BARS, hotels and restaurants are missing out on vital revenue from thousands of customers amid the pandemic because of the continued closure of Scotland’s £6 billion conference and events sector.

Conference venues are still awaiting consent from the Scottish Government to begin hosting events again, and remain one of the few parts of the economy still to reopen following the lockdown imposed in March to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Scottish ministers are next due to review the viability of re-opening the sector on October 5, against a backdrop of surging coronavirus cases in Scotland.

With nearly six months now having elapsed since the last events were held at major locations such as the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the many businesses that depend on custom flowing from major corporate and international association gatherings have sustained a serious downturn in trade.

A significant number of bars, restaurants and coffee shops have sprung up near the EICC in recent years as the centre has grown as a destination for international conferences.

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The centre reported yesterday that in 2019 it had grown profits and revenue for a fifth consecutive year. However, 2020 has been entirely different because of the disruption arising from coronavirus, which has had a major impact on the local economy.

EICC chief executive Marshall Dallas told The Herald: “If you start off in Morrison Street, over the last six years I have been here there’s been businesses popping up right left and centre –coffee shops, bars and restaurants. I talk regularly to these businesses and without exception they are saying the same thing: when are you opening again, because they are so reliant on EICC business.”

He added: “The businesses on Morrison Street in particular, and the west end of Edinburgh, are very reliant on our delegates. Lots of delegates pop out for coffee or for lunch. These businesses are really suffering since we closed our doors in March.”

Mr Dallas said the “wide-ranging reach” of EICC “never ceases to amaze me”, with research revealing that it has had an economic impact of more than £720 million since opening its doors in 1995.

He noted that events at the EICC typically generate 250,000 bed nights a year for hotels in the city, and support around 2,000 full-time jobs. He also said the success of the EICC has helped expand the tourism season in Edinburgh beyond the traditional summer months.

Asked when he hopes the conference sector can realistically expect to re-open, he said: “That is the big question. Since July 15, places of worship, museums, galleries, cinemas, pubs, restaurants and hotels have been able to open up and trade, and it is unclear as to when we will be able to open.”

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Russell Imrie, managing director of Queensferry Hotels, said it is not just the lack of major conferences and events that is severely denting the night-time economy.

Mr Imrie, whose firm owns Keavil House Hotel in Dunfermline and Bruntsfield Hotel in central Edinburgh, said the industry is suffering from a dearth of all functions business, from weddings, retirement dinners and 21st birthday celebrations to the corporate dining market.

He said: “All the large-scale banqueting that is not able to be done has a devastating impact on the revenue of hotels that are in that market, especially the wedding market. It is unreasonable because hotels have worked out a method of operation in order to be Covid-safe. We can easily accommodate more than 20 people for events and be Covid-safe. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to do so.”

And Mr Imrie said the outlook for the industry has worsened in recent days because of the messaging around the upsurge in Covid-19 cases and the introduction of new restrictions such as the controversial 10pm curfew, which he said has made it impossible for restaurants to offer two evening sittings.

Mr Imrie, who is also a spokesman for the Edinburgh Hotels Association, fears there will be widespread redundancies in the hospitality sector when the furlough scheme closes next month. He said the successor Job Support Scheme unveiled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week “does not make economic sense” for hospitality outlets because it would mean businesses having to pay 55% of an employee’s wages if they came back to work for 33% of a working week. He said: “We are faced with a situation of furlough coming to an end at the end of October, the new scheme not being economically viable for hotels, and there will no doubt be a very high level of redundancies from the hospitality sector at the end of October, which will be devastating for individual businesses and incomes of families.”

Expressing the view that “we have to learn to live with this virus” until a vaccine is found, which could be next summer at the earliest, Mr Imrie said: “We have to adjust our method of operation in order that we can live our lives, and our businesses can be successful and trade.”

Noting that the testing regime has proven to be inadequate thus far, he added: “In order to live with this virus, we really have to increase testing so that everybody in the population can be tested on a regular basis [so] when you get any suspicion of Covid you can isolate and cut out the ability of the virus to spread.”

Mr Dallas said the EICC had put together a new operating plan demonstrating it can host events safely, based on Scottish Government and World Health Organization standards, including running events with two-metre social distancing and with hand sanitising stations throughout. That would see the venue run events at around 12 per cent of its 1,800 capacity Lennox Suite. But he expressed frustration it has not been able to be given the chance to show it can operate safely. “We were hoping to hold our first test event this month, but unfortunately we have not been allowed to open,” he said.

He added: “I suppose my ask of the Scottish Government is that they let us demonstrate that business events are safe. Because of the controlled environment that we operate in, we can deliver an operating plan in order to start building customer confidence, which is at an all-time low.”

TOMORROW: Scots restaurateurs race to adapt to ever-changing virus restrictions

EICC results, P 29