Bad news, good news

UK hoteliers were promised more short-term pain, but longer term gain as the government announced a delay to its promised Covid-19 reopening date.  

Alongside the disappointing news of a four-week delay to the final step on premier Boris Johnson’s “roadmap” to pandemic freedom, came the launch of a new tourism recovery plan for the UK. The plan aims to accelerate the return of tourism, returning it to 2019 levels of business a full year earlier than most models predict.  

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, called the delay “hugely disappointing”, but welcomed the new plan. “We are delighted to see the government recognising the key role hospitality and tourism plays in the UK….the people and businesses in these sectors will be the power driving the UK’s recovery, in levelling-up, and in building back better as we emerge from the pandemic. The sector is a huge employer of people, and investor in local communities, and will pay forward to both any support it is given.” 

Nigel Huddleston, minister for sport and tourism, said the aim is get back to pre-pandemic business levels by 2022, and to ensure tourism benefits are shared evenly around the country: “The Tourism Recovery Plan is our blueprint for how the sector can build back better from the pandemic, even faster than forecasts predict. It’s been a challenging year for the tourism sector, especially for our cities, but I know they stand ready to welcome visitors back and I encourage everyone to rediscover the UK’s fantastic tourism offer.” 

Rail passes and attraction vouchers will be available through this summer and into the autumn, to encourage Brits to take trips outside the summer season, echoing schemes previously used to encourage foreign tourist arrivals.  

There will also be a push to use technology and share data, and a tourism data hub that could, it is hoped, provide more real time data on travel trends, enabling the sector to respond more quickly.  

A consultation is promised over a possible accommodation registration scheme in England. This would specifically enable greater visibility over the impact of holiday rentals, both in their benefits to communities as well as possible negative impacts. There will also be consideration of sustainability, as well as a look forward to several globally-relevant events the UK will host in 2022, including the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Festival UK 2022 and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. 

Simon Vincent, Hilton EMEA president gave the plan his support: “We welcome this plan which provides much needed focus and support to aid the recovery. Crucially it recognises the critical role our sector will play in creating jobs and helping communities across the UK build back faster and better.” 

Hotel industry veteran Michael Hirst OBE, who chairs the Events Industry Board, told Hotel Analyst he is pushing hard to get events up and running again. Every lost month is reckoned to cost around GBP5bn in lost events revenues. Of annual totals, around GBP31bn a year of spend is created by purely business events, with more than half of that generated by the medical sector.  

Hirst said that the pandemic shake-up has encouraged innovation, and he is convinced of the need to return to face-to-face events, in urban centres – where business gets done. Digital and virtual innovations, he added, should be used to expand physical events, rather than shift them online.  

“Meetings and conferences, exhibitions and trade shows are crucial to the UK’s recovery in showcasing innovation, growing international visitors, attracting inward investment and creating jobs. We are delighted to see this recognised within the Recovery Plan which includes expansion of VisitBritain’s support programmes to include a UK-wide domestic fund, greater cross Whitehall working and enhanced Ministerial advocacy support plus elements related to sustainability, skills and accessibility.” 

One recent UK event that didn’t get cancelled was the G7 summit, which saw international leaders discuss many issues to do with the pandemic and wider economic issues. The World Travel & Tourism Council called for a coordinated response to restart international travel safely. In an open letter to UK premier Boris Johnson, Virginia Messina, WTTC acting CEO declared: “The situation is critical, so we must put travel & tourism at the heart of all governmental decision making globally and agree a consistent framework to reopen international borders.  

The risks of not doing so are enormous. In the G7 countries alone, the sector accounts for 5.11% of the total economy and almost one in 10 of all jobs globally.”  

In response, the meeting’s communique promised a coordinated push on vaccines, plus a push to reinvigorate economies that have been ravaged by Covid-19 spread, and by consequential pandemic containment measures.  

Nicholls also joined many others in the UK in calling for a “root and branch reform of business rates” as well as suggesting the hospitality sector ought to enjoy a permanently lower rate of VAT. “This will enable us to compete on a level playing field with other international destinations, not just as we begin to re-open for domestic and overseas visitors but in the longer term too, cementing the UK’s reputation as a top tourist destination.” 

HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: Johnson’s slowing of the roadmap was a decision taken after scientists warned him that the latest variety of Covid-19 could cause a fresh spike in cases and hospitalisations. Yet, in a population that is amongst the most vaccinated globally, there appears to be growing frustration at the remaining restrictive measures. Hotels are open, and can take guests, but can’t serve them food as previously. Hospitality remains hard hit, with restrictions on indoor guest or visitor numbers, pubs unable to operate in traditional ways, and the nation busily masking and unmasking, depending on where they are moving.  

So much for opening up economies, though. Us vaccinated Brits have been told by our government that we should holiday at home – and our European neighbours in recent days have reciprocated by demanding we quarantine, were we to visit. The politics of conservatism – do nothing, and you can do nothing wrong – seem to have overtaken logic and fact.  

Wisely, the promotional steps being taken will endeavour to spread the UK’s summer holiday season into the autumn. Anecdotally, rural hotel bookings are already extremely strong, and need no encouragement; though city breaks are still promising plenty of capacity.  

But, from a cash-strapped government, the funding of initiatives is sparse: funds from the National Lottery will subsidise visits to attractions, while the press release announcing the initiative counted investment in EV chargers at motorway services as a valuable tourism resource – that’s stretching it a bit.  

However, for once it appears that the timing might work out. Britain has, by luck, a bumper year of blockbuster events to showcase to the world. And, as the world saw during the 2012 Olympics, we’re generally quite good at those – and (quarantines permitting) will be well worth a visit.  

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