That’s according to Mark Robson, managing director of Red Mist Leisure, and HGEM managing director Steven Pike who spoke at the MA500 event during Hospitality Week.
The biggest trading period for most, if not all, operators is the build up to Christmas day.
Much of the planning starts in early spring, while bookings usually begin in the late summer or early autumn, according to Robson.
Although there's optimism, that’s not to say trading won’t be difficult, as Robson said: “The fact that we’re expecting the rule of six to be in place for a long time and the curfew too, what operators can do to sell Christmas early and generate revenue is difficult," he explained.
“It’s a very challenging time and there’s only so many levers operators like us can pull to get people through the door.
“It’s going to be a tough Christmas for sure and bookings are very low [compared to last year]. We’re trying to focus on smaller groups and intimate celebrations.”
Recent rule changes, particularly the 10pm curfew and the rule of six, have thrown a spanner in the works for venues that rely on large bookings.
An opportunity to make the most
Yet, according to Pike, there is an opportunity to make the most of a bad situation.
A HGEM survey showed that people still wanted to go out for Christmas and they wanted to have a good time.
Three quarters of those asked said that they wanted to experience the on-trade over the festive period, with 80-90% of them saying safety and food were of high importance to them.
“Things are changing so fast,” said Pike. “We did some comprehensive surveying in the first couple of weeks of September and what’s clear is people do want to celebrate Christmas. They are used to going out with colleagues and friends. We know it’s going to be restricted this year but there is a desire to go out.
“We’ve seen evidence that people are starting to think about how it’s going to work with team meet-ups and restricting it to six people. But we also know that if people have a reason to come out then they will. About a quarter said they were worried about health and safety and wouldn’t’ go out. But three quarters will.”
People will come out over Christmas, Pike said, but it was likely bookings would be last minute.
He added that smaller groups could be beneficial to pubs when compared with larger bookings that take up a lot of resource and time from the kitchen and front-of-house staff.
This is something Robson agreed with: “People are going to want to come out this year and it is going to be last minute.
Play the hand we’ve been dealt
“But we’re going to have to play the hand we’ve been dealt," Robson continued. "Groups of 12 or 30 people celebrating, we all depend on those bookings every year, but they’re not going to happen this year or they’re going to be very different and on a smaller scale.”
“They’re going to be subdued but it doesn’t mean people aren’t going to want to go out and celebrate Christmas this year. We’re a social nation and people love going to the pub.”
Robson also set out his approach to smaller group bookings which included ensuring your pub’s diary is working as hard as possible for the venue.
“Operationally it is much easier to have smaller parties, it’s easier on the kitchen and we can deliver it,” he said.
“So making sure you are utilising your diary to the very best of your ability and maximising the time you’ve got customers in and minimising the downtime is essential. It’s trying to have fewer gaps.”
Something else that could be beneficial to pubs is that people have become accustomed to working from home and creating their own schedules.
“You may see people spreading out when they come to the pub and you may be able to have more sittings. They may come out earlier than normal,” added Pike.
“Over the next couple of months it’s all going to be about trust, that a venue is going to be able to look after you.”