The past few months have been some of the most difficult in living memory for Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises.
They have seen their incomes disappear overnight and battled to get Government-backed grants and loans. They have had to furlough staff, move sales online and even launch entirely new ventures.
Now that restrictions are starting to be lifted, we have revisited some of the businesses previously spoken to during lockdown to find out just how they have fared.
Happy campers: The holiday bookings website pitchup.com saw sales rocket last month.
‘It’s been feast and famine – a real rollercoaster ride,’ says Dan Yates, founder of pitchup.com, a booking website for camping and caravanning holidays.
Lockdown wiped out 98 per cent of his company’s income and prime camping months passed by with hundreds of sites empty. Then at 12.30pm on Tuesday June 23, Boris Johnson rose in the House of Commons to announce the lifting of lockdown and, says Dan, ‘things just went through the roof’.
Online traffic jumped 300 per cent during Johnson’s speech and kept on rising. Dan had to splash out on new servers and get his technical team to bolster the website.
‘Websites were crashing across the industry,’ he says. ‘We were taking a booking every three seconds by the evening and have now taken 100,000 bookings in total. It’s exciting and terrifying.’
While demand for a staycation under canvas is at record levels, there are only a few months of the holiday season left. ‘Everyone’s trying to make money for the whole year in just a few months,’ says Dan, who has been running down his cash reserves but hopes a ‘substantial’ loan from the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) will come through soon.
He adds: ‘The industry still needs a lot of help, such as VAT deferral, a flexible furloughing scheme and business rates support as things will not fully open up again until next March.’
Meanwhile, in Staffordshire, this is the first weekend that the Titanic Brewery has been able to open its pubs since March and its owner Keith Bott has been delivering supplies himself.
Back in April, Keith told The Mail on Sunday how he hoped not to touch the £1million CBILS loan Titanic had secured from Barclays. He wanted to trade through the crisis, helped by direct-to-customer sales and innovations such as the ‘pub in a box’ (beer, glasses, beer mats and a pub quiz).
Titanic Brewery’s David and Keith Bott think they will only be back to 70 per cent turnover
‘We’ve been able to do this so far, but it depends how things turn out,’ he says. ‘We’re tentatively reopening nine of our 13 pubs, which is exciting, if nerve-racking. And while our customers will be really pleased to see us, the question is whether we’ll be able to trade in a way that is profitable.’
With restrictions in place, Keith thinks he will only be back to 70 per cent turnover and will have to keep a watchful eye on costs, supplies and opening hours. ‘A lot of pubs will find it’s not sustainable once the Government support is withdrawn,’ he says. ‘It’s going to be a long and tricky route to get back to pre-March levels, if we ever can. And a second coronavirus wave would be a disaster. But there’s a lot of goodwill around.’
We are just really glad to be back at work
Leigh Bryant of LNB Towbars
Leigh Bryant was at his wits’ end when we spoke to him in April. As the owner and manager of Bristol-based LNB Towbars, a motorhome accessory fitter, that month should have been a peak time of year as customers got ready for their summer holidays.
But with his doors shut, things were looking desperate, and he said: ‘We’re literally out of money. There’s a good chance that my business will not survive.’
A few months on, and things are looking better. Leigh has been open for a month and says: ‘It’s good to be back. Our customers can’t wait to get out in their caravans, so that’s kept us busy. The whole thing has been stressful and we’re just really glad to be back at work.’
Having been turned down three times by his bank, NatWest, for a CBILS loan, Leigh was able to get a £50,000 bounce-back loan with Metro Bank, his mortgage lender.
‘To close down when we did cost us £100,000. So while the £50,000 wasn’t enough to cover that, it was enough for us to work through and survive,’ he says. But Leigh is not out of the woods yet. ‘Having lost Easter and the May bank holidays, we’re now just hoping for a busy summer which lasts as long as possible,’ he says. ‘Going into lockdown again would be an absolute disaster. If we had to close down again I think that would finish us off.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lifting of lockdown on June 23
When we first spoke to Robert Simpson of the Solihull-based serviced office firm Candlelight Properties, he had been turned down for a CBILS loan by his bank, RBS, and was relying on personal finances to bridge the gap between his costs and his tenants’ cashflow problems.
He was finally able to secure a £400,000 loan with Metro Bank and says it has made all the difference. ‘We’ve been able to defer rents for tenants who needed it and were able to spend money on extra bandwidth, extra security and extra cleaning for our offices,’ he says.
‘The issue might come in November when tenants say they can’t afford to start paying rent again, so we’ve just kicked that can down the road,’ he adds. ‘But if we do lose tenants because companies go under we have been getting a lot of enquiries from firms looking to move from central Birmingham to smaller, out-of-town offices their staff can drive to. So we could gain others.’
While some businesses are trying to get back to normal, others are preparing for a very different future. Rowena Howie, owner of central London boutique Revival Retro, closed her doors in March. While she has been able to reopen since mid-June, the lack of footfall means it is not financially worth it.
People are reticent about public transport
Rowena Howie of Revival Retro
‘Revival Retro will definitely survive, but whether it will do so in its current location and format is in question,’ she says. ‘People are still reticent about getting on public transport, so central London businesses are suffering. There are fewer office workers too.’
Raising £27,000 from loyal customers on Crowdfunder ‘definitely saved us’, as she wasn’t eligible for any Government grants, and turnover is running at about 30 per cent thanks to online sales. ‘It’s difficult to say where we’ll be in a year’s time,’ says Rowena.
David Marr set up his food delivery company Clapham Fresh overnight as shelves emptied in shops even before lockdown. He was soon taking up to £8,000 in daily sales and David had a fleet of four vans delivering all around London.
However, as shops began to reopen and other delivery firms started up, Clapham Fresh was only breaking even. David says: ‘Every man and his dog was doing it. I now mainly sell bulk dried goods on Amazon. But people still want good quality food delivered so I’m well-positioned to build something for the future.’
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