It’s a huge day for the hospitality industry in NI as operators everywhere brace themselves for a long-awaited influx of customers. Three months of lockdown have taken a toll and now the trade is keen to redress the balance…
Among those keen to see business resume today (July 3) is Belfast hotelier, Rajesh Rana, who will open the doors at all seven of his Belfast properties, although two of those venues did remain open for essential workers during the lockdown period.
Rajesh confirmed to LCN this week that a full service would be available at all the hotels. Check-in will now be contactless and there will be an express check-out system for guests. Some items, such as additional bedclothes, have been removed from the rooms and there will no longer be ‘stay-over’ cleaning.
In terms of food service, there will be more distance between guests in dining areas and in four-star properties, the breakfast buffet will be replaced by served meals. A range of ‘to go’ options will be made available in mid-range and budget hotels.
Rajesh said that the group was receiving a good response via telephone and online from customers keen to book staycations and that he was ‘positive’ and ‘hoping for the best’ going forward:
‘The challenge is not so much the lockdown as the re-opening, but the summer should be OK and the autumn, providing business travel returns, which I believe it will,’ he added.
While the prestigious Culloden Estate & Spa on the outskirts of Belfast will not be opening its rooms to guests until July 17, The Cultra Inn and the Lough Bar will be back in business from July 3. Newly-appointed GM, Lisa Steele says that there has been plenty of interest from callers keen to book tables for food this weekend:
‘We’ve told people that we’re opening and the support has been brilliant,’ she said. ‘We’re really looking forward to Friday.’
Lisa, who took over at the Culloden in February, acknowledged that the effects of coronavirus on the hospitality industry generally had been ‘devastating’:
‘What we have to do now is call on the local market across all of Ireland in order to get us through this. We need to encourage people to stay at home rather than fly off somewhere on holiday, and that’s not going to be easy.
We also have to try to remain positive and try to work within these restrictions to make ourselves attractive to people.’
Among those traders which won’t be enjoying an influx of thirsty customers later today is Stephen Reynolds, landlord at the popular Front Page in Ballymena. With no food menu and no outside space, the venue isn’t eligible to trade despite the relaxation of restrictions. But Stephen hopes he will soon be able to welcome his customers back, perhaps by the end of July:
‘One of the biggest things for us is that because we’re an award-winning community pub, we have a lot of older customers, many of whom live on their own, and the bar is a bit of a base for them, they might be in here three or four times a week normally, so that’s a problem for us,’ said Stephen.
He also acknowledged the hard work put in by HU staff throughout lockdown but pointed to the increase in business enjoyed by the off-trade during that period as evidence of a shift in the habits of drinkers:
‘All this is going to impact the hospitality industry for a long, long time,’ he continued. ‘The core virtues of the hospitality trade are about shaking hands, dancing and close contact and I think there is a big onus on us to ensure that this can all continue in the future.’
Traditionally a low-margin trade, restaurants have suffered a lot during the lean months of lockdown and operators will be keener than most to get back to business.
But for Paul Cunningham, current holder of the LCN Chef of the Year title, the omens are good. Speaking on Wednesday, he reported that his Newcastle restaurant, Brunel’s, is fully booked for this weekend. When Paul opened the venue for booking under the two-metre restriction, he filled his quota in an hour. When the rule was relaxed to one metre, he offered additional tables and these were booked within a couple of days.
‘I’m optimistic that this level of trade will keep up, but I would like to see more from Tourism NI to try and build customer confidence,’ remarked Paul. ‘They have been doing a bit, but we are one of the biggest trades in the country and I think they could make a bit more effort to get it going.’
Paul hasn’t increased his prices for the re-opening – there are enough reasons for people to stay at home, he says – but he has reduced his core menu and added a number of elements including a tasting menu and high-end snacks. He believes that in the market he serves, eating out will increasingly be treated as a special occasion.
And he added:
‘This all happened in March, so you’ve used up all your Christmas takings and you’ve lost most of the summer trade now, so I’m a little anxious about October and the possibility of a second wave. There’s no way we can afford to shut down all over again.’