Christmas pub parties 'never going to happen'

By Emily Hawkins

- Last updated on GMT

Different December: pubco bosses have shared how they are approaching planning for the festive season
Different December: pubco bosses have shared how they are approaching planning for the festive season

Related tags Christmas lockdown Oakman inns Bath somerset London Coronavirus Legislation Festive period Festive season

Operators have said they are gearing up for a very different Christmas this year, as they wait to see what will be permitted for the festive period.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is soon to outline what the rules for the festive period will be, however it is already a given that pubs will not have their usual Christmas trade.

Bath Pub Company managing director Joe Cussens said the pub company would usually be overwhelmed with Christmas reservations by now.

He explained: "Normally the phones start ringing actually before the end of the school holidays and then when they come back from the holidays in September, we are inundated with enquiries for Christmas parties, companies, organisations, friends, families, etc.

"Ordinarily it is absolutely flat out from September all the way through this period. We have had nothing of course this year. We have had quite a few enquiries but you can't take a booking for more than six people from one household, so that whole market has been decimated."

The four-site strong company has chosen to not open for Christmas Day, so to not let down customers. 

Staffing worries

“We can't get the covers in to make it stack up commercially," Cussens said. "More importantly, it only takes one or two of our key staff to have to self isolate for Christmas Day and then suddenly we can't deliver the experience people paid for. It's just too risky. The pressure is on for Christmas Day, it has to be special for your guests.

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"If they come in and you can't cook them Christmas dinner because your head chef has been told to self-isolate it is a potential disaster."

While December is unlikely to be one of the most profitable months of the year as usual, Cussens is optimistic. 

"The flipside is I don't think January will be as quiet as ordinarily is because there is going to be an appetite to go out and socialise," the director explained.

Pubs will play a huge role in boosting spirits when lockdown is lifted, Cussens said. "A lot of operators are trying to make sure Christmas is really special this year that the place looks great and festive. Everybody's had a crap year, let's be honest. Regardless of whether its the right thing to do commercially, you almost feel its morally the right thing to do to spread a bit of cheer. You want people to have a bit of relief from the rubbish last few months."

He added: "You want to make sure the decorations are even more sparkling. I imagine the decorations might stay up for longer to try and cheer everyone up."

Bookings will pick up

Oakman Inns' chief executive Dermot King is another operator to report a quieter build-up. "There's no doubt from a planning perspective, this would be a peak time," he explained.

"We would be focused really heavily on sharpening our operational issues around delivering Christmas Day and all the holiday period. At this time of year, we would be contacting all of our seasonal teams who have gone off to university and are coming back. It would be a pretty intense period."

While bookings for the festive season have unsurprisingly been slow so far, King is confident once an exit-route from lockdown is announced, the market will "pick up pretty quickly". 

"I expect the family Christmas market will continue to be robust. We are assuming and planning that will be the case. The area we will not see is the whole office Christmas party market, in the two weeks before Christmas. We will replace quite a lot of that with smaller family get-togethers."

Further restrictions on different households socialising would "restrict our business completely", King said. 

The CEO said he felt the hospitality industry "has generally been used as a punching bag by the medical and scientific industries." He said accusations that the sector had contributed to virus rates were based on "unfounded, unfair and inaccurate" data.

"As far as Oakman Inns is concerned, we are an entirely safe place to visit."

Operator Brendan Padfield runs the Unruly Pig in Suffolk and said the pub has been planning 'at-home' offers in case of a clamp down on socialising at pubs.

He said planning has worked on the basis that a tier system and social distancing requirements "will still very much be in place".

Blow upon bitter blow

Padfield added: "We have therefore never planned for large Christmas parties taking place – they were just never going to happen. We had hoped however that we would see an increase in smaller office parties of up to six. That could still happen if the rule of six still applies but plainly not if the BMA recommendations of a two bubble system is that rule’s replacement.

"We had already adopted very stringent anti Covid-19 measures that went way over and above what the government had prescribed. So whatever Government controls end up being in place for Christmas, we have our fingers and toes crossed that our existing reputation for taking very stringent safety measures, will stand us in good stead.

"We have of course planned some income mitigation steps e.g we are offering Christmas hampers and Heat at Home Christmas meals (where there has been good interest already). But the elephant in the room remains: come what may our comparative income is going to significantly adversely hit. It’s not going to be a happy Christmas for pubs. It’s blow upon bitter blow at the moment."

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