- I in 5 businesses believe full recovery is over two years away
- Public health concerns remain biggest challenge to business revival
- Hybrid/flexible working will become the norm

An extensive survey of over 200 businesses has revealed that recovery from the impact of the pandemic could take several years with many businesses suggesting that it could be more than 2 years before they are back to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

The ‘Road to Business Recovery’ survey was conducted jointly by Belfast Chamber and Bauer Media NI – the home of Cool FM, Downtown and Downtown Country – and has found that the events of the past year have had a profound impact on many Belfast businesses but that much optimism for the future remains.

Commenting on the survey results, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “Over the last few weeks, we have seen some positive steps forward with many businesses open again for the first time since before Christmas. We are all hopeful that we have turned a page and that the successful vaccination roll out will ensure that businesses won’t face future look downs and that we can begin on the journey towards recovery.

“Our ‘Road to Business Recovery’ survey, conducted in partnership with Bauer Media NI, reveals that whilst many business owners in Belfast are optimistic about the time ahead, we will be dealing with the effects of the pandemic for some time to come.  52% of survey respondents say that it will be in excess of a year before their business will recover financially from the effects of the pandemic with almost 1 in 5 thinking it’ll take more than 2 years. 

“Belfast Chamber has been fearful of a jobs crisis in our city as a result of the restrictions imposed on businesses.  70% of businesses told us that they have already made redundancies with 5% predicting more in the next 6 months. Troublingly, more than a third of respondents aren’t sure if they’ll need to let more staff go so it is clear that a huge degree of uncertainty around employment levels still exists with nearly 30% saying that they think their employee numbers will be lower than pre-pandemic levels at the end of 2021. 

“It seems that COVID-19 will cast something of a long shadow over business in Belfast with ongoing public health concerns and restrictions on businesses like social distancing cited by a majority of businesses as the biggest challenge to business recovery.  It is perhaps, therefore, unsurprising that further rates and grants support remain the most poplar intervention that businesses are seeking from government.

“But in spite of that, there is cause for optimism. 45% of respondents are more optimistic about the future of their business. With the year that many businesses have experienced and with so much uncertainty remaining, the real resilience that Belfast businesses are renowned for shines through in this survey”.

Turning to results relating to the look and feel of the city, Simon Hamilton added, “There has been much commentary about what the pandemic might mean for Belfast with some predicting the city’s demise as working from home becomes the norm.  Whilst it seems that how we work is going to change with half of businesses saying they’ll move to a hybrid model with staff working in the office and from home, but interestingly, almost 60% of businesses think they will require the same amount of office space or more.  There is also widespread support for remaining in  our city to help boost the economy with major public realm redevelopment in streets like Royal Avenue, Donegall Place and High Street along with more city centre living the two most favoured physical and infrastructural interventions.

Perhaps one of the main conclusions to draw from this survey is that the city’s economy remains fragile and will need careful nurturing. As well as assisting businesses directly, that will also require a partnership approach to making Belfast an even better place to live, work and enjoy leisure time”.

David Tighe, Managing Director of Bauer Media NI added: “This important survey truly reflects the general mood across the businesses sectors and shows how the mindset has changed since we first measured stakeholder opinion last autumn.

“The business community could not have survived the last 15 months without harbouring some level of concern about the future, but these findings also show a strong undercurrent of positivity and resilience. Belfast remains a great city and we hope the government listens and responds to the collective call for ongoing support. The media, particularly commercial radio, will continue to play a part in the recovery process, providing a trusted platform to market the city and help businesses – large and small – achieve their full potential in the months ahead.”