The impact of Covid-19 on Northern Ireland’s hotel sector will be on the agenda at Hospitality Exchange 2021 but the focus will be firmly on the future and support to restore the industry to pre-pandemic levels.
Taking place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on October 12 and 13, the two-day conference programme will be a combination of analysis, advice and support for the hotel and hospitality industry following possibly the most challenging period in recent history.
The 2021 line-up includes an update on the hotel market with a specially commissioned report from the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) forecasting that the industry will trade at circa 40% behind the pre-pandemic 2019 levels in terms of room sales and revenue.
Business has started to fall back as leisure business returns to a more normal Autumn and Winter weekend pattern. Limited events and the sluggish return of business travel, along with confusion and constraints on international travel, will make the Monday-Thursday window more difficult to fill.
The impact of Covid-19 has been significant. The hotel sector entered 2021 with trepidation after a turbulent 2020. Investment in the region of £650m in new and upgraded stock in the preceding years had delivered an exceptional product with the hotel sector in Northern Ireland poised to capitalise on increased all island air access, modern hotel stock with a record number of rooms and strong international interest in visiting the region.
Fast forward to Hospitality Exchange 2021, access, particularly by air, has been decimated and being an island destination, it is imperative that this is restored. Discussing the figures and the challenges, Janice Gault, CEO of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, says:
“In 2020, the sector sold in the region of 1.15m bedrooms. In 2021, the forecasts suggest that this will grow to almost 1.5m rooms. A better performance but still way off 2019 levels. Staycations have been the saviour of the summer with support during the final lockdown ensuring the survival of the sector.
“The hotel sector is the largest of Northern Ireland’s serviced accommodation sectors in terms of rooms, with over 140 hotels. Looking back over the last decade, the progress the hotel sector has made should not be underestimated. Hotel investment of £800m, a record number of bedrooms – 9,627 in 145 properties with a TRevPAR of circa £700m – have all been delivered.
“Pre Covid-19, the sector also supported 13,000 jobs: 10,000 direct, 800 indirect and 2,200 induced. Today, we are facing a people crisis. In March 2021, the Federation surveyed its members to assess the mood prior to reopening and identify the challenges ahead. At this time, the emphasis was on the reopening and what would constitute a sustainable and viable industry framework. The standout figure was the number of staff required to reopen, calculated to be 2,565 over the 145-hotel premises.
“In May, the sector did reopen albeit in a restricted manner but the framework proved to work for the industry and customer alike. Some measures have been relaxed but the need to return to full service remains imperative. In September 2021, a further survey highlighted the perilous position that hotels have in relation to staff. Of those surveyed, 100% of businesses required additional staff and 85% had restricted their services in line with their available staff complement. The headline figure of 1,400 vacancies sent shockwaves through the industry. Hotels at full operational pre-pandemic levels employed 10,000 people; the current level of vacancies equates to 14% of the hotel industry’s staffing need.
“This is a worrying development, particularly as this situation is mirrored across other people intensive sectors: food processing, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. They are all telling a similar tale. The labour market has altered immeasurably with prospective employees stating job security as their number one priority”.
NIHF President Stephen Meldrum added:
“Each year the NIHF commissions a report which explores a series of figures linked to the sector and its performance. This year’s Hotel Report shows there are many challenges ahead. 2021 has proven to be a year of surprises: some pleasant and others distinctly less so.
“Hotels were permitted to reopen on 24th May 2021. A number had traded throughout lockdown offering accommodation for key sectors and permitted stays. The consensus viewpoint suggests that those who remained open for essential business had a much easier return to full trading since they managed to maintain better staffing levels and did not have to undergo the rigours of bringing the business back to life.
“The key for the hotel industry is to be allowed to trade sustainably within a clear and workable framework. Hotels have shown their resilience and resolve. They have traded responsibly, and they have a strong reputation. The support that has been received to date has been welcomed but as recovery becomes more truncated this support must continue so that the industry can survive.
“The role of the new Northern Ireland Brand “Embrace a Giant Spirit”, backed by a significant campaign, should not be understated and was particularly effective south of the border. Images of wide-open spaces, outdoor activities and relatively small urban dwellings resonated well with visitors and saw occupancy levels which were the envy of other regions”.
Discussing the support that the industry will need in order to survive NIHF CEO Janice Gault concludes:
“At a local level, a number of business stimuli will help see the industry through the winter months. Schemes like “Spend Local” and “Stay at Home” vouchers are an important weapon in the ‘recovery artillery’ and have been well received by businesses and consumers. There is considerable promotional activity in market, and with a new brand, Northern Ireland appears to be capturing the imagination of visitors.
“Anecdotal reports suggest strong bookings from international markets who are keen to visit with the island of Ireland being seen as a safe and secure destination for post pandemic travel. Ireland as an international destination has a good reputation but the propensity to travel at present is low. There will be pent up demand and hopefully this business can be realised at a future date”.
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