A rainbow over countryside near Bideford - Credit: Graham Hobbs

North Devon's hospitality, tourism and leisure businesses need your help - Tim Jones

Tim Jones

High on my watch list is the state of health of our hospitality, tourism and leisure businesses, which collectively make a huge contribution to the prosperity and wellbeing of Northern Devon. This impact is not only felt through direct employment and the benefits we derive from a vibrant tourist industry.

Hidden behind this, is a huge number of indirect benefits from those companies who supply or form part of the support network which ensures that not only do we give our visitors a great welcome but ensure that they leave feeling that they wish to return next year.

What a rollercoaster this industry has had. The lockdowns over Covid were devastating. The restrictions on international travel produced a huge wave of staycation visitors. Just when it looked as though a more predictable trading pattern was going to emerge, yet another wave of disruptions have been experienced.

The latest figures to emerge nationally paint a stark picture. Despite the launch by the government last year of a post-covid hospitality recovery strategy, the picture remains bleak with 45% of businesses forced to reduce opening hours to avoid closing permanently and 17% reporting that they have run out of cash reserves and savings to fall back on. The latest wave of shocks is still being reviewed in terms of adverse impact. We already know, however, that the effect of inflation is imposing huge cost increases for many essential products. The current official figure of 9.5% inflation is for many a myth. Most say that it feels more like 15-20%, with even the most basic of ingredients spiking in price.

We have, for some time, been experiencing the problems of recruitment. This is effecting all levels of the industry from our most prestigious hotels down to the smallest B&Bs. It is reasonable to predict that inflation will stabilise and return quite quickly to more normal levels. That said, I would not bet my shirt that petrol pump prices are suddenly going to reduce. The bosses behind this sector have a lot to answer for.

More worrying is the speed at which the skills gap and labour availability generally can be improved. This is probably a 3 year cycle before significant corrections will be experienced.

The perfect storm continues. The impact of climate change is now a material consideration for many business operators. Our latest surveys indicate that around 28% of businesses in this sector are now considering investing in Net Zero initiatives (solar panels etc).

Perhaps the final twist of the knife has been the recent rail strikes. UK hospitality estimates that the national losses arising from this over a 7 day period is a total of £540 million, this includes around a 20% fall in spending in Towns and Cities. For the South West, this means a loss of around £55-60 million for the 7 day period.

This is all very gloomy news and we need to find some solutions to this. The government are listening. I sit on a regional Tourist Alliance Group which speaks every fortnight to the Policy Team in Whitehall and also to influential organisations, such as, Visit England.

A series of initiatives is currently being negotiated, part of this includes government incentives to ensure that the sector can continue to grow by introducing a new tax and investment regime.

In order to make sure I have the benefit of all of your experiences to feedback to government, I would greatly welcome any representations or initiatives you would like to make. This can either be done through the Gazette or I am happy for you to approach me directly on tim.jones@swbc.co.uk