With its Victorian pier and dozens of quaint guesthouses dotted across the town, Eastbourne displays all the hallmarks of a bygone era. But 2020 threatens to be the year where the town, which attracts over five million visitors annually, is transformed beyond recognition.
Since March 23, much of the town’s crucial seasonal trade has come to a grinding halt due to lockdown restrictions implemented to stop the spread of coronavirus.
From that day on, Eastbourne’s seafront has resembled scenes of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film. Ice cream kiosks are bolted shut, the golden beaches are deserted and arcade machines are silent.
Katerina Tutt, owner of Qualisea Fish Restaurant on Seaside Road, worries that without income generated during Eastbourne’s busiest months for tourism, her business will struggle to survive beyond peak season.
She said: “Our business is quite seasonal, with the winters being quieter and the summer is where we really take our money due to the tourism created by Airbourne, tennis week and the good weather.
“Our busiest weekend of the whole year is Airbourne, and it’s very worrying that it probably won’t go ahead this year. We rely on this summer being busy to stay afloat in the quieter winter.”
For many of the town’s seasonal businesses, the Easter weekend marks the beginning of the summer season. This year, however, the doors of cafes, hotels and restaurants remained firmly shut over the four-day Easter bank holiday.
The circumstances were made all the more agonising as temperatures peaked at 23 degrees to make Eastbourne’s seafront appear an enticing prospect in the April sunshine. With the stunning weather teasing both traders and their customers, fears for survival linger among business owners ahead of the crucial summer months.
At the start of April, the Lawn Tennis Association confirmed that the Nature Valley International – to be held at the Devonshire Park courts between June 20 and 27 – had been cancelled. The tournament boosts Eastbourne’s economy by £5-6 million each year, meaning its cancellation will cause a ripple effect across the town’s commercial sectors.
There are growing fears that Eastbourne’s economy will be dealt a double blow as the fate of Airbourne – the annual seafront air show in mid-August – hangs in the balance. Should the event not go ahead, it is unlikely that key personnel in the town’s hospitality industry will be enjoying a good night’s sleep any time soon.
Councillor Margaret Bannister, Eastbourne’s Lead Cabinet Member for Tourism and Leisure Services, admits that the future of Airbourne is, frustratingly, beyond the council’s control.
She said: “We are hopefully going ahead with Airbourne and we’re really pushing for it, but it’s not in our power to decide and it’s up to the RAF.”
As many small businesses, not just in Eastbourne but across the country, desperately draw up plans to try and navigate through the choppy waters ahead, both local and central government are facing mounting pressure to ramp-up financial assistance schemes.
In mid-March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £350 billion rescue package as the government frantically scrambled for ways to save the UK from an economic disaster. Included were business rates holidays, business grants and a furlough scheme.
The Job Retention Scheme allows employers to claim a grant covering 80% of the wages for a furloughed employee, subject to a cap of £2,500 a month.
Under the Small Business Grant Scheme, businesses with a rateable value of less than £15,000 are eligible for a grant of £10,000 to help finance running costs. However, Mrs Tutt believes that further aid is required for her restaurant to withstand a summer of sparse revenue.
“I don’t think businesses that are operating during lockdown should have to pay VAT. When lockdown is over, I think there should be a month or so where no VAT needs to be paid, or at least a lower percentage, to help small businesses get back on their feet,” she said.
At a time of such national crisis, it is understandable that every constituency in the land will be badgering Westminster’s top brass in a plea for more resources, but Councillor Bannister explains that work is underway to ensure Eastbourne is not at the back of the queue.
She said: “Hopefully by lobbying government we will be able to get further grants for businesses, because not all of the hotels and restaurants qualify for the help because they do not meet the criteria. The MP is working with us as well to lobby for extra money for the tourist industry.”
However, the Lead Cabinet Member for Tourism and Leisure services warned that the council’s push for additional funds could fall on deaf ears and urged businesses to take advantage of whichever support they qualify for.
“We are looking to get our feet in the door and get as much money as we can, as soon as we can. But obviously every other tourist town in the country is going to be doing the same,” she added.
Within the past year, the people of Eastbourne have shown what is takes to pull together in times of hardship. After a disastrous fire tore through the Claremont Hotel last November, which left guests without a place to stay and few personal belongings, a rest centre was promptly assembled in the Town Hall. Beds, wash kits and refreshments were donated by local residents.
If Eastbourne’s small businesses are to weather this storm, the town’s robust community spirit will once again play a key role. Councillor Bannister has called on people to use local traders wherever possible, with a view to kickstarting an economic resurgence.
She said: “Hopefully once everything is back to near normality, people will go out and start supporting the restaurants and businesses again. I’m sure a lot of people are missing eating out.”
Coronavirus may have disrupted every aspect of ordinary life but, for as long as the town’s togetherness prevails, the sun will once again shine on Eastbourne and the good times will return.