The health of Northern Ireland’s licensed/hospitality trade these days seems to mirror that of our own. Compare today’s trade to that just before the crash of the roaring noughties.
Some 172 pubs have disappeared in NI since 2007 leaving around 1,461 pubs today – but only two hotels have closed, reducing the population to 152 by 2015.
The huge boom in NI tourism can take much of the credit for there not being more hotel casualties, says Mark Stewart, licensee of The Coachman in Magherafelt, County Down, the present Chairman of Hospitality Ulster, the umbrella group representing pubs, hotels and restaurants in Northern Ireland (formerly Pubs of Ulster).
Mark succeeds Olga Wall from The Derg Arms in Castlederg, the Association’s third lady Chair.
Interestingly, during this eight year interval the number of off-licences has grown 21% to 568 from a figure of 469.
“Every pub closed is an off-licence opened by the supermarkets,” comments Mark. This would also tend to indicate a parallel growth in drinking at home.
In tandem with all this, the number of restaurants operating in NI has risen 14% from 490 to 559 during this period.
The changing trend of the trade combined with an extremely healthy growth in tourism and related development has led to this expansion in restaurants, he says.
The similarities between the North and South trades are evident again as Mark goes on to explain that, “The core catchment areas are doing OK but the regional/rural locations are still struggling”.
Easter & restricted hours
And just as here, for those struggling to make a living in Northern Ireland’s hospitality trade, the bane of traditional restricted opening hours over the entire Easter weekend only serves to deepen the cut.
“In NI the pubs must shut at midnight on Easter Thursday, so no one comes out,” explains Mark, “On Good Friday, we can only trade between five and 11pm, so nobody comes out then either.
“Saturday sees us having to shut our doors at midnight and on Sunday we can only trade between 12 noon and 10pm so we lose the whole long weekend.”
And Hospitality Ulster feels that the hospitality trade can only lose out still further as we consider dropping Good Friday closing here for 2018. To Mark, this simply highlights the lack of progress in NI’s licensing law to take account of the times in which we live.
“Northern Ireland is once again left lagging behind its second-largest tourist market and nearest competitor thanks to a lack of progress in the licensing laws here that continue to deny customers what they want,” he says.
The Association has already pointed out that one need only have visited Carlingford this Easter to watch the buses arriving from the North to get a visual indication of just how much potential business Northern Ireland loses every Easter.
Indeed, one can envisage the distinct possibility that allowing RoI pubs to open on Good Friday would encourage many from this neck of the woods to make a long weekend of it down south.
Recently, the RoI drinks industry warned in a submission to the Government’s National Planning Framework 2040 that the hospitality sector is a major employer in rural Ireland but that an ‘urban-centric’ recovery and the threat of Brexit risks jeopardising both the economy and rural communities.
Again the situation between the two jurisdictions remains largely similar in this respect, just as both have concerns over Brexit.
The Northern Ireland hospitality industry sustains 60,000 jobs, 45,000 of them in the Food & Drink sector which accounts for over 30% of visitor spend.
Northern Ireland’s hospitality industry contributes £653.4 million in wages with the Northern Ireland Assembly having targeted 8,000 extra jobs coming onstream by 2025.
“We feel it’s important that the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Office and Westminster address Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances,” believes Mark, “This requires that they maintain the common travel area between RoI and Northern Ireland.
“There should also be no change to the rights of RoI citizens to work in Northern Ireland.”
He believes it vital to ensure the unhindered movement of goods and services between RoI and NI too.
“…But I also feel that until such time as Westminster reduces the UK Tourism VAT rate a regional Tourism VAT rate should be introduced as a stimulus to growth to offset the uncompetitive situation that exists between RoI and NI.”
Beyond that he’d like to see greater financial support being provided for the promotion of Northern Ireland Tourism in the RoI, the UK and overseas markets.
“Government, Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland should be in a position to bolster activity to communicate Northern Ireland as a welcoming destination in GB, RoI and in overseas markets,” he believes.
“Of course alongside all this I’d like to see a revocation of unnecessarily burdensome regulations that particularly impact small and medium businesses,” he adds.
The Association would like to see a free trade deal with the EU being made a priority, with no tariffs or additional paperwork for imported goods, especially goods produced in RoI.
NI Tourism market
Already a fairly healthy market, RoI visitors spent £61 million in NI in 2015 and the latest figures from January to September reveal a significant 27% growth in the number of trips they made to NI, he says, adding that with around 65% of visitors eating in the pub, as here, food remains the key growth opportunity for Northern Ireland’s pubs.
As the Irish government prepares to publish its Public Health (Alcohol) Bill here, the industry has warned that the economic consequences of implementing Minimum Unit Pricing in RoI unilaterally will incentivise cross-border shopping.
“There’s an appeal against MUP going through the UK Supreme Court at the moment. If NI gets Direct Rule, then it’s unlikely it will be introduced in Northern Ireland and even if we get an Assembly back up-and-running, it will still take a few years,” he believes, “So either way, any unilateral implementation of MUP south of the Border will have a deleterious effect on retail sales of RoI’s alcohol and excise returns.”
Challenges for Hospitality Ulster
As we move further into 2017 Mark, as Hospitality Ulster’s Chairman, regards his biggest challenges as being, “The lack of a stable government to lobby and our ability to support the growing diversity of business types.
“As an industry body we must provide backup for businesses in food, accommodation and increasingly, everything under the sun so that as a trade body our remit and expertise has had to widen.”
A third challenge for him and his organisation is to simply ensure that it’s relevant.
“Going back 20 years, only trade bodies had the necessary information but with Mr Google you need to remain relevant by knowing what your members need and want – that’s crucial.
“Our members are in the hospitality game and not merely selling alcohol. We need to create an experience for consumers that gets them up from the couch and out into our premises.
“As we say up here, ‘No one goes to the pub for alcohol’.”