Devastated wedding venue owner forced to lay off half of staff

A popular wedding venue has hit out at the Government over a lack of support for the “forgotten industry” – and said it will now have to lay off half its staff after millions of pounds’ worth of events were put off due to the pandemic.

Paul Bolton is owner of West Tower in Aughton, near Ormskirk – a multi-award winning business he said has not had anywhere near the levels of Government help it has required since the outset of the coronavirus.

At present, weddings are restricted to just 15 guests, and with tough rules set to last until next spring and no big events permitted since March, it could mean the industry being “effectively closed” for an entire year.

Paul, who has owned the venue for a decade alongside wife Laura, said although the future of their business is secure, plenty of others will soon end up being forced to close.

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He said: “We are a very strong business and we are not going anywhere. We can ride this, although it's going to cost me a lot of money.

“The industry's knackered. Many, many businesses will not be able to survive – it's impossible, and many will lock their doors forever.

Sales director Karan Maguire, owner Paul Bolton and operations manager Kim Halliday at West Tower, Aughton

“These are hard working people that have got a bloody good business but there's no support. You can’t just close an entire industry down without compensation.”

Last month, in his Winter Economic Plan, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a new jobs support scheme supporting wages of people in “viable” professions – those who could work a small proportion of their hours even during the pandemic.

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Paul said he was furious that workers in a sector worth £14.7bn – and his own venue with an order book in excess of £4m – could ever be described as “unviable”.

With around 20 staff having been on furlough but that scheme ending this month, Paul will now need to let go of them – around half of his workforce.

He said: “It's an absolute insult and preposterous to say these jobs could be unviable. We have highly-trained, highly-skilled chefs, chartered accountants and more. This isn't just kids coming out of school, this is a proper, very profitable business. And we’re still selling weddings – around 80% of what we usually do, despite Covid.

“And it’s not only us – it’s the supply chain that goes with the industry as well. It’s photographers, make-up artists, cake makers and more – all these freelancers are getting nothing. They’ve been completely abandoned.”

West Tower, which has won various awards including County Brides magazine’s best Lancashire venue for nine years running, has managed to move 150 bookings out of 185 so far. But many of those have been required to change dates twice or even three times due to the ever-changing nature of restrictions – something that in itself causes clients “a huge amount of heartache and anxiety”.

“Our customers are heartbroken every time a wedding needs to be moved. We've got customers sobbing to our sales team over the phone.

“They are trying to organise families from different parts of the world. It's the biggest day of their life, but smashed to pieces – so it's an emotional rollercoaster for them.”

Paul also said it was unfair that weddings are allowed just 15 guests – despite many pubs – even in Tier 3 areas like Lancashire – being allowed over 100 customers at any one time.

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He said: “We are a large venue sitting in 10 acres of countryside and can space guests in a Covid-safe manner.

“The whole industry is staggered at how our sector is being dismissed as some kind of back street farmyard business. The crazy thing is we have a country pub and we can seat over 100 customers and yet West Tower is nearly twice as big and we can only have 15 guests.

"Unlike a pub, we know a year out who’s going to be coming to these weddings – our typical sale is 15 months in advance. So we just don’t get it."

Speaking of Mr Sunak’s pledge last week that will mean new grants for businesses who have seen disruption due to the Government’s new tier system, Paul described it as “welcome” – but a “drop in the ocean”.

That’s because even with no events, the venue faces monthly fixed costs of £50,000. The grants would be worth £2,000 to £3,000 a month.

Operations manager Kim Halliday, owner Paul Bolton and sales director Karan Maguire

“We don’t want grants. We want to go back to work in a Covid-safe manner with a sensible number of guests in line with pubs – based on the size of your venue. There must be some kind of autonomy for the local authority where they look at the size of your venue and work out how many can safely fit inside."

He added: “The Government seems to think you can just get rid of everybody [temporarily], then when they say you can go again, you can be ready, just like that. But it's not like that – it takes years to build a team.

"You can't just flick the switch off on the factory conveyor belt and go back again. We feel we are being completely left in the dark, and it's abhorrent that we have been left languishing and with zero support, zero communication.”

Paul said the venue expects the return of some normality by next April – but is lobbying for more assistance from the Government. Even if that meant reinstating the original furlough – when 80% of staff wages were paid by the state, or an increase to the number of permitted guests at weddings.

He added: “West Tower is a very strong business and will be exceptionally busy once we get back, and will have to take on more staff.

“While it’s heartbreaking, we will be back stronger.”

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