Falling through the cracks – one local business’s sobering pandemic story

Mike and Elaine Clarke with dog Frank

With Government pouring £ millions into additional support measures for local businesses there are still a significant minority that fall through the cracks. Business 365 has spoken to an enterprising couple for whom the crisis has been an unmitigated disaster. 

By Simon Richardson

The Coronavirus pandemic has been with us now for over a year. In that time, despite a herculean effort by the vast majority of the Manx public, we again find ourselves in a lockdown situation, dealing with a surge of new cases of the so-called Kent variant.

Apart from the human element the pandemic has come at a huge cost to government. Even before the latest outbreak the Manx Government had poured over £200 million into dealing with the medical crisis and in providing various support schemes to keep businesses afloat and protect jobs.

Among the worst hit has been the tourism sector. The closed borders have meant the loss of countless major events including two TT’s and Festivals of Motorcycling, along with other key gatherings that are the lifeblood of the sector.

The lovely grounds of the Rhenass Retreat

Whilst help has been provided, there have, inevitably, been some businesses that have fallen through the cracks. One such niche enterprise is the Rhenass Retreat near Little London, operated by Elaine and Mike Clarke.

They moved to the Island in 2019 with hope and optimism after having run a similar business in Cornwall. It was a hugely expensive process, and after acquiring the property they set about the task of turning it into a beautiful and peaceful retreat for guests from all over the world. They also had to cope with the stringent rules and regulations involved in setting up and running a business in the Isle of Man.

It was all systems go as 2020 arrived and then came Coronavirus.

Elaine takes up the story: “To say how much the Covid situation has cost us is difficult to put a price on. In monetary terms it runs into tens of thousands of pounds. Anyone who has moved here recently knows the cost is phenomenal. Coupled with the Island’s stringent regulations for using your property as tourist accommodation there are so many other expenses such as marketing etc. For us at www.rhenassretreat.org.uk the investment was huge before we even started.”

In terms of help from government Elaine says they have received £360.00 from the Government to cover the losses suffered: “I would like the Government to enlighten me how they have arrived at this figure. The grant is for January, February and March and equates to £2.00 per day.  We are in the bed and breakfast classification and are currently ungraded because no one has been able to come and visit to grade the premises. I applied for another grant for last year but was declined on the grounds that we were a start-up.”

Elaine added: “Interestingly, on that note we have not been able to obtain any new business grants because we ran a similar operation in Cornwall, so we are apparently not eligible. It feels as though the tourism sector and those associated with it are being quietly sacrificed”.

For Elaine and Mike the strain has not only been financial. Mike’s 92 year-old Mum remains in the UK: “She still lives independently and is a constant source of concern. Mike is her only son so there isn’t a huge family around her to help. It also goes without saying we very much miss our friends and family who it seems we have not seen forever.”

As time goes on Elaine sees little light at the end of the tunnel, with no imminent signs of the borders re-opening to foreign tourists. The couple’s dream of a new life living and working on the Isle of Man has turned into a nightmare: “Interestingly only the other day I had a call from someone again desperate to come on retreat for their emotional wellbeing but again, had to say no.”

Even if the borders re-opened tomorrow Elaine fears the business would take time to re-build; something they can barely afford: “To date we have had to cancel bookings running into many thousands of pounds. Will these people ever come back? I don’t know. They wanted a retreat, so I know many went to other retreat centres in the UK that were allowed to open. The Government’s answer here seems to be homestay. Have you seen the number of motor homes on the island? Not to mention the Facebook chatter of many people hoping to gain from our pain through low prices. I am not sure many people understand the sheer hard work and cost of running visitor accommodation. Last year it was suggested we offer 10% reductions on top of all the money we have already lost!”

Elaine and Mike Clarke’s experience is not unique, but it demonstrates the extreme hardship many people on the Isle of Man continue to suffer. Even when our lives returned to near- normality for a while last year, the closed borders meant it remained far from normal for many.

When the pandemic finally recedes many lives will have been turned upside down and businesses lost. Elaine and Mike hope they won’t become a statistic.