As the headlong rush into the key Christmas season gets underway, the hospitality trade in Northern Ireland is looking to make the most of the year’s busiest selling period.
Among Belfast venues, optimism was very high during the last week in November, as traders reported notable increases in footfall and high levels of interest in Christmas party programmes.
And outside the capital, hospitality operators are seeing similarly buoyant early Christmas trade.
At Hastings’ new Grand Central hotel in Belfast, GM Stephen Meldrum said that he was ‘really pleased’ with the level of Christmas trade at the venue.
Speaking at the very end of November, Stephen told LCN:
‘There’s been overwhelming interest from companies wanting to host their Christmas lunches, dinners and events with us. We’re heavily booked throughout December in our restaurants and private banqueting suites, with many making a night of it and choosing to stay over at the hotel.’
Eating out on Christmas Day continues to be popular and Stephen reported ‘huge interest’ from families keen to have their big lunch at the Grand Central.
‘Our restaurant is fully booked and accommodation enquiries are steady,’ he confirmed.
As for the New Year, Stephen said that despite any worries around the impending Bexit, there was still plenty of interest in Northern Ireland generally:
‘Belfast is still very much seen as a great destination for travellers and business from across the world,’ he added.
Diners too have also been quick to get involved in the festivities. At Howard Street restaurant near the City Hall in Belfast, owner Martin Murphy said business was strong and that he had ‘no complaints’.
‘We’re pretty much fully booked for the whole month of December, so you can’t be much busier than that,’ he added. ‘We have a very consistent customer base, we get a lot of repeat trade and a lot of people who book in December for the following Christmas.’
Howard Street takes party bookings for tables of up to 30 and Martin confirmed that trade there has been ‘quite strong’ to date:
“We offer a reduced a la carte menu including a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and that’s very popular,’ he added. ‘People really seem to be getting into the spirit.’
Moving outside the city and in Ballymena, veteran pub owner, Eugene McKenna reported that party bookings at his venues in the town were going ‘extremely well’. Eugene and his wife, Carole operate The Grouse and the newly-developed sports bar, The Smoking Monkey, in the town centre:
‘We certainly can’t complain,’ he said at the end of November. ‘We have somewhere in the region of 170 tables booked at this point, which is even better than we’d hoped for…We also have a party programme in place for the New Year with different, bigger acts than we would have booked in the past and we are taking good bookings for that.’
And in the north-west, Ciaran O’Neill, general manager at the Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry-Londonderry, says that his festive trade is strong for the fourth year in succession. And while he conceded that with Brexit looming, the future was uncertain, he insisted that the economy in the border region was still strong:
‘The only thing is the uncertainty, but that’s been certain for a long time, so people aren’t reacting now, they’re waiting and in the meantime, they are still spending,’ he remarked.
‘Everybody in the north-west is still very positive and talking up the crucial Christmas season.’