The crisis our local hospitality businesses are facing has been exposed in a focus group study by The Press & Journal in which more than half said they were not confident they would survive the impact.
Bars, hotels and restaurants have been hit time and again over the last nine months, from the initial lockdown which saw them closed for more than three months to the recently introduced tiers system which has made it impossible for many businesses to trade.
Hospitality business owners and managers from Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray took part in a focus group study conducted between November 10 and 30, and the responses show exactly how difficult things are for the sector as it operates under tiered levels of restrictions.
More than half (66%) of the 29 respondents to our detailed questionnaire are not confident that they will be able to remain open, despite the extension of the furlough scheme, while only 11% are completely confident they will still be trading.
And some hospitality venues have been forced to spend eye-watering amounts of money on their premises in order to protect customers.
Some businesses who aired their views in the study have spent more than £20,000 (15%), while others have invested between £10,000 and £15,000 (11%) in order to improve safety.
Unsurprisingly, turnover has been extremely hard hit during lengthy closure periods with 27% of businesses revealing their turnover has been reduced by more than 75%, while 23% of those questioned said they had lost between 50 and 74% of monies.
Owners of hospitality venues also do not believe they have been well supported by the UK Government.
A total of 24% of respondents said support has been “poor”, with 5% revealing that what government has provided has been “very poor”.
Only 2% of those questioned believed the support was “very good”.
Regarding support from the Scottish Government, only 5% believed the support to have been “very good”, while 14% said what has been made available is “very poor”.
The furlough scheme has been widely used by businesses with 79% saying they had taken advantage of it during the period from March-October and a total of 68% using the scheme now that it has been extended.
But some have been forced to cut staff, with 16% of respondents revealing they have had to make redundancies, with a similar number saying they expect to lose more employees.
And in a message to government over restrictions, 18% want more advance warning of changes, while 29% believe that there should be more financial support for the sector.
Netherdale House – Turriff, Aberdeenshire
Louise Grant, who runs the bed and breakfast Netherdale House in Turriff, is trying to remain positive, but believes summer is most likely when a return to normality can realistically be expected.
“We are feeling optimistic about next year, but we do feel it’s probably going to take a while longer, maybe into next spring and early summer. We are hopeful that we can get a good summer season again and we think there will be a lot of other businesses in the same position,” she said.
“It would be great if we could get a decent summer, but spring will probably be a write-off, certainly early spring anyway, March, April. Hopefully, early summer if things can start to get back to normal then I am sure that businesses like our own will have a good chance of surviving.”
Louise has taken advantage of the furlough scheme and believes that the government will have to continue to support businesses.
She continued: “I think until all the restrictions are lifted on hospitality I believe there will be a requirement for the furlough scheme to be available.”
And dealing with the measures which have allowed the business to continue trading has not been cheap, with more than £2,500 having been spent.
Louise added: “We have had to put in Perspex panels and the signage is quite expensive too, and it has been quite an expensive exercise.
“I would say we have spent between £2,500 and £3,000 as there has been additional cleaning requirements and protocols to put in place, as well as equipment.”
If there’s no berries left on the Holly tonight at Wreath Making … you know who to blame! Harry the peacock 🦚 now picking at the snowmen scarves too ⛄️
“Adapt and survive”
Innovation has been key for Netherdale House as it has tried to trade the best it could.
“This year has been a difficult year, but we have just tried to adapt and survive,” continued Louise.
“We started off with takeaway afternoon teas, takeaway feasting platters and we started making marshmallow kits for people to come and take away. And now we have started a Christmas range, we just keep adapting to keep the cashflow coming into the business.
“But it’s something we are enjoying doing as well. It’s a challenge, but as we have a function hall we have been able to use that for afternoon teas and we are hosting wreath-making workshops and we have afternoon teas every weekend.
“We have also put a wee pop-up shop into the function hall as well so it’s just a case of trying to think of new ideas and the pop-up shop is working well, because we have taken in some local crafters as they have suffered too, not having their usual shows and fayres and there are no Christmas fayres, so that is proving popular as well.
“If nothing else it forces you to try and think out of the box, there is no point in sitting crying about it. We will keep trying.”
The Spider’s Web – Dyce, Aberdeen
Mark Milne, of the Spider’s Web pub and restaurant in Dyce, says it has been an incredibly difficult year for his business, which has seen him spend tens of thousands of pounds just to remain open.
“We just hope that the vaccine is a success and socialising can return to relative normality in the New Year, but I wouldn’t foresee that before Easter,” he said.
“This year has been a total write off, it’s been a non-profit year.”
Mark has utilised the furlough scheme which he will do so again if the area is placed under Tier 3 restrictions.
“We used it when we were closed and the majority of time we have been open we retained all of our staff and took them all back.
“The scheme has been extended until March. Hopefully we will not need it after March but it’s difficult to tell. You think you’ve predicted everything that is going to happen and you think you’re settled then we become rather unsettled again.”
More than £40,000 spend
Mark added that additional costs incurred during the initial closure and subsequent introduction of further measures has cost him an eye-watering amount of money.
“We have had to spend quite a lot, staff costs have been high because the extra cleaning regimes and other extras, such as a full-time person doing Track and Trace,” he revealed.
“It’s difficult to say, but I would estimate it has cost me over £40,000 when you factor in all the bits and pieces we have done, including measures that we have had to put in place and additional staff costs.
“That is just to stay open and to continue trading.
“I was reasonably confident we would make it until I heard we were maybe going into Tier 3, as we were just planning to make our way through to the New Year in Tier 2 and hoping to stay open and trading, but we will shut if we go into Tier 3.
“Every time we are closed or the rules change we just have to re-evaluate. It’s constant. It’s so difficult to plan ahead.
“At least this time, we will get from Tuesday through until Friday, but we need to order stocks sometimes up to a week in advance, but it’s almost impossible to plan.”
Coopers Bar – Aberdeen
Bobby Baxter of Coopers Bar in Aberdeen has been left completely frustrated by the messages from governments during the last nine months.
“It’s all too woolly,” he said. “What has been frustrating is we were told ‘You can do this if you want’ or ‘We are recommending that you do this’. The government were telling people not to go to hospitality, then leaving them open – total chaos!
“The best thing I have heard is one of my regulars looked up insanity in the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the main definitions is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result. That’s where we are.
“The biggest frustration has been trying to work out the logic behind the restrictions. If someone can tell me what the difference is between drinking a cup of tea in a cup in a packed café and drinking a lager out of a glass in a pub. If someone could explain the medical difference to me, I would be delighted to hear that.”
Mr Baxter stressed that the vaccine, when it is fully available, has to be compulsory.
He said: “If you take a natural progression, wearing a mask was voluntary and we couldn’t challenge that. That left us with a lot of resentment from others in the bar who were wearing masks and you had to police that.
“Drink-driving is illegal, but used to be socially acceptable. Now it’s unacceptable. Until there is such at a time that they make then vaccine compulsory, then I don’t think it will make a great deal of difference.
“I don’t anticipate any normality for the timebeing and it depends what the Scottish Government deems as normal.”
Hi .. hope you're all still safe and well. No change at Coopers once again .. so we'll have to stay closed until Aberdeen City moves down to Level 1 from Level 2. Sorry. Bobby
Having an older clientele, Mr Baxter says that being a publican is not just a job for him, he also provides a venue for people to meet their friends and helps them with their mental wellbeing – and gets them out of the house.
“People can buy a beer in the supermarket for less than half of what it costs in a pub, yet they choose on a regular basis to come to a bar. The reason they do that is because of the social interaction, it gives them something to do,” he continued.
“Some of my regulars, who are an older crowd in general, walk a fair distance as it is their day out to play pool with their mates and have pint, that’s the only social interaction they’ve got.
“Some 60 to 70% of the reason they are there is to socialise and unless the social distancing changes dramatically then it’s pointless. The atmosphere is nil, there is no sound, no music – it’s not what they’re looking for.
“We open Christmas Day and New Year’s Day because many don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s not economically viable for us but we have done it traditionally because these guys meet up.
“Some of my regulars’ wives will have all their own cooking to do, but they will stay up late into the night cooking up finger food just so that the older guys get something nice to eat and somewhere to go.”
Mr Baxter did examine other possibilities to allow him to open under Tier 2 restrictions, but the outlay proved to be prohibitive.
“I looked into doing food to allow us to open during level two but I stopped counting at £9,000,” he added. “With no knowledge of how things are going to change, I could be spending nine grand and then a few weeks later we are down to level zero. Pointless!
“I took advantage of the furlough scheme and all of my staff are still employed and because of the situation they are taking holiday pay as part of a drip feed into their wages as there is no way they can use all of the holidays into next year. They are doing that to help.”
And he believes that the government will be forced to continue helping businesses such as his with a furlough extension, while he has had a big outlay to implement safety measures.
“If we are closed yes we will need the furlough scheme will be extended,” he said. “ I’m lucky it’s not a cash cow, were not one of the big chains. I’m not playing the desperate card yet, but I was getting close until I got the November furlough payment in. I am grateful for any grants, but we have had £1,400 and that is only two quiet days’ takings.
“I have spent about £3,500, some of which was my own doing as I was a bit slow to get the screens done and couldn’t get any acrylic so had to get glass screens done, an idea I got from the dentist so I ended up paying more than I needed.”