City empties out as strikes and snow deal blow to Christmas trade

On Wednesday lunchtime on what is normally one of the busiest weeks of the year, only a handful tables were occupied at the Golden Fleece in the heart of the City of London.

“Normally you can’t move, it’s so packed,” said Sabrina Athwal, a supervisor at the pub. “Last week was crazy but with the train strikes it’s completely dead.”

The hospitality trade this week reported a sharp dip in custom as walkouts across the rail, bus and Tube network conspired with the cold weather to reduce earnings. Industrial action will cost London hospitality about £800mn, according to estimates from UKHospitality, a sector body.

The usually buzzing Golden Fleece had 20 lunch bookings cancelled over Tuesday and Wednesday as commuters opted to work from home because of the disruption. “If people are at work, we’re busy. If everyone’s working from home, it’s empty,” added Athwal.

At a nearby Fuller’s pub, takings over the week had been cut in half, as businesses across London’s financial district felt the sharp end of the strikes.

The number of people travelling into and around the UK capital tumbled this week, with workers who did make it in reporting a “ghost town”, with scenes reminiscent of the pandemic.

Tube travel on Tuesday and Wednesday was less than two-thirds of its pre-pandemic level, according to data provided by Transport for London. That compares with last week, when travel on the Tube had returned to more than four-fifths of its levels in 2019.

Not only the streets but some offices in the Square Mile were left empty. Footfall in central London was down a quarter, and close to 30 per cent, in areas close to London’s offices, according to Springboard.

The problem is that for many in hospitality these are the key weeks in the so-called “golden quarter” running up to Christmas that subsidise businesses into the new year when trade is subdued.

Soren Jensen, who owns upmarket City restaurant One Lombard Street, said that three-quarters of their Christmas events had been cancelled this week, with “à la carte” trade down 60 per cent.

The Vintry pub in the City of London
The Vintry pub in the City of London at 2pm on Wednesday, which would normally have been very busy © Charlie Bibby/FT

The strikes “hit us hard and everyone I know in London hospitality”, he said. “This is the third Christmas in a row completely torpedoed. This week is typically the busiest week of the year for retail and hospitality and we rely on strong revenue to pay for the next couple of weeks and early January.”

The shopping streets around the West End, one of the capital’s busiest shopping districts, were also affected.

Footfall in the shopping quarter was down by 25 per cent between Monday to Wednesday this week compared with last, according to the New West End Company, which represent hundreds of businesses in the area. Compared with the same period in 2019, it has slipped by almost a third.

This marked a reversal of the recovery of the shopping quarter since the pandemic. Dee Corsi, chief executive of New West End Company, said the colder weather — temperatures fell as low as minus 5C — and strike action had “a serious impact” on intake.

Strike action is expected to disrupt rail services again over the Christmas weekend and in early January. Highway workers, border force officials and ambulance workers will also stage strikes next week.

Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame: ‘It is intensely frustrating that every time we build a bit of momentum, we hit another obstacle in our recovery’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Corsi urged all sides of the rail dispute to come to an agreement and cancel future proposed strikes, “so that high street businesses across the country can move into the new year in a stronger position”.

Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality chief executive, said: “It’s the week when, if you work in the City, you’re going to have your last lunch, your last drinks before Christmas . . . and effectively the City shut down on [December 12],” said Nicholls.

“Pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels . . . would have been doing full lunch services and full dinner services and now they’re not,” she added.

Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame, which runs 37 London pubs, half of which are around the Square Mile, said the week had been “much worse than hoped” because of the strikes.

The average pub was down around 15 per cent in sales compared with the week before; while City Pub group said trading was 20 per cent lower across the group’s London pubs.

“It is intensely frustrating that every time we build a bit of momentum, we hit another obstacle in our recovery,” said Neame. “All we’d hoped for was a clear run.”

Chris Hayward, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, echoed that the transport disruption was “deeply disappointing” for many local businesses during the vital Christmas trading period.

“It’s another body blow for the hospitality industry which has faced a torrid three years,” said Clive Watson, co-founder of City Pub Group.

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