Hospitality and tourism experts in Lincolnshire are warning of an uncertain winter in the sector, after fears that COVID-19 restrictions may be reintroduced during the festive period.
Although the sector was one of the worst affected by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, the summer saw a huge surge in the industry as demand for holidaying in the UK, including Lincolnshire, soared. It’s now feared that restrictions could be put back in place yet again if demand for hospitals reaches unsustainable levels across the country.
This month, Geoff Barnes, the director of public health for North East Lincolnshire, warned of a 50-50 chance that Northern Lincolnshire could face additional COVID restrictions this winter, and the government will likely look at implementing new measures to mitigate the situation if it continues to worsen.
The next few weeks are “critical in preparing the region for winter” as the government may introduce restrictions under their ‘Plan B’ if it needs to protect the NHS. While these restrictions only go as far as advising people to work from home, exercise caution, mandating vaccination passports and face coverings, it is still possible for more drastic interventions to be taken and even these will have an impact on hospitality and tourism.
According to VisitEngland, more than 11 and a half million Brits are planning a holiday in the UK over the Christmas and New Year period. While these numbers seem optimistic, they bring a deeper level of uncertainty to the tourism and hospitality industry.
While a significant increase in visitor number bolsters the local economy, it also brings a greater chance of spreading not only coronavirus, but also flu, RSV or other long-term problems which have worsened over the pandemic, putting greater strain on local health services.
Although it’s highly unlikely for another lockdown to take place, measures such as mandatory face mask-wearing and COVID passports could prompt people to swap staycations for simply staying at home.
As Christmas markets across the UK have returned in the last few weeks, or are at least planning their re-emergence, many have been brought back in reduced form - with strict restrictions on visitor numbers and changes to layouts to minimise touchpoints.
Some markets across the country have been cancelled for a second concurrent year, but even before COVID, Christmas markets aren’t risk-free venues for businesses, primarily due to weather conditions. For example, the Lincoln market had to be cancelled at very short notice in 2010 and 2017 due to snow (or the risk of snow).
From a financial perspective, it is widely known that sales for local businesses around Lincoln rise sharply around the festive favourite and the loss of the Christmas market for a second consecutive year would negatively impact the books of local businesses and the wider community.
While the market annually attracts crowds of approximately 250,000+ visitors every year, in lieu of another mandatory national lockdown, it will be up to local authorities to balance vague promises about ensuring safety against the economic imperative to host such an event. One such way they are seeking to mitigate the momentum of another wave of COVID is by recommending the use of face masks during the market, despite it being held primarily outdoors. Of course, this cannot be mandated so whether crowds will follow the advice is yet to be seen.
At the time of writing, Lincoln City Council intends for the Lincoln Christmas Market to go ahead, subject to government restrictions, from 2-5 December 2021. However, even if it does, anxiety and ambiguity could still threaten even the best-laid plans. Businesses and visitors need to feel confident that the market will be a success before committing to it fully.
Adding to the uncertainty is the recently announced strike action on 3-4 December by The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers which coincides with the market. While the council is reassuring prospective visitors that there will be minimal disruption, it is certainly an unwelcome addition to an already uncertain period.
In my role as head of leisure and tourism, I work with hundreds of businesses across Lincolnshire and the East Midlands which depend on the holiday market as a vital source of income. As a Lincolnshire-based company, we provide a wide range of business services and have helped around 4,500 companies through the pandemic.
My advice to businesses is to prepare for all possibilities, hedge your bets and anticipate unpredictability in the coming weeks.
As COVID cases around the county and the nation continue to fluctuate, many experts are warning of a new wave and increased hospitalisations over the festive period. Businesses can’t suddenly make themselves immune to this evolving threat, but they can make key changes to make their offering more resilient and more accessible for customers.
If you can, extend your physical offering online by adding a virtual shop or ‘click-and-collect’ system. This will give you a valuable additional income stream alongside your physical store, and gives you a flexible alternative should the worst happen. Leisure and hospitality managers should remind themselves of their cancellation policies and prepare for the costs these might generate.
We’re also seeing a huge strain on the jobs market at the moment, particularly after the UK has lost over a million EU workers due to Brexit and coronavirus and many are experiencing hiring issues due to the pandemic. So, if you need to take on additional team members for the festive period, whether temporary or permanent, it pays to be extra mindful and ensure that there is robust PPE in place to protect both your team and customers.
Finally, we’ve all heard about delays in goods and deliveries as another knock-on effect of Brexit and the ensuing driver shortage. While this is frustrating, it’s also an ideal opportunity to support your local economy and shop local to support small and growing businesses.
If you would like help preparing your business during this uncertain time, please contact us.