Hotels pin their hopes on a mid-month stay of execution

Hostelries are keenly awaiting PM’s review of tier system

In a normal year, wave after wave of revellers flow through the Crieff Hydro Hotel in Perthshire over the festive period.

It is not just demand for staycations that bring people to the 152-year-old venue, but the various parties, awards ceremonies and other festive get-togethers which sees visitors flock from nearby towns and from further across the UK.

Stephen Leckie, chairman and chief executive, says the hotel along with its sister venue Peebles Hydro, welcomed 10,000 partygoers over the Christmas and new year period.

“This year, we’ve got nothing, not one single party night,” says Leckie, who is the fifth generation of his family to run the group of seven hydro hotels. “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, so there’s nobody.”

Tourism has been one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. Travel restrictions and rules around social distancing have brought much of the industry to a standstill, leading to months of lost trading for businesses.

Looser restrictions over the summer months provided some green shoots for the sector as limitations to overseas travel sparked a boom in demand for staycations. But as government rules have tightened, the outlook for hotels this winter looks bleak.

A total 4.2m overnight stays were booked by domestic tourists across the UK during December last year, with £945m spent during trips, making it one of the most crucial trading periods for the hotel industry.

According to industry trade body UKHospitality, with bookings currently down 80pc on what they would be in normal times, the difference between opening and staying closed will be marginal for many hotels.

The five-star Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland confirmed this month that it would not reopen until at least February after being placed in Tier 3 restrictions by the Scottish government.

The resort said it was “saddened” by the rule change, “especially in the lead-up to Christmas – the highlight of our calendar for both team and guests”.

The gloomy outlook for the Christmas period has been exacerbated in England by Boris Johnson’s new tier system. The restrictions, which come into force on Dec 2, will see 98pc of all hospitality venues placed under either Tier 2 or 3 restrictions.

In Tier 2 areas, hotels will be able to open, but will be restricted by rules which prevent households from socialising indoors, while hotel bars and restaurants will only be able to serve alcohol if it is being ordered with a substantial meal.

“That will be a strain,” says Simon Steele, general manager of Armathwaite Hall, a hotel and spa in the northern Lake District. “It means we will have to turn away walk-in customers and can’t operate as well as we should be.”

Parts of the sector will still be under the tough restrictions come Christmas and the new year, although nobody knows where.

The Prime Minister has pledged to review the system on Dec 16, which is being seized upon as a glimmer of hope by some of the hospitality industry.

Robin Hutson, who runs The Pig, a boutique chain of hotels and restaurants, is faced with operating venues located across all three tiers over the coming weeks. The Pig’s site in Kent will be forced to shut under local restrictions, but he is hopeful that it may be able to grab some last minute festive trade when the rules are reviewed.

“We’re getting very used to dealing with the twists and turns,” he says.

But experts warn this fuels further uncertainty for the hotel sector which has already seen a wave of cancellations since the tiers were announced on Thursday.

“We’ve already seen a 50pc increase in [hotel room] cancellations, not just for December but into the new year, more worryingly,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality. “Every time there’s an announcement from the Government, there is another surge in cancellations.

“It’s still not certain where you can travel, and what you can travel to do, if you are in a Tier 3 area such as Nottingham but want to travel to a Tier 1 area such as Cornwall for Christmas. You don’t know whether you can or not.

“This all may change on Dec 16, some places may go down a tier but others may move up. It’s a real headache for the hotels to be able to juggle at the moment because it creates so much uncertainty as people are booking at the last minute.”

Hoteliers say that the ability for people to travel freely across the UK over Christmas will be crucial to trade.

At the Crieff Hydro Hotels Group, Leckie says just 33pc of rooms are booked for the new year, compared with this time a year ago when bookings for the period would usually stand at around 80pc.

“A large proportion of hospitality sales in Scotland come from the population living within cities, and if the cities are Tier 3 by Dec 24 that means it will be illegal for them to travel,” says Leckie.

Even once hotels are given clarity over their ability to trade over Christmas, they will then be forced to contend with the various restrictions that now come part and parcel of running a hospitality business.

Steele says room bookings for Armathwaite Hall’s Christmas packages have been capped at 70pc capacity to ensure social distancing among guests. Magicians which usually interact with guests around the hotel will be unable to provide entertainment, and the venue’s casino night will be cancelled.

“You certainly can’t socially distance around a roulette table,” says Steele. “At the moment I can’t tell you how we will manage to socially distance eighty or ninety people while watching the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

“We’ve also got a large spa which guests would normally have free rein over for the whole day, but under the current rules I will have to try and fit in eighteen guests per two hour slots.”

As Leckie puts it, rather than ringing in Christmas and the new year this year, most hotels will simply be “limping along”.

Steele agrees: “We will be operating with an arm tied behind our back.”