Restaurants and pubs enjoyed a surge in bookings on Monday after the return of indoor dining in England, Scotland and Wales.
A record number of tables were booked for Monday on The Fork, formerly known as Bookatable: 12% more than on any date since July 2020. The online booking service said that 88% of the restaurants on its system were open on Monday, 41% more than during the first stage of reopening on 12 April.
However, there was evidence that rain showers had put a dampener on high streets as the number of visitors to town centres and shopping malls across the UK slipped 3% on the start of last week.
While numbers crept up in central London and historic towns, according to analysts at Springboard, there were falls in every region of the UK except Wales, the south-west and Northern Ireland, where hospitality remains closed indoors until 25 May. The drop in visitor numbers to town centres and shopping malls is likely to have affected walk-up business for smaller restaurants and pubs that had not taken bookings, and may have prompted no-shows at outdoor tables.
Martin Williams, the head of Rare Restaurants, which owns the 16-strong Gaucho chain and three M restaurants, said trading was strong despite only being able to open 75% of its usual capacity, as diners were prepared to book at less popular times, such as a Monday or Tuesday evening.
“It’s a honeymoon period,” he said. “People are just desperate to enjoy a good warm dining experience.”
But Williams said there were still concerns, as most of the industry would only be able to operate about half their usual number of tables, which would only enable them to break even. “As a sector we need more support,” he said, calling on the government to consider extending the VAT cut and rent moratorium beyond 1 July.
More than a year of lockdowns and restrictions has hit the hospitality industry hard with 8,560 fewer licensed premises across the UK at the end of April, representing a fall of 7.4% on March 2020 according to analysts at CGA and the advisory firm AlixPartners.
The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) said it expected 45,000 pubs to be open on Monday, serving 3m pints. However, it estimated that beer sales would still be 65% lower than a normal Monday before the pandemic and below the break-even point for the majority of pubs.
All hospitality businesses continue to face restrictions, including mandatory table service, social distancing of at least 1m and the use of face masks when not sat at tables.
The BBPA said those pubs reliant or serving standing customers, because of their small size, would be particularly adversely affected, with about 2,000 – 5% of all pubs in the UK – remaining closed despite the easing of restrictions.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UKHospitality, said the industry continued to require government support after months of disrupted trading: “We’ve seen there is significant pent-up demand from customers, bookings for the weeks ahead are looking positive and the prospect of a summer staycation boom is much welcome. However, until the lifting of all restrictions on 21 June this is a psychological reopening rather than an economic one. Hospitality businesses are unable to operate viably with current caps on capacity and further restrictions.”