By Scott Wright

AS the lockdown is gradually eased in the coming weeks and months, the thoughts of many may drift towards going on holiday once again. But by the time we are ready to retrieve our suitcases from the loft, the tourism and travel industry will be very different to the one we knew in early March.

For Russell Imrie, managing director of Queensferry Hotels, it will almost be like the advances in leisure travel of the last four decades never happened.

The world will no longer be our oyster, for the time being at least, and the service level we can expect will be significantly constrained because of social distancing measures. Hotels may be open to offer board and breakfast, but it will be longer before bars and restaurants, which provide the all-important “buzz” for holidaymakers, come on stream.

“For travel in the UK, it is almost as if it is going to go back to the 1970s, where we are all going to go into our cars as a family, and we are all going to drive to the seaside, the forests, the coasts and the country,” said Mr Imrie.

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“The era of cheap air travel, and international travel, is going to take so long to come back that we are going to be having breaks that will look familiar to our parents, and not the generation that is used to travelling today.”

Queensferry has two hotels, the wedding and conference destination Keavil House in Dunfermline, which also has a health club, and the boutique Bruntsfield Hotel in Edinburgh, catering to the corporate travel and city break markets. Both hotels, which trade under the Best Western banner, closed on March 20, and both will face challenges when they do re-open. Mr Imrie expects they will be welcoming much smaller groups of customers as the social distancing era continues.

“If you think about it, even city breaks could be a challenge,” he said. “In a city break, people come and they go to the bars, restaurants, theatres, and attractions. All of these places are not able to open yet.

“There are more people in a city, there is less space in a city, people use public transport, so all the nervousness that people have for travel is present in a city, but not in rural locations.”

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While some restaurants have developed a sideline in takeaway food, that option was “not really appropriate” for Queensferry’s hotels.

“Nobody would really think of contacting a hotel to enquire about a takeaway,” said Mr Imrie, who is also a spokesman for the Edinburgh Hotels Association and president of the Best Western Great Britain group.

“The other element of our business, which is weddings, conferences and meetings, all that has stopped as well.

One of our hotels has a health club, and that is closed. We have zero revenues.”

Some 99 of Queensferry’s 115 staff have been placed on furlough, with a skeleton staff retained to look after the buildings and deal with customer enquiries.

Mr Imrie gave a cautious welcome to the move by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week to extend the scheme until the end of October, with employers making contributions to wages from August. But he warned that questions over the arrangements linger, with redundancies in the hospitality industry still a very real possibility.

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“The extended furlough scheme is very helpful but is not the complete solution to the staffing crisis in hospitality,” said Mr Imrie. “We have still to hear the detail of how costs are to be shared with employers from August. If the sharing cost is a burden, redundancies will follow.

“If staff cannot be brought back on reduced hours with furlough support then redundancies will follow. Finally, when the scheme ends in October some redundancies in hospitality will definitely follow as nobody will be reopening with the same staff numbers as they had in early March. Everyone is creating business models with reduced offerings and reduced services that will require fewer staff.”

Queensferry has benefited from the one-year suspension of business rates, but it has not applied for a loan under any of the government support schemes.

“The only other support we maintained to keep the business going is in the form of additional debt,” he said. “And even that is not coming through quickly. The banks are not quick at agreeing to extra debt. It is still a difficult and precarious positions for businesses to keep going.”

That it remains unclear when hotels in Scotland will be able to re-open again is one of the big challenges the industry faces. While in England there has

been an indication that “at least some of the hospitality industry” will re-open in July, no such roadmap exists yet

for Scotland.

Mr Imrie said it could be August or September before large social gatherings are considered, meaning the traditional spring and summer period for weddings will be lost this year.

“If that is delayed until the autumn at the earliest, that is a huge proportion of revenue [lost] for hotels, especially rural country hotel,” he said.

“Even when hotels are able to re-open, it is going to be a completely new normal. I think what hotels are looking at for the future is the lifeline of the staycation market.”

Given such constraints, Mr Imrie believes only the strongest businesses will survive. “The business is resilient, and the strong will still be here,” he said. “Unfortunately, not everybody will be here.”

Six Questions:

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I have travelled to the US many times on business and I admire their “can do” attitude to business and the geographical and cultural differences in each state. Its easy to understand why it is only a small proportion of the population travel overseas, almost everything is available in their own country. For personal travel, I enjoy the familiarity and instant relaxation when arriving in southern Spain.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

As a child I enjoyed photography as a hobby, and I still do. During a careers talk I was asked what was my ideal future job and I remember saying a photographer or a film director!

What was your biggest break in business?

I was a management trainee for a hotel company in London. I wanted to return to Edinburgh and a friend saw an advertisement for an assistant manager of the Bruntsfield Hotel in Edinburgh which I applied for and was offered the position over the phone with no interview!

What was your worst moment in business?

Easy, 20 March 2020 when I realised that the hotels would have to close due to Coronavirus.

Who do you most admire and why?

I admire all hoteliers who run hotels better than I can…..I wish I knew their secret!

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin

Lounge and Soul playlists on Spotify