Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Hospitality sector crisis deepens as spiralling costs show no sign of levelling out

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AS the warmer and lighter nights make their long-awaited return, and as we drag out and dust off the outdoor furniture, once again our thoughts turn to enjoying a spritz or a cold beer al fresco.

When tourists descend on Northern Ireland and schools wrap up for the summer months, the bustling pubs and restaurants across our towns and cities might lead us to believe that the picture is all rosy in hospitality. After all, unlike the last number of years, pubs and restaurants will operate as normal this summer, without any restrictions or limitations.

In actuality, the real picture behind the scenes is much bleaker. Although inflation has fallen, food prices continue to soar. The sector is being taxed out of existence, businesses continue to grapple with supply chain disruptions and a labour shortage crisis, and no Executive means no direction.

Businesses are hanging on by a thread, struggling on to stave off the spectre of closure. In some cases, business owners have had enough and can no longer cope with the pressure; bars are only opening on a part time basis, and recently, the shutters have been pulled down on some of our most loved and well-known top tier restaurants.

The return of power-sharing would be no silver bullet, although it would place Northern Ireland in a better position to lobby Westminster to offer an immediate but long-lasting lifeline to business owners here. Our asks have been well-rehearsed; we need at least a reduction in the hospitality and tourism VAT rate to make this region more accessible, attractive, and competitive. Plus, a reduction in business rates for pubs, whose rates are based on turnover not square footage – resulting in unsustainable business rates.

Hospitality Ulster will continue to advocate and plead this brilliant sector’s case; we are committed to promoting Northern Ireland as a place worth investing in, with people worth investing in.

In the meantime, and as we continue to make our petitions to government, this summer, we should all do what we can to lend a hand of support to our pubs, restaurants, and cafés and turn up to taste some local produce cooked fresh at many of these outstanding hospitality venues.

With whatever good weather and time off we are gifted with this year, there is a fantastic opportunity to get out and about and explore somewhere new in this beautiful region that we call home, and sample some of its first-class hospitality while doing so.

Reflecting on the storms and challenges of recent months and years, hospitality is what we missed and craved the most. Now that we can enjoy our local pub, restaurant, and café to its fullest once again, we should seize the opportunity. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

:: Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster

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