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Coronavirus: Economic uncertainty could put future of Northern Ireland guesthouses in question


John and Louise Mathers, owners of Newforge House

John and Louise Mathers, owners of Newforge House

Newforge House

Newforge House

John and Louise Mathers, owners of Newforge House

Some guesthouse and B&B owners may question if it is financially viable to reopen after lockdown because of social distancing rules, an industry leader has warned.

Owners around Northern Ireland have said they are keen to open when it is safe to do so.

But anxiety is growing that government guidance could require measures such as rooms being rested for three days between guests - a move which would halve occupancy rates.

Tourism NI said accommodation does have to comply with current UK government guidance for non-healthcare settings, which advises that usual cleaning methods kill the virus, which would leave rooms fit for reuse straight away.

However, housekeeping teams are advised to review their processes.

Joanne Stuart, the chief executive of the NI Tourism Alliance, said operators would have to consider whether it is viable to reopen.

"We have to consider how long it will take people to get ready, and what are the guidelines for health and safety that they'll need to put in place to meet requirements on social distancing," she said.

"Operators will have to look at their own viability. If you are a B&B you still have to meet your costs, so they'll be asking if it's financially viable to reopen or not."

Nicola Neill, the owner of the luxury Blackrock B&B in Portrush, said she was anxious about the potential costs of implementing social distancing and potentially having to procure personal protective equipment for cleaning staff.

However, she said customers had been supportive, with one guest who had paid in advance to take the entire house during an event this year moving the booking to next year, instead of requesting a refund.

Ms Neill is taking other short-term measures to preserve the business.

"My booking calendar is now open for 2021 and I'm considering opening this winter over December and January as self-catering, so that I could let the house to a family for a week," she said.

"I'm also extending gift voucher validity."

She has also developed a recipe for a whiskey fruit cake with Old Bushmills Distillery and was hoping to develop it for sale in shops.

John Mathers, who co-owns the five-star country guesthouse Newforge House near Craigavon with wife Louise, said he did not think it likely it would reopen over the next few months.

But he said the couple may work through their usual winter holiday to make up for the present forced closure.

He said they had been able to furlough their staff - which he said was a "phenomenal" help - and had also qualified for a government grant. But he added: "These are extraordinary times in many respects. A lot of people will struggle to stay afloat but I think the government has been pretty decent. But in some of the schemes, there are a lot of loopholes which mean some will be able to abuse it while others fall through the cracks."

Guesthouse owners are also hopeful that they can benefit from a rise in staycations when restrictions are lifted, in the hope that some people are too nervous to travel overseas.

But there was concern about being priced out of the staycation market by bigger hotels and spas, which may be able to offer lower-priced deals.

In some cases, where staff have been laid-off, they have also been able to secure better-paid work elsewhere in fields such as the medical devices sector, where demand has increased due to coronavirus.

Mr Mathers said he feared that managing the virus in the long-term will be a "cat and mouse game" which could make operating difficult.

"If restrictions are eased, you might find numbers of infections start going up again," he said.

Some hospitality businesses have also repurposed what they do, which Mr Mathers said was a possibility for Newforge House in the future.

He added: "If you're running a restaurant or hotel in theory you can operate just in food, perhaps as a takeaway or delivery service, and just doing food is perhaps something we can look at.

"And perhaps if it comes to reopening, we can look at a form of exclusive hire where a family might come to stay.

"It is a very tricky situation but there's nothing we can do."

Ms Stuart said the industry will need a recovery support package. And with many guesthouses failing to qualify for the government grant package, she was hopeful a way could be found to help.

She added: "That has been raised with the Economy Minister and when it was announced that there would be another £40m in funding, we'd hope bed and breakfasts may benefit from some of that."

Belfast Telegraph