A number of pubs, restaurants and bars in Manchester are reporting a dramatic spike in cancellations as the new Omicron variant raises concern amongst the public.
As news of Christmas party cancellations spread, some Manchester operators say they fear they may not survive into the new year without the large takes that the festive season typically brings.
Manchester’s nighttime economy adviser Sacha Lord told Sky News this morning that the ‘last 48 hours have been catastrophic for the industry’.
“December is the time when people have a good time, you know they can take up to 25% of their annual turnover in December and sadly at the eleventh hour it’s been smashed away from them,” he said.
Responding to a number of cancellation reports coming out of the city’s hospitality sector, Lord laid the blame at the door of Jenny Harries, head of the UK’s Health Security Agency, who on Tuesday advised the government that people should limit their social contact ‘a little bit’ in the run-up to Christmas to ‘help to keep the virus at bay’.
He later added in a statement: “Whilst is it highly important that individuals follow Government guidelines to limit the spread of the new variant, they should not make any rash decisions about cancelling their Christmas plans.”
“If the hospitality sector is not supported and closes in December, it will be the final nail in the coffin for many of our beloved venues. This festive period was supposed to help these businesses reach back to pre-pandemic levels and boost revenues for the first time in months.”
The government has officially rejected this advice and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people not to cancel their Christmas parties, as has GM Mayor Andy Burnham – but as Lord put it this morning, it seems that ‘bad news spreads a lot quicker than good’.
“It’s yet another blow. A less busy than expected December might be the final straw for a lot of hospitality business,” said Mary Ellen McTague, owner of The Creameries restaurant in Chorlton.
“We’ve had two years of closures, unpredictable business, rising costs etc etc.
“I honestly don’t know how much more we can take.”
Following nearly two years of struggles through lockdowns, tier restrictions and closures caused by staff illnesses, many operators have been counting on a good Christmas – not just to help see them through to the next year, but make up for trade lost to date.
Many businesses have installed extra safety procedures – such as PPE for staff, perspex screens, hand sanitiser points and more rigorous cleaning schedules – at their own expense, and there is a hope amongst some that this, combined with ‘green light’ government messaging, will reassure customers to honour their bookings.
Ultimately, though, the sector is now calling on people to at least let restaurants know if they are no longer going to attend – with some advising that people should be prepared to ‘at the very least lose their deposits’ if they pull out of a booking.
“We have had reports from multiple Manchester-based clients that they have seen particularly large bookings start to cancel,” said Abi Dunn of Manchester-based hospitality recruitment consultants Sixty Eight People.
“This is very sad actually and I truly hope this is the minority. The message from the operators will be clear – if you feel you have no choice but to cancel, then please let the venue know immediately.
“Customers should expect at the very least to lose their deposits and shouldn’t be questioning this. The industry have spent months preparing for Christmas and for many operators a successful December will be key to survival.”
Elsewhere, City Pub Group chief executive Clive Watson said that some bookings had made the choice to postpone to next year instead of cancelling – a welcome move for hospitality businesses already on the knife edge.
“We’ve had some larger parties call up and not cancel – but postpone until January or February,” he told Sky News.
“But from what we can see, smaller work parties and friends meeting up before Christmas is still fine.”
The cancellations also appear to be having a knock-on effect across wider industries, with local photographers reporting booking cancellations and hoteliers saying that they’ve seen huge conferences, Christmas parties and other groups pull out of bookings too.
“At least 50% of our Christmas parties, conferences and groups for December all cancelled this week. Soul destroying,” said Scott Brown, the Director of Sales for Melia and Innside hotels in Manchester and the north of England.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference this week, the PM said: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”
“What we are doing is trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach to the particular risk that seems to be posed by Omicron – certainly is posed by Omicron – focused, in particular, on measures at the border.”
Speaking to Mail Plus this morning, CEO of UK Hospitality Kate Nicholls said: “I think what we would hope is that […] consumers listened to the Prime Minister who came out very strongly yesterday afternoon, to say that the government measures on booster jabs on testing on masks were efficient and to recognise the investments that hospitality has made in ventilation, caffeine and sanitation.
“So there was no need to cancel Christmas festivities and bookings, and that people could socialise safely.”