London pubs and restaurants counting on Christmas cheer

London Restaurant

It is a balmy summer’s evening in central London, but at one restaurant the Christmas party season is already in full swing.

“Welcome to Christmas in July!” says Martin Williams, the chief executive of Argentine steakhouse chain, Gaucho.

He is welcoming customers to the private dining room at the back of the group’s Smithfield branch. Resplendent with tinsel, holly and Christmas crackers, two tables of six are set up for a special festive menu, including smoked salmon and roast turkey.

There is even a video of a log fire in the background, complete with sound effects.

“It’s like Bing Crosby’s front room,” says Mr Williams. “If you’re feeling in the Christmas spirit, or missed Christmas last year, this is the place to come.”

While you might think the world has gone mad, Mr Williams says that bookings for the £45 per person menu were strong across the four-week initiative last month, with some evenings selling out well in advance.

“Lots of people didn’t get the chance to celebrate Christmas last year, so we wanted the whole thing to be a lot of fun,” he adds.

The event also served an important purpose for Gaucho – creating a buzz and interest that will hopefully kick-start demand and bookings for this year’s crucially important real Christmas party season.

After December 2020 was ruined by Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing rules, the UK’s pubs and restaurants are hoping to bounce back this year, during what is typically their busiest month.

The figures for last Christmas and New Year make grim reading. Sales across the UK’s chain pubs and restaurants for the five weeks from 30 November 2020 to 3 January 2021 were down by 73% from 12 months previously, according to one annual industry report.

CGA Strategy, a management consultancy that works with restaurant groups, produces the yearly study. It highlights the contrast with December 2019, back in the pre-pandemic world. Then the UK’s pubs and restaurants made, on average, £21,373 more in sales for the month than the average for the rest of the year.

Paul Jackson, managing director of Searcys, a restaurant, champagne bar and catering firm, says he is cautiously optimistic about Christmas bookings, but that there is some catching up to do.

“In a normal year, if the Christmas party’s been amazing, people will re-book straightaway,” he says. Yet with Christmas season cancelled last year, Searcys, like everyone else, didn’t have that crucial impetus.

“We know we’re lucky to be here, other businesses haven’t made it, and it’s been a difficult journey. But as the restrictions have been lifted, the direction of travel is looking a lot more positive.”

Searcys is now advertising its Christmas party options on its website, and it says it is getting 20 enquiries a week for December bookings at its “Searcys At The Gherkin” restaurant, bar, and private rooms at the top of the 30 St Mary Axe skyscraper (informally known as The Gherkin) in the City of London.

“This time of year is when things really start to ramp up, when caterers and locations are really proactive, maybe looking at themed parties and talking about menu options,” says Mr Jackson. “We just need the enquiries to turn into confirmations.”

At Fizzbox, a website that allows people to book Christmas parties at 134 restaurants and other venues across the UK, marketing manager Tom Bourlet says festive bookings are now growing rapidly.

He says they are up four-fold since last month, with Glasgow leading the way.

Summer is also a key time for retail firms eyeing their Christmas sales. Prior to coronavirus many retail companies would attend Christmas showcase trade shows that run from June to September, with July usually the busiest month.

They could show off their wares, and network with retail journalists and social media influences, all in one place. But last year the vast majority of such events moved online, and in 2021 this has continued for many companies.

Prezzybox is an online gift retailer, and Christmas is the most important date in the calendar for the business. This means that summertime festive showcase events are crucial, says Alexandra Spencer from the company’s PR department.

“Before the pandemic, all our events were in-person and we’re really looking forward to being able to do that again, but the virtual events we’ve attended so far have been great,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s easier to build relationships in-person, but like the rest of the world, we’ve just had to cope with doing it online.”

Whilst networking might not come as naturally over video conferencing, virtual Christmas showcases have their advantages according to Ms Spencer.

“We’re not based in London so it requires a lot logistically to get down there and set everything up, whereas with virtual events it’s just a case of popping on Zoom and cracking-on.”

But what do the journalists themselves think of new virtual Christmas showcases, and how do they compare to in-person events?

Anna-Lisa De’Ath is editor in chief of magazines, “Your Home – Christmas Made Easy” and “HomeStyle Christmas”, says the online events are not the same.

“[Prior to coronavirus] I’d normally go to 30 or 40 [physical] events, and sometimes you’ll have 13 events in one day; it’s chaos trying to rush around London. The events are really important though, to see what trends are coming through, and what’s going to be big at Christmas.

“It’s good that people are still trying to do something online, so that we’re not completely out of the loop. But with the restrictions of Zoom you can’t see the whole breadth of products that a company has to offer.”

Not all festive showcases are going online though, with one organiser of such events – CIJ Group – holding “The Big Christmas Press Show” in London in September.

Another retailer, French tea firm, Mariage Frères held its own in-person Christmas showcase last month, inviting journalists and influencers to join staff for a festive afternoon tea on the terrace outside its shop in London’s Covent Garden.

“After this very difficult time, people need to go out and enjoy themselves, the event was about a sense of fun and having a party,” says Lucas Gonzalez, general manager of the firm’s UK operations.

With December now just three months away, Phil Tate, chief executive of CGA Strategy, expects us to all embrace Christmas parties again, coronavirus allowing.

“Throughout the Covid period we have all missed out… therefore we expect in 2021 people to want to enjoy Christmas together again,” he says. “And pubs and restaurants will play a significant role as host for those celebrations in a safe and secure way.”