The impact of the pandemic on Bristol’s tourism sector has been nothing less than devastating, according to industry leaders.
Businesses reliant on the city’s usual high number of visitors were among those to be hit first and hardest, with the decline of some international markets followed by the sudden lockdown directive issued overnight by the UK Government in March.
The result is an estimated loss of £317m from the sector, according to Destination Bristol, with predictions it will take some time for firms to recover.
“With business effectively closing overnight, and still not really having any clear government guidance on how it will reopen, there is definitely not going to be a quick return for the industry,” says Kathryn Davis, the head of tourism at Destination Bristol.
“We will see businesses having to change their operating models, with reduced capacity to allow for social spacing and time to implement anticipated new cleaning regimes. And there will be those that simply will not be able to reopen as their operating costs do not enable the reduction in income.”
Despite the devastating impact on the sector and loss of the usual packed festival and events programme for 2020, Davis says the innovation shown by the cultural and hospitality sectors has been phenomenal as organisations collaborate to move projects online and change their business models to address immediate need.
“This has been a gleam of hope in an otherwise devastating landscape,” adds Davis. “This sense of collaboration and wanting the best for everyone is what makes Bristol’s independent sector so strong and so needed.”
Leftbank on Cheltenham Road is one early casualty of the crisis. The owner of the live music venue and bar told Bristol24/7 the business was struggling before the coronavirus pandemic and cannot survive its impact.
The full impact on Bristol businesses is unlikely to be realised for some time, with many firms currently propped up by funding support packages and the furlough scheme and warnings the recovery process won’t be a quick one.
But Usman Yaqub, a chartered architectural technologist and director of Studio Yaqub architectural design firm in Stapleton, believes there is cause for cautious optimism.
“I often say that what we do is very closely linked with confidence in the economy,” he says. “There is a strong medium to long-term confidence and that is encouraging to see.”
The business owner, who is also an associate lecturer at UWE Bristol, works on private and commercial projects. While initially, enquiries halted, Yaqub says they are already picking up and his team is back doing site visits where necessary.
“Some projects were put on hold by clients,” says Yaqub. “They were just very nervous about how the environment had changed. But generally, we have a healthy workbook of projects we are working on.”
He says being a small, agile firm has helped the business ride out the storm.
Carly Farrington, the owner of Carly & Co. Estate Agents in Iron Acton, agrees that being able to adapt quickly has been an essential tool in surviving the lockdown.
“When lockdown was announced, we were unable to conduct viewings so we had to move swiftly,” Farrington tells Bristol24/7.
“We spoke to our suppliers and consultants, having open and honest conversations about the potential uncertainty. We made the decision to remain positive, focus on what we ‘could’ do and try to think outside the box.”
Helping vendors create videos has been just one successful new approach. Farrington says she is determined to come out stronger as a business and stay focused on the values the company was built on.
For Shahid Akram, the managing director of Auto Infusion on Fishponds Road, Government support has been very limited, but he says being a trusted company with a strong reputation is standing the business in good stead.
Along with car showrooms and dealerships across the country, Auto Infusion reopened on June 1, but maintains only a skeleton staff for now, with most still furloughed.
“The motor trade is so dependent on others,” says Akram. “We employ around five members of staff, but we also have contractors and there are so many small businesses we support as part of the chain. All of these businesses are affected when we are not trading.”
The managing director says he his firm has been ahead of the game in terms of deep cleaning and implementing social distancing measures, which is helping to give returning customers confidence. But his concerns for the city’s economy remain and he believes more pressure should be put on the Government for sustained support.
Bristol’s economy relies heavily on a flourishing ecosystem of startups and small and medium-sized (SMEs) businesses.
Commenting on the impact of coronavirus on the sector, Marty Reid, head of Engine Shed, says it is a mixed picture, but overall the situation has been “difficult”.
“Some early stage “pre-revenue” businesses have been able to ride things out so far, and there are a few cases where digital products have been a good fit for the lockdown economy,” says Reid.
“Most, however, have seen significant disruption or loss of income and have often fallen through the gaps of government support.
“In addition, businesses who were in the process of raising investment are facing a real cash crisis as activity in this area has broadly paused. The survival of our support network for creative and technology startups is concerning. Incubators and flexible workspaces have been hit hard, as many SMEs have had to cut costs on facilities they can’t use. And social distancing will make it difficult to return to anything like previous levels of income.
“Without this network. the recovery process will be longer. We risk a generation of exciting companies with job creation potential being unable to access the space, support and community they need to grow.”
Reid acknowledges there has been a lot of innovative support schemes put in place but argues we need a joint approach with investment from national or regional governments to make changes sustainable.
Main photo by Lowie Trevena