“We can’t see any effects. There’s no change in the booking profile, no cancellations out of the normal, sales are up week on week.”

Those were the words from Andy Laurillard, Giggling Squid’s CEO, just days after the government announced a tightening of measures in a bid to slow down the Covid-19 variant, Omicron.

“If anything, there’s more pressure as people try to get socialising in early in case things get locked down again,” Laurillard told MCA. “We have the most bookings we’ve ever had.”

One week since the latest variant arrived on the scene, his comments are encouraging for a hospitality industry that is desperately hoping Omicron does not ruin another Christmas.

Although the virus continues to hit headlines and face coverings will become mandatory in shops and on public transport in England from next week, operators told MCA of a resolute desire among consumers to continue to eat out and celebrate the 2021 festive season.

Contrary to earlier reports that the hospitality sector was experiencing a slew of booking cancellations, Brian Trollip, MD, at Dishoom said he had not seen any “considerable panic or people cancelling parties on mass at all” at his restaurants.

“If anything, we’ve had guests calling up thanking us for still taking Christmas bookings,” he said. “I think there’s such fatigue after two years now. Everybody’s just craving a little bit of normality, and joy and time with the people that they love and care about. Christmas is such a natural way for that to happen.”

Simon Potts, chief executive, The Alchemist said it experienced “a little flurry of spooked corporate bookings”, but they have mostly been London/Southern orientated and linked to travel plans and complications around flights.

“It seems to have been an initial reaction to weekend news rather than an ongoing issue ahead of us,” he said, and has cost The Alchemist around 3-4% of its pre-booked activity across the whole estate.

Potts added that through conversations with customers, it appeared the media had played an important role in people’s awareness about the impact on the business of cancelling, and that they seemed “very concerned about the effect on the sector and the bruising we’ve had”, so have been open to moving bookings to January or a later date.

A glimmer of hope

In another temporary reprieve for the hard-pressed sector, the World Health Organisation yesterday declared cases of the Omicron variant to be generally mild.

Paired with Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging people and businesses to go ahead with Christmas and New Year parties, this should surely provide a glimmer of hope for the industry.

But in the eyes of UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping and the British Beer & Pub Association, the WHO declaration is “small crumb of comfort” in what was already a disappointing season.

The sector was hit by a 30% slump in Christmas bookings even before the emergence of Omicron, the trade bodies said in a joint statement.

A recent survey of hundreds of hospitality operators, representing tens of thousands of venues, showed that bookings for the festive period were down 12.4% on average based on expectations from 2019, while more than half (56%) of respondents said bookings were below what they had hoped.

Worryingly, as many as 22% of those polled, said that, even prior to Omicron, festive bookings were more than 30% below expectations.

“The full range of hospitality venues across the UK would usually be experiencing their annual bookings bonanza at this time of year, but it hadn’t materialised even before Omicron was first detected,” the trade bodies said.

Matt Snell, CEO of Gusto Italian, said the picture was mixed in his experience. His busines saw 300 covers cancelled in just two days alone following the Omicron news. But it has seen since seen bookings recover.

He called for a joined-up, non-scaremongering approach to tackle the crisis.

“The difficult thing for us as hospitality operators is that there needs to be a joined approach between academic scientists and the government,” he said. “The government party line is to be cautious, be safe, but go and enjoy Christmas, which is the right message… all we’re looking for is a balanced approach. That’s the most difficult thing about all of this, is the hysterics and histrionics that come with it.”

Snell added that his business has seen “another flurry of people booking” towards the back end of this week. While some people may have been initially scared and cancelled, others “are a bit more bloody-minded, saying bugger it, I’m going book for Christmas.”

“We’ve seen another wave of people booking parties, quite late on, which we don’t normally see,” he added.

Meanwhile Urban Pubs & Bars has also seen some big hits – but it has been able to manage the impact.

Co-founder Nick Pring described an initial spike in apprehension from customers following the government briefing.

“We had a £12k booking and a £20K booking cancel on us,” he said. “We’ve moved them to January, but the smaller bookings are okay. There’ve been calls to our reservation teams with people concerned and asking us about cancellation policies. Most of those haven’t [cancelled] but were preparing to, shall we say.”

Despite painting a more pessimistic picture then the operators MCA spoke to, the trade bodies urged consumers to go ahead and enjoy their festive party plans.

“We’d urge those with bookings not to cancel them, but to carry on and enjoy their festive season parties, safe in the knowledge that hospitality venues are doing everything they can to ensure people have a safe and fun Christmas and New Year,” they said.