When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and the United Kingdom was plunged into lockdown in March 2020, hotels never stood a chance. 

With the country stuck indoors, this meant no holidays to faraway places, no city breaks, no tourism, no spa breaks and no business trips.

This sudden plunge in the market for hotels can be clearly seen when one delves into the statistics, which correlate the fall with the start of the pandemic.

Statistics from NISRA on hotel room sales

The above chart depicts figures obtained from the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency, who commissioned an occupancy survey which found an estimated figure of hotel rooms sold in Northern Ireland over a number of years.

The figures paint a grim picture of the environment in which hotels operated during the pandemic.

For instance, July, which is regarded as a high-traffic period during the Summer holidays, saw 235,568 hotel rooms sold in 2019.

Contrast with July 2020, the figure has dropped to 82,262, during a period when COVID rules began to gradually ease.

By July 2021 this figure had rocketed to 177,398. While this was not quite a return to the figures of 2019, it was evident that the industry was growing back at a high rate.

“It gave me and my team a bit of a chance to stand back and think a bit more strategically.” 

Julie Hastings – Marketing Director at Hastings Hotels

Julie Hastings is Marketing Director at Hastings Hotels, a chain that operates six hotels in Northern Ireland, including the Europa and Grand Central Hotels in Belfast.

She is the first to admit that COVID was a serious challenge during the pandemic, but she used the downtime as an opportunity.

“It gave me and my team a bit of a chance to stand back and think a bit more strategically.”  

“I was able to be a bit more proactive and I created some assets. So that whenever we came out the other end, we’d be able to hit the ground running with advertising for staycations.”

Despite the drawbacks of the pandemic, there was room for optimism. “Over the last six or eight months, I think we’re coming back” she added.

“Well certainly last year was the year of the staycation because people didn’t want to jump on planes, people couldn’t be bothered getting PCR tests.” 

“Yes, we’re getting weddings and people just coming for weekend breaks but the other side of the coin now is people are happy to jump on flights again. Everything’s freed up. So we are competing again with mainland Europe.”

“People are craving the sunshine again, but that’s not to say that we’re not as busy as we’ve been and as busy as we were in 2019.”

“I don’t think it’s in a slump anymore. I think it’s got back to where it was and is improving all the time.”

As the pandemic wanes, people are much keener to get away to city breaks.

Hastings Hotels, despite its size and prestige, hasn’t been immune to the indiscriminate onslaught that COVID has waged on hotels and the hospitality sector at large.

It was reported in the Belfast Telegraph in May 2021 that Hastings Hotel Group had suffered a loss of £16.6 million due to the fallout from the pandemic.

However, the NISRA statistics show that room sales benefitted from the easing of lockdown restrictions as the pandemic developed.

Julie’s assertion that hotel sales are no longer in a slump seems vindicated by the statistics.

By February 2022, the UK vaccine rollout was well into its stride, and many of the COVID restrictions had been lifted, making life much easier for hotels and hospitality companies across Northern Ireland.

It was found that 156,098 hotel rooms were sold in February 2022. This figure actually exceeds the number of rooms sold in February 2020, which was a month before the COVID-19 pandemic began. It falls slightly short of the 2019 figure of 163,705 but what can clearly be seen from the statistics is that the industry seems to recovering back to pre-pandemic levels.

Indeed, as we approach the Summer season, time will tell how successful this recovery is. Many are hopeful that Summer 2022’s numbers may even exceed those of 2019.

Music to the ears of staff across the entirety of the hospitality sector who have faced great challenges over the last two years.

“People did change their way of thinking a lot and decided maybe hospitality wasn’t for them”

Julie Hastings

However, lockdown and the pandemic created problems more wide-ranging than simply the fact that people could not go on a holiday. Problems also arose surrounding staff member retention and acquisition.

“People did change their way of thinking a lot and decided maybe hospitality wasn’t for them”, says Julie Hastings.

“That was a challenge. We lost other operational staff as well, who did go to nine to five jobs.”

“Hospitality being the hours that it is is sometimes a challenge to get the right people for.”

It’s no secret that staffing and employment have been huge challenges across the board over the last two years, but there is room for hope now that society has mostly returned to normal.

Now that the industry is recovering and people are more likely to opt for holidays and staycations as the pandemic wanes, hospitality, much like many other sectors, will feel like they are back where it left off in March 2020.

The virus may be subsiding but all the old problems that have faced hotels for years will still be around.