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90% of staff at Northern Ireland hotels have been furloughed or laid off

Overseas visitor warning as group calls for support

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Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation

Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation

Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation

Around 90% of staff at hotels in Northern Ireland have been furloughed or laid off as one chain predicts the overseas visitor market may not return until 2022.

McKeever Hotel Group, which owns five hotels, said the market would not bounce back quickly following the lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.

It joined a call from the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) for government support after figures showed a 60% fall in occupancy in hotels in March.

The NIHF predicted second quarter trading would be "minimal" after it had become the first sector to shut in the lockdown.

According to global data service STR, revenue in the Northern Ireland hotels sector was down 25% in the first quarter, with occupancy down 25%.

NIHF chief executive Janice Gault said the sector has a weekly payroll of up to £5m and needed support to survive and plot a viable return to business.

Without guests, she explained most hotels had no income.

"On January 1, there were 145 hotels in Northern Ireland," she said. "Over the course of the last five years these businesses have invested £600m to create accommodation and hospitality product that enable us to showcase Northern Ireland.

"Businesses borrowed money with repayment plans linked to projected income and support in the region of 15,000 staff directly, indirectly and through the supply chain."

But she said that the lockdown meant most hotels had no income but still had to meet outgoings such as payroll, loan repayments, security, utilities, insurance and services costs.

She said 90% of hotel staff had been furloughed or laid-off and, that while the Government scheme to pay 80% of wages was welcome, staff still had to be paid in the short term.

She said most hotels did not qualify for the Executive’s £25,000 grant scheme as rateable net annual value was over the £51,000 threshold.

NIHF president Stephen Meldrum, who is also general manager at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast, said the federation had asked the Economy Minister for grant support of a minimum of £25,000 for all certified accommodation businesses beyond the £51,000 NAV level.

“The federation has also reiterated its request for rate relief of 100% in relation to the 2020-21 rate year for all those in hospitality and tourism,” he said.

“This approach would mean that Northern Ireland is in line with the measures being adopted in England, where the Chancellor has recognised the burden that rates will be to the sector and has acted to mitigate this liability.”

Bridgene McKeever, director of the McKeever Hotel Group — which owns the Corr’s Corner, Adair Arms, Dunsilly Hotel and Dunadry Hotel, all in Co Antrim, as well as Dillons Hotel in Letterkenny — said it agreed support was needed for hotels.

“Most hotels are large properties with high rateable values and therefore don’t qualify for the grants. Hotels rely heavily on international tourism, corporate travel amongst other things, all of which we don’t expect to see bounce back quickly,” she said.

“Large gathering restrictions will impact the events market and the food and beverage market will have social distancing measures in place and therefore will reduce capacity.

“Hotel revenues will be severely impacted even when restrictions are lifted and we are estimating that it could be two years before we see sufficient levels of international tourism return.

“During this time we need to try and protect our workforce and jobs all on severely reduced revenue incomes.”

She said that hotels were likely to be expected to pay rates again in July following the three-month holiday, “when the hotel sector don’t know if it will be open and if it is, will be dramatically reduced”.

A Department for Economy spokeswoman said: “Businesses are eligible to apply for the £25,000 grant scheme if they are within the NAV range of £15,001-£51,000. We will explore the potential to support businesses not currently eligible and will look to address as many of the gaps as we can.”

Colum McLornan, co-owner of the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, said it had qualified for the £25,000 grant and had completed its online application yesterday.

And he urged the Government to authorise the reopening of hotels in June, with hotels adhering to social distancing through adjusted lay-outs and work patterns.

“I do think to have residents come and stay, eat at the hotel in an organised way, would help the hotels have some sort of trade during the summer months and maintain these businesses,” he said.

Belfast Telegraph