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’Tis the season to adapt and adjust

Small businesses that rely on autumn and winter trade, such as Bonfire Night and Christmas parties, are having to change their plans in accordance with coronavirus restrictions. We speak to three business owners about how they’re managing it.

Last updated: 29 Oct 2020 7 min read

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With major events such as Halloween, Diwali, Bonfire Night, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve coming in quick succession, October to December is usually a golden few months for many small businesses. In 2018, consumers in the UK spent £316m on Bonfire Night, and they splashed out £400m on Halloween. But in 2020, with nationwide coronavirus restrictions in place that are subject to rapid change, many small firms face the prospect of scaling back or adapting their business model if they are to survive one the most challenging seasons of recent years.

Halloween

Guided ghost tours through historic city centres are hugely popular at this time of year, and hugely important for the companies that organise them. However, coronavirus rules on gatherings are having an impact this year.

Edinburgh-based Mercat Tours was founded in 1985 when there were no regularly scheduled walking tours of the city. It hosts ghost and history tours around the Scottish capital.

Managing director Kat Brogan says: “We halted all operations a week before lockdown came into effect in March. Our team was furloughed, and we reopened on 27 August, initially with outdoor tours only, and then we reopened the Blair Street Underground Vaults. Halloween is normally a busy time for Mercat, but we had to rip up the rule book for 2020 back in the spring when we were scenario planning.”

Tours are currently running at about 15% of Mercat’s normal capacity for this time of year, with tours only allowing a maximum of six people in a group, down from the usual 30, to allow for social distancing.

Brogan explains: “We’ve researched new outdoor routes and have adopted a portable wireless Tourtalk system for live audio to deliver a high-quality storytelling experience that will ensure guides and guests can be heard without shouting.”

The company recently launched its Halloween tours and took a significant number of bookings, but the government’s advice to the public to avoid using public transport has led to some cancellations.

Brogan says Mercat has had to rethink its tours to such an extent that it is impossible to compare year on year annual revenues. “We know we need to be agile, and we need to look forward,” she says. “Our main aim is to keep the team and our visitors safe.”

Hear more from Kat Brogan of Mercat Tours:

Bonfire Night and Diwali

These two events – Bonfire night on 5 November and Diwali on 14 November – mark the start of the main firework season. For Doncaster-based Fireworks Kingdom, this period is crucial to the business, accounting for 95% of turnover.

“Without this period, we wouldn’t survive,” says general manager Richard Hogg. “Diwali, Bonfire Night, and New Year’s Eve are among the biggest celebrations in the UK, and a reduction in the size of these events will have a massive impact on seasonal retailers and hospitality.”

Coronavirus has already delivered a significant blow to the business, initially when it had to close for three months and issue customer refunds during lockdown, and more recently due to restrictions such as the ‘rule of six’, which resulted in customers shopping for much smaller audiences and reducing the average basket value of goods.

“Fireworks are normally enjoyed together with families and friends, so this hasn’t helped our revenue,” says Hogg. “We’ve also lost a lot of our large regular clients, including pubs and clubs that would normally purchase fireworks and host displays to raise funds for their respective clubs – for example, Scout groups and football clubs. It’s still unclear just how much this will affect our overall turnover this year as shoppers’ spending habits will continue to change, depending on advice and consumer confidence.”

Over the past few months, Fireworks Kingdom has scaled back numerous aspects of its operations to ensure it can continue to trade. This included reducing advertising budgets and SEO work. However, it has managed to offset some of the impact of coronavirus by adapting certain processes, such as the launch of a click-and-collect service so customers can avoid having to queue in the shop. “We’re confident that this will help the season to progress,” says Hogg.

Hear more from Richard Hogg of Fireworks Kingdom:

Christmas and New Year’s Eve

As the Christmas season approaches, local business leaders around the UK are encouraging consumers to buy their decorations, food or gifts from local and independent retailers. After a tough year, people may be planning to spend less, although many may also decide to have several smaller celebrations rather than one extravagant blowout on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, with everyone spending more time indoors, Retail Week suggests there will be higher demand for certain products, with kitchenware, homeware, arts and crafts and fun, festive decor predicted to be on consumers’ shopping lists.

Ella D’Amato, CEO of Notonthehighstreet, says: “People will be careful with their pennies, though, so each purchase will be more considered than maybe it was in previous years. We anticipate increased support for the local and small businesses who served consumers so well during lockdown, and a rise in community spirit as restrictions have meant more time and focus being spent on the local neighbourhood.”

“At the moment, trade is so unpredictable. Day-to-day revenue is down across hospitality businesses as a whole, and as things are right now, we could be told to close for two weeks, for example, with no notice” Victoria Sheppard, co-owner, Queens of Mayfair

For those in the hospitality sector, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are crucial for business.

Cafe and wine bar Queens of Mayfair should have opened in February this year, but its launch was delayed by six months because of lockdown. The business is owned and run by Victoria Sheppard, and her sister, Grace, whose plan had always been to maximise Christmas party bookings over the festive period. But when coronavirus restrictions put paid to group gatherings, they had to do come up with an innovative alternative.

Victoria, who has worked in the hospitality sector for many years, says: “The November and December revenues in hospitality make up for the quiet months in January and February. Those two months would normally account for 25% – 30% of annual revenue, with work parties, office lunches, and New Year’s Eve among the key income streams.

“Under current Covid restrictions, that just isn’t possible this year, so we’ve had to adapt and be creative. We’re planning on running small weekend festive workshops, with wreath-making and wine-tasting for groups of up to six people. We are also offering Christmas hampers that we are hoping will be a big seller.”

The uncertain climate has made it difficult to calculate how the new revenue streams could offset the seasonal revenue expected in a normal year. “At the moment, trade is so unpredictable. Day-to-day revenue is down across hospitality businesses as a whole, and as things are right now, we could be told to close for two weeks, for example, with no notice,” says Sheppard.

Her advice to other small businesses facing a similarly challenging yet crucial festive trading period is to be creative and to look after existing loyal customers. She adds: “There should be an increase in gifting this period, where people can’t meet face to face, so have some good options available, especially those that could generate interest on social media.”

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