London – turn the lights on, and quickly

A recent trip into central London has revealed the stark reality of the pandemic’s impact on hospitality and real estate.

My trip into central London, July 6th, hospitality’s so-called ‘bounceback day’ was a most shocking experience, not just for me and my colleagues, but for all those that rely on urban real estate and hospitality for their livelihood. Not from a safety protocol perspective, I felt perfectly safe travelling, and inside and outside the buildings I visited. But it was harrowing to witness building after building sitting empty and closed. It wasn’t just the growing number of ‘to let’ signs above the doors – good luck with that – but the lack of office workers and tourists that contribute such vitality to the great city I work and live within.

The task was to interview, on camera, a selection of hospitality leaders who, in my eyes, have stepped up to the challenge of opening, some throughout the crisis, despite trading at break-even at best. It’s these industry colleagues that I truly admire, even more so now – while others have kept shut for the reasons we already know.

I am not an economist or professional lobbyist but it’s clear to me there have been mixed messages, with overzealous ‘Project Fear’ stay-at-home Government communications that have resonated for months now, culminating in what I saw – deserted streets. Unless the Government and London authorities – TfL, London and Partners to name two – change their rhetoric from ‘closed for business’ to being ‘open for business’ very quickly, we will have tens of thousands of newly unemployed, and useful spaces sitting empty for a long time.

I like working from home from time to time, and actively encourage my team to do so too. But unless the directive to get back to work is given, people are going to remain at home, doing their job with Zoom support quite nicely, thank you. Why shouldn’t they? They can wake up later and finish earlier, spend more time with the family, without the commute and travel costs. Where’s the incentive for employees to return to their offices or at least announce a date where everybody returns? We need a progressive return, shielding those that are more susceptible to the virus – if they need to work from home full time they should.

Instead, we are seeing our borders in effect ‘shut’, our beaches packed with presumably 1000’s of holidaymakers and furloughed workers, and the hospitality and real estate pain continues.

Businesses perhaps fear being sued by employees who believe they caught Covid whilst returning to work – how this can be proven, particularly if the business is adhering to Government guidelines is an interesting question. I know the cost to business, the economy and society will be much greater over the decades to come unless we return to the office quickly.

The cynic in me believes the British Government put the two-week quarantine for those entering and returning to the UK to not only discourage travel in and out of the country, but to see us cooped up in the UK to spend – so far, this is not happening. The quarantine was quickly revised after the damage had been done and reported around the world. A VAT reduction is welcomed but not enough, and a £10 meal reduction Mon-Wed for everybody is quite frankly a joke when business owners have rent to pay and people are staying away from city working. Unless our borders and cities ‘open’, spending will not improve. Urban hospitality and real estate casualties continue to grow daily.

I encourage you to join me at the URBAN LIVING FESTIVAL 2020: stay-live-work, November 25-26, Tobacco Dock, London.

Thank you to Steve Lowy, CEO, The Residences; Tony Matharu, Chairman, Blue Orchid Hotels and Eric Jafari, Creative Director, Edyn Group for your insight.

To hear directly from these hospitality leaders and other hoteliers who are leading the charge, you can watch the video here.

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