by Colin Campbell
THE boss of the Mercure hotel in Inverness city centre in a report summed up the post lockdown reaction to the number of visitors arriving in the Highland capital when he said he was delighted with the way things had gone.
Fraser Peterkin had anticipated an occupancy rate of around 35 per cent as being a reasonable success. Instead, uptake of rooms rose to 88 per cent in August and 90 per cent in September with a surge in tourists heading for the Highland capital. He said morale is high after such an unexpectedly busy summer and early autumn.
“We were delighted. Speaking to other hotels in the city, everyone has been as busy. The concern is what November is going to look like, particularly with the end of furlough and the possibility of new restrictions.”
This echoes what Inverness news and views said in a report in early August, not long after hotels opened again on July 15. As we reported on August 4: “This week one riverside hotel will hit occupancy levels of 90 per cent, and the pattern seems to be similar in other city hotels. Tourist chiefs have initiated what they call a ‘bounceback’ campaign. The bounce is happening and the visitors are flooding back.
“With the season stretching into August and September the influx of what may have seemed, even a few weeks ago, as an unexpectedly large number of visitors is one highly positive element after months when it seemed the tourist industry could have been the victim of widespread closures and mass redundancies.
“Difficulties still abound, but after five long, empty months, tourism in Inverness is up and running again.”
The number of visitors is now falling but there has been no steep decline.
One city centre hotel still has a 50-70 per cent occupancy rate in the week ahead.
One Inverness hotel restaurant served around 40 dinners on Sunday night. It all helps keep things afloat.
But this is not just about people still being able to enjoy the scenery around Inverness and the Highlands – although no-one would have been particularly charmed by the scenery over the weekend we’ve just had, if they could see any through the rain and the mist.
It’s about jobs – hundreds upon hundreds of jobs in the Highland capital. It’s no bed of roses for those working in hotels at the moments, with some on split shifts and having to put in long, tough hours to keep the premises functioning properly. But people are still employed and are still being paid.
And it’s an extremely challenging time for owners and managers as well, as they battle to balance the books and as one city centre boss last week put it in personal terms to staff “try to protect households”.
Now there is talk of the Scottish Government imposing a “circuit-breaker lockdown” which could last two or three weeks.
What that would involve is unclear. It wouldn’t affect salaried staff and those working from home but it would be the worst possible news for hourly-paid staff, many of whom work in hotels and across the hospitality industry.
Could Government support arrangements be rushed through if these businesses were again forced to close? Could the complexities of the soon-to-end furlough scheme be initiated in time? Or would it be more likely that they just didn’t get paid?
Any lockdown involving hotel closures could bring a swift end to the arrival of visitors in Inverness for 2020. The “bounceback” campaign worked in July and the months thereafter. It wouldn’t work a second time.
The benefits of a “circuit breaker lockdown” are unclear. Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers appear increasingly clueless what to do next, other than consider random experiments. What is certain is that it would be a hammer blow to the hospitality industry in the Highlands and the workers and households who depend on it for livelihoods and income.