Until the Covid-19 pandemic laid waste to most economic activity in Northern Ireland, the hotel sector had experienced almost two decades of growth, year on year.
In 1999 the average occupancy was 58%, with an average room-rate of only £49. During that year just over one million rooms were sold, with a revenue of some £50 million.
Last year, the market was barely recognisable from two decades earlier. The hotel room numbers, mostly in Belfast, had increased by 1,900 since 2016 with the arrival of budget operators. Significantly, 70% of the accommodation was either three or four-star.
Some of the most prestigious global hotel brands had entered the market here, and four-star rooms alone were some three and a half times the 1999 levels. Until coronavirus struck in March, the hotel sector supported some 13,000 jobs, between direct and indirect employment.
A specially-commissioned report for the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation predicted that overall trading would fall to under £250 million this year.
This is roughly around a third of last-year’s turnover, meaning that up to a fifth of skilled jobs could be lost.
Therefore, given the hotels’ role as an economic driver, and as a crucial part of the post-pandemic recovery, it frankly beggars belief that hotel operators, managers and employees were left to twist in the wind for fully 24 hours after the Executive’s announcment on Wednesday before being told their fate.
This was revealed finally at a Press Conference yesterday when the hotels were told that they had to close their doors to everyone but key workers and those self-isolating with suspected Covid-19.
Then in a further blow, employees taken on in recent weeks could find themselves ineligible for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, or its replacement, the Job Support Scheme.
This could mean that these employees have no income to live off for the entire four week lockdown.
It would be tempting to put this all down to the muddle which characterises so much of the Stormont Executive’s response to the crisis.
Forcing hairdressers to pull their shutters down for a month based on what appears to be negligible transmission rates, is just another foible of a capricious system.
However, if the Executive does not realise the absolute necessity of keeping on board a sector as vital to the economic recovery as hotels, we may very well all be in much more trouble than we think.