Christmas parties set to be smaller this year, says pub boss

Christmas parties set to be smaller this year, says pub boss

Office Christmas parties will be smaller and more suburban this year, the boss of one of the UK’s biggest pub groups has predicted.

Phil Urban of Mitchells & Butlers, which owns Browns, All Bar One and Harvester, told the BBC that seasonal work celebrations would be “different”.

“We won’t see so many of those big office parties booked,” he said.

After being hit during the pandemic the group has cut annual losses, but warned of soaring wage and energy costs.

Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) reported a pre-tax loss of £42m for the year to 25 September, although this was an improvement on the £123m loss it posted the previous year.

Total revenue at the group fell to £1.07bn from £1.48bn, while like-for-like sales fell 9.6% after the group was affected by Covid-related restrictions.

However, it said that in the eight weeks since the end of its financial year, like-for-like sales were up 2.7% on pre-pandemic levels.

M&B, which employs more than 40,000 people across 1,700 sites, announced 1,300 job cuts last year.

Mr Urban said: “The trading environment remains challenging and cost headwinds continue to put pressure on the sector.

“However, we have strengthened our balance sheet and returned to profitability and cash generation.”

Talking about Christmas parties, Mr Urban told the BBC’s Today programme that bookings were coming in as “people are recognising that actually they missed out last year”.

However, he forecast: “We might see more of the smaller groups meeting in suburbia and maybe not so much in the city centres.”

Paul Jackson, managing director at Searcys, which runs restaurants in central London and Bath, said that while there has been a steady increase in party bookings, people are delaying confirming their plans.

“We are seeing more bookings for groups for special occasions. For example, The Orangery at Blenheim Palace is ahead of its bookings from 2019,” he said.

“But there is a reluctance to confirm large bookings straightaway, with more waiting until the last minute, which is possibly due to the slight concern for the return of restrictions.”

With more people working from home, many workers may be loathe to have to bear the cost of travelling into a city location for a work celebration, analysts suggest.

“Pub and restaurant operators traditionally thrive in December from Christmas parties,” said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell.

He said nervousness on behalf of many companies could see reduced staff party volumes, particularly as Covid rates remain high.

“Managers won’t want to risk employees getting ill and a lot of people still feel uneasy about mixing in a crowded room.”