The collapse of Shearings spells trouble for dozens of hotels and many of Britain’s most popular destinations
Another week of lockdown, another loss for the tourist industry. The UK’s largest coach tour operator, Shearings, ceased trading on Friday.
Shearings, which rebranded as Specialist Leisure Group (SLG) in 2018, has been offering affordable holidays and escorted tours since 1903 and was particularly popular with older travellers.
Richard Calvert, SLG chief executive, said he fought “tooth and nail” to save the group, but the ongoing effects of lockdown measures gave it little chance. More than 64,000 bookings have been cancelled following its collapse, and 2,460 jobs have been lost.
“The effects of Covid-19 on our 117-year-old company and the wider travel industry have been devastating,” he said of the firm that serves over 1.1 million people a year.
SLG’s failure also raises doubts about the future of dozens of hotels in some of Britain’s most popular holiday destinations. The firm’s three accommodation brands, Bay Hotels, Coast & Country Hotels and Country Living Hotels, operated 44 UK properties in towns such as Harrogate, Bath, Newquay, Torquay and Llandudno. With the collapse of SLG, they too have ceased trading, and unless they can find a new buyer willing to take a gamble on making money in the current climate, face permanent closure.
Particularly at risk are its properties in hard-to-reach places – rural honeypots and holiday beauty spots that could be a hefty drive away like the Cotswolds or the Lake District. A whopping 18 million people book day trips through UK coach companies and the loss of Shearings will have a staggering effect on hotspots that need the footfall.
Two of the hotel firms have several properties in the Highlands ranging from seaside to rural, and coach travel is an easy and affordable way for those who are uncomfortable or unable to drive long distances, or without the money and patience to make the journey by rail.
British seaside towns will also face losses. The coach industry has been vital in keeping coastal resorts going and not all of them have the transport links that places like Brighton and Bournemouth enjoy. The majority of the firm’s hotels are on the coast and many, like Bay Grand Atlantic Hotel in Weston-super-Mare, rely on coach companies to bring in guests.
Seven hotels in Devon and four in Cornwall have ceased to trade. In Cornwall alone, around five million people visit every year, the vast majority arriving from other parts of the UK, and around 53,000 jobs depend on hospitality and other tourism-related services.
Even those who are not under the firm’s umbrella face uncertainty. Nicola Slade, owner of a Weston-super-Mare hotel, The Grosvenor, typically charges £35 per head. She uses 18 coach companies and in one day, just after the Prime Minister’s first lockdown announcement, the hotelier lost £48,000 due to group cancellations. But it’s not just about individual hotels, the slow demise of the industry affects the communities.
“Weston relies on tourism,” she said. “People come to Weston for the beach, the donkeys, the pier.”
“A lot of Weston takes groups – the older groups. And, either their children aren’t going to let them come, or they’re gonna be scared. And that’s our bread and butter, really.
“Because the groups that are booking for next year aren’t booking a full coach, they’re only booking half a coach because they’re doing the two-metre rule with the seat in between, it takes my occupancy down and then they want a better deal.
“Of course they’re going to have to charge more because they’re going to have to pay to run the coach, the tours, the coach driver with less people. It’s the same for me, but everybody’s ringing me to reduce rates – and please believe me we are not dear, we’re just a two-star hotel, we’ve got 55 rooms but we are a coaching hotel – and they want us to reduce it even more to encourage people to come.”
Other spots that could see a drop in visitors are places like Harrogate, where SLG’s Country Living St George was found, and Bath, with Country Living Lansdown Grove. Although they are affluent spa towns with good travel accessibility, they attract thousands of escorted groups a year. The worry is that without coach tours there will be a major decline in visitors, and that this is one of many companies to collapse.
Speaking to his local newspaper, Simon Cotton, who is managing director at Harrogate’s HRH Group, which includes The White Hart Hotel, said that the impact of SLG’s closure shouldn’t be underestimated as, compared to business travel, leisure guests book double-occupancy rooms and spend money in shops, restaurants, bars and attractions. During the Christmas market last year (Nov 14 to Nov 17, 2019), Harrogate welcomed no fewer than 187 pre-booked coaches over the four days.
No section of the travel industry will be untouched by the Covid-19 crisis, but the impact on coach tours, and the UK destinations they serve, looks certain to be profound.