It created a huge level of anxiety and ultimately was the outworking of a lack of engagement with the industry, which we, as an organisation, had warned about for months.

Thankfully the decision makers listened to our case, and we welcomed the revised dates. Business owners are now working towards reopening against that new programme. Much emphasis has been placed on May 20 as a key decision day for the reopening of indoor hospitality on May 24. But like Scotland, we hope for an accelerated plan.

The lower infection rate, swift roll out of vaccines, and plans progressed elsewhere in the UK should give us all the confidence we need to get things moving in the right direction. In the last couple of months, the sector has been very frustrated at the lack of decision making against the backdrop of available data showing positivity. We believe we can be more ambitious about the time scale as it now sits.

Until everybody has the opportunity to fully reopen with no restrictions, only then will we be able to gain the full picture of the commercial impact of the pandemic. We know already that businesses have gone to the wall and staff have been let go. We are fearful of the extent, but we must remain resilient.

As an organisation, we have taken some time to ready ourselves for the lifting of the lockdown. In many ways, those who have survived this length have been in a state of readiness, paying the furlough top up and forking out for ongoing bills and overheads, just to keep their premises ticking over in eternal hope.

Last month we brought forward our industry led recovery plan to tackle problems we will likely be faced with, and have identified what economic levers need to be pulled to get us back to trading sustainability.

Unfortunately, probability for many will be some way off and a vast major will be trying to address debt which has been accumulated over the last 13 months.

We now look at the next few weeks with greater optimism. We are moving in the right direction. The excitement in many about getting back out to our brilliant pubs, restaurants, hotels and attraction is evident.

Business owners have already invested heavily in mitigation measures and we already have experience in the implementation of previous regulations. The drive to get open and having everything in place is a potent mix as we seek to re-establish the vibrancy of our vitally important hospitality sector.

:: Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster

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