Soggy summer leaves UK's seaside businesses floundering

Sixth-wettest July on record has meant many businesses have missed out on tourist spending over crucial summer spell

Beachgoers shelter from the rain outside their beach hut in Broadstairs, Kent. Getty Images
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The school holidays that sit astride most of July and August are the linchpins of the fortunes of Britain's seaside towns. That's when families come to stay and enjoy themselves. That's when they go to the piers, wander around the shops, eat out at restaurants and enjoy ice cream cones.

But they don't if it's raining.

This year, the June weather raised the British tourism industry's hopes of a profitable summer season. It was the warmest June on record, with a mean temperature of 15.8°C, 2.5°C higher than average.

But just as the crucial July period dawned, the weather took a turn for the worse.

Last month was the UK's sixth-wettest July and the wettest July in Northern Ireland since records began, according to provisional figures from the Met Office. The start of August was also a damp squib.

For Miles Jackson, an entrepreneur in the English coastal town of Scarborough, most summers bring a roaring trade.

Mr Jackson owns three businesses in the famous North Yorkshire seaside resort, including a joke shop and outlets that sell ice creams, buckets and spades and many other beach necessities.

Following downpours in Scarborough, which according to the local council played host to 2.24 million visitors last year, the drains overflowed outside The Scarborough Joke & Magic Shop.

Trade at the Scarborough Joke & Magic Shop has suffered during the wet July. Photo: The Scarborough Joke & Magic Shop

“We do OK through most of the summer months, from Easter to September,” Mr Jackson told The National.

“But our main moneymaking time is the six weeks of summer [school] holidays when people do day trips and weekend trips. That's what Scarborough has been known for the past 50 years. We had a really good June, a very wet July and also now a very wet start to August.”

“Come to Scarborough in July! The weather will be fine!!”

Posted by The Scarborough Joke & Magic Shop on Thursday, July 27, 2023

'Huge knock to trade'

While an average of 140.1mm of rain fell across the UK, the sixth-highest total for July since records began in 1836, Scarborough had 146.3mm during the month.

“Scarborough needs the weather, England needs the weather for people to come and spend,” Mr Jackson told The National.

“I sell ice creams, buckets and spades and crabbing gear. You don’t sell this stuff online.

“People want to have an ice cream; they want to have a stick of Scarborough rock. So we absolutely need people to come walking around and buy.

“When the weather is terrible, it’s a huge knock to trade,” he added.

Holidaymakers brave a downpour in Skegness, Lincolnshire. Weather-dependent businesses in the UK's seaside towns had a dismal July. Getty Images

Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which has the National Trust and English Heritage among its members, said many outdoor attractions have been struggling.

“Where a destination is quite weather-dependent, like seaside destinations, they're having quite a tough time at the moment,” he said.

Even if, as the forecasters at the Met Office predict, the weather improves by mid-August, it may be too late to save the summer for some.

Mr Jackson says the damage is already done because the Scottish school holidays finish earlier than in England. Indeed, most school holidays in Scotland are over by August 21.

“Our huge Scottish holiday trade is gone. Last year, we had a really good summer – it was really hot from day one and it took us all the way through.”

But it's not only Scarborough and it's not only the weather that's made this a particularly cruel summer for English tourism and associated businesses.

Eyes on the ball at Hastings Adventure Golf. Photo: Hastings Adventure Golf

A recent report from MRI Springboard showed that for the first time since the retail analysts began compiling their monthly reports 14 years ago, there were more shoppers on the UK high streets in June than there were in July.

As well as the rainy weather, the survey claimed strikes on the railways and the cost-of-living crisis were to blame.

But Britain's coastal towns were particularly badly affected, with footfall falling by 4.6 per cent as the damp July weather put people off going to the beach.

Reports of sewage leaks near some of the most popular beaches have deterred visitors as well. A poll carried out in mid-July showed that nearly a quarter of people who would usually swim in the sea while on holiday would not do so this year.

“The entire season has been challenging,” Simon Tompkins, director at Saris Leisure, told The National.

“The cost-of-living crisis is hitting the leisure industry very hard. The weather is making it even more of an uphill battle.

Saris Leisure, which owns adventure-golf courses, trampolines, fish and chip stalls and ice cream parlours in Hastings in East Sussex, registered a 32 per cent drop in visitor numbers in July. For Mr Tompkins, the weather is always a worry.

“Being a seaside attraction we rely heavily on the summer months,” he told The National.

“If the sun shines, we are very busy. If the weather is like what it has been, we struggle – to a degree, it's all or nothing.

“Over the past 25 years I've been with the company, the weather seems to even itself out over the course of the year or a couple of years.

“Fingers crossed this is the bad one and next year the great British summer will return!”

There seems to be that common thread of optimism among Britain's storm-battered seaside businesses. In Bournemouth on the south coast, hotel bookings are about 12 per cent below where they would normally be at this time of year, according to the Bournemouth Coastal Business Improvement District.

“Our hoteliers are a pretty resilient bunch. Their staff are all there, all waiting and ready to welcome everyone back to sunny Bournemouth when it is sunny,” said Fiona McArthur, operations manager at the business improvement district.

Eight kilometres along the Dorset coast in Lyme Regis, Jason and Lyn Martin, who run the Dorset House Bed and Breakfast and the Poco Pizza restaurant, are feeling pretty resilient.

“Over the last couple of years everything booked really quickly and there was excess demand in both businesses,” they told The National.

“This year is definitely slower, although still busy. The bed and breakfast feels a bit harder to fill the rooms, so there is last-minute availability, but this is still tending to fill.”

'We never cancel coastal cruises due to rain,' says the marketing director of Stuart Line Cruises in Devon. Photo: Lauren Clark

Some outdoor businesses were able to shelter their customers from the persistent rain in July. Stuart Line Cruises operates boat trips in and around the mouth of the River Exe.

The company's marketing director Lauren Clark told The National that while bookings for special events like weddings held up because they were made far in advance, public day trips in July saw passenger numbers well below those in the same month last year.

“We have covered lower decks and open upper decks, so during inclement weather we tend to limit capacity so that all passengers can be under cover, ensuring comfort whatever the weather.”

Situated at the estuary of the River Exe, Stuart Line Cruises operates sea trips up the Jurassic Coast, the 150km stretch of Dorset and East Devon coastline of such importance that it is England's only natural Unesco World Heritage Site.

However, when the sea gets too rough, the company has the option of changing the route and taking its passengers up the River Exe instead.

“We never cancel coastal cruises due to rain but there have been occasions during July where it has been necessary to alter the route of our coastal cruises, due to unsuitable sea conditions.

“Fortunately, we have the River Exe and therefore on the rare occasion that we are unable to go out to sea we are always able to offer river cruises instead,” Ms Clark added.

People on Bournemouth beach in Dorset this summer. PA

Lost days

The wet July weather dampened the UK retail sector as a whole, especially in clothing as shoppers found little reason to upgrade their summer wardrobes.

According to the British Retail Consortium, total UK retail sales increased by only 1.5 per cent in July, even taking into account high inflation. That compared to 2.3 per cent growth in July last year and was well below the three-month average of 3.5 per cent.

“The slowing pace of retail price inflation fed through into slower sales this July,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the consortium.

“Spend was further depressed by the damp weather, which did no favours to sales of clothing and other seasonal goods.”

Like all retailers in Britain, those in seaside towns were already struggling with the cost-of-living crisis – rising interest rates, high inflation, soaring energy costs and so on. Rail strikes during July were also an issue. The wet weather simply added to their woes.

For Colin Burt, who owns and runs the World Famous Brighton Rock shop in the south-coast city, July brought a triple-whammy.

The shop has been in his family for 50 years, selling the sticks of boiled confectionery synonymous with British seaside holidays.

The World Famous Brighton Rock shop sells ... well, the clue's in the name. Photo: Stacey Burt

In the middle of the month, the 200-year old Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton caught fire. As a result, some of the surrounding roads on the seafront were closed for several days.

At the same time, strikes by rail workers seriously reduced the number of potential day visitors to Brighton in July.

And, of course, it rained.

“We’ve been hit three ways – weather, trains and road closures,” Mr Burt said.

“I believe August will get better and takings will increase. But you cannot make up for lost days.”

The void of July is a real issue in seaside towns where seasons matter, said Mr Donoghue at the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

“Any loss of summer business will affect their year-round profitability,” he said.

“The weather forecast for the rest of August suggests the weather will significantly improve and September may be sunny and warm, which outdoor attractions and seaside businesses are banking on.”

Waves crash over the pier at Tynemouth on England's north-east coast. PA

Fewer staycations

For many seaside businesses, a brighter and warmer September will be too little, too late. Holidaymakers will start to drift back home to prepare for the new school year.

But those who run tourist-dependent businesses in Britain's seaside towns and cities have been battling against cheaper holidays in warmer climes for at least 40 years.

They enjoyed a brief boom a few years ago as pandemic lockdowns were lifted but overseas travel was still fraught with complications.

Nonetheless, a survey by American Express showed that 27 per cent of adults in the UK were planning a staycation this year and that tourist spending would hit £25.9 billion.

However, that research study of 2,000 people was carried out in mid-June, which according to the Met Office was the warmest June since 1884.

A roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Blackpool Council leader Lynn Williams said this year's wet July weather was a disappointment. Getty Images

The July rain seems to have put a dampener on that. The latest Bloomberg Reed Jobs Report shows the drop in job vacancies is now considerably steeper in seaside towns than across the UK as a whole.

“Given how heavily reliant many of these coastal towns are on strong summer trading, it is certainly concerning that the usual summer boost in job postings hasn’t materialised,” said James Reed, chairman of the employment agency Reed.

“The ‘staycation boom’ has come to an end.”

Likewise, figures from airlines like Ryanair prove demand for foreign travel has renewed strength.

But business owners in the UK's coastal towns like Scarborough are a hardy lot, Mr Jackson said from North Yorkshire. He doesn't think one exceptionally wet July will prove to be the final nail in the coffin for many a struggling seaside business.

“I don't think they’re at risk of closing,” he told The National.

“I think they’re at risk of having to dip into savings from previous years but I don't think anyone’s going to close down. I’m absolutely not going to close for one bad year. That's just bad business management.”

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:03 PM