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Distress call from the hotel sector

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Today is the 1st of May, known as May Day. In the hotel world it’s normally a busy bank holiday weekend with lots of social activity, short break staycations and weddings. May Day 2020 is very different. Hotels are closed, the streets are almost empty and everyone is doing their bit to ensure we stay safe and healthy. It’s a distressing time with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. This week thoughts have begun to turn to recovery, with the emotional turmoil of the desire to get out and return to normal, versus the dread of impact that an exit might bring.

“May Day” is also the international distress call used by ships at sea, and aircraft in peril to alert listeners to danger. It is used by emergency services to raise the alarm about a life-threatening situation. The origin of the May Day signal is in fact not related to the 1st of May at all. It’s a much more intriguing story which started in 1921, when a senior radio officer, Frederick Stanley Mockford based at Croydon airport, was tasked with finding a word or phrase that would be easily understood by air crew and ground staff to alert them to danger. Since the main activity at the airport was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the expression “May Day” based on the French “m’aider” (help me) a shortened version of “Venez m’aider” which means come and help me.

The term “May Day” is 99 years old this year. The term is recognised universally and today we’d like to send out a May Day signal to all those who have the ability to assist and support the wider tourism industry. The sector has been moth-balled and sits on the side-line of the economic playing field. It’s uncertain when we can return to trading or what form this will take. Uncertainty is impossible to plan for, and whilst it is important to stress that the health and well-being of staff and customers remains the number one priority, support is needed to ensure tourism can emerge from lockdown as a viable sector.

Guidance is required to create a safe, customer friendly and confidence building foundation for businesses to reopen and the NI Hotels Federation (NIHF) welcomes the opportunity to feed into platforms to help create this. Apart from a trading framework, the sector has asked for support in terms of rates relief, grant for larger businesses beyond the £51,000 NAV level, and the Federation continues to highlight the strain on cashflow and worries about the viability of restricted opening.

There has been good news following the setup of a ministerial led Tourism Recovery Taskforce, as well as the study commissioned by the Department of Finance into the effects on the Economy, led by the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre. Both indicate that the plight of the sector is being taken seriously by local and central government. We hope that additional measures will be found to support us through this struggle.

A May Day call has come from many sectors of the local economy with none louder than that of the tourism and hospitality sector. We really need support to ensure that the progress we have made to a £1bn industry and £600m investment in hotels over the last five years is not squandered. Tourism has the potential to restore, revive and renew revenue streams once the Coronavirus danger has passed. The ask is “help us, please” or to return to the French origins of the Distress signal – “Aidez-nous s’il-vous-plaît.”

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