We face testing times. But York’s business community can rise to the challenge

As we enter uncertain times, York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson reflects on what we know – and how we should approach the next few months

I feel last week’s government briefing and associated guidelines have been met with a slightly different reaction to those previously. I suspect the slight pause is attributed to businesses digesting the news, with some looking at their individual business models and wondering how they’ll get through to next spring.

Over the past couple of months, the outside visitors coming to York has maybe masked the fact that a certain demographic of consumer is missing from our city centre; office workers/ business tourism being an obvious example.  The rights or wrongs of this is immaterial; the stark reality is that we will lose businesses in the coming months, with one sandwich concession telling me today that the latest restrictions are a hammer blow.

The one united reaction has been an ask for the Chancellor to provide more tailored support to specific sectors. Rishi Sunak has responded with a new Jobs Support Scheme to replace furlough, along with a continued VAT reduction for leisure and hospitality and an extension to loan repayments. 

I suspect this will not be enough for businesses such as my aforementioned friend in the sandwich shop. Wage subsidies will not pay upcoming rent or electricity bills. Loans are also not viewed as a magic solution. 

One business owner told me that they have a choice to ‘get out now’ with limited debt; or extend that loan debt within an uncertain trading future and risk losing both their business and family home. In conversations like these, it is difficult for me to point towards a silver lining.

Grateful to residents 

For those of you who know me, I do prefer to focus on positives and putting future challenges aside, York has continued to buck the national trend on many things this summer. It is only a few months ago that many in the city (probably fuelled by media coverage of Bournemouth beach!) were worried about how the city’s narrow streets would cope with visitors. The fact is we have coped very well, to the point both Sky and BBC news came to report on the measures York has put in place. 

I’m personally very grateful to the residents of York and those who have visited, as we’ve had very few reports of non-compliance with Covid restrictions. The city had negative media coverage over the first 10pm closure of pubs – with a crowd whipped up by a busker – but for context, this is one case in three months since hospitality re-opened.

In August, we finished the month with footfall around 76% of what we’d expect (national average 62%) and whilst it has fallen slightly in September, the couples market has replaced families and the city still has a nice buzz about it, with hotel occupancy at circa 75%.

I chaired a roundtable with city retailers mid-September and they confirmed that the city has performed well over the summer; highlighting that despite reduced footfall, average customer spend is strong. There are of course winners and losers. Sports and beauty are performing well; retailers that specialise in suits, luggage or swimwear have suffered or closed already.

Our professional service sector have their own challenges to deal with. Consumer confidence is having a delayed impact on demand, the reality of which will been seen in the third and fourth quarter of this financial year.  Business development has also been raised as an issue, as companies find it harder to network virtually. There is also Brexit… let’s leave that for a future blog!

Looking at the positives, York’s vibrant digital sector is generally trading well, as clients seek to expand their online presence. 

A stronger community

We have to be realistic that as the nights draw in and the weather turns for the worse, people’s patience and general morale will be tested. Seasonal cold and flu and the incoming test and trace app will raise anxiety levels within the general population, which has enjoyed a sunny summer to try and forget about the woes of lockdown.

However, I have learned over the past few months that the prophets of doom who seem to rejoice in highlighting the worse case scenarios are rarely correct. In York, we have a diverse and resilient groups of businesses that have already adapted and will adapt again if necessary.

We all regularly talk about how we enjoy being part of the ‘York business community’. This coming winter, we need to live and breathe that sentiment and if we do, I am positive we’ll have a community that is stronger for it.