January 18, 2021

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Garden centre owner waiting for Stormont go-ahead to open Santa’s grotto

A garden centre owner has said he is waiting to hear from Stormont if he can open his annual Santa’s grotto.

illmount Garden Centre, on the outskirts of Belfast, runs the festive experience every Christmas.

Owner Robin Mercer said the garden centre has adapted the grotto to allow for social distancing, including creating larger rooms and introducing a booking system.

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Robin Mercer of Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast stands at the entrance of their Santa’s Grotto. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday November 23, 2020. See PA story ULSTER Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

However on Monday evening, he was still waiting to hear whether he could open it.

Northern Ireland is days away from the start of a strict circuit-break that will see non-essential retail, the hospitality sector and close-contact services closed for two weeks from Friday.

Mr Mercer said they have 500 families booked in for the experience between Friday December 4 to Friday December 11.

“We’re totally booked up,” he told the PA news agency.

“Garden centres are allowed to stay open, our cafe will be closed but allowed to do take away.

“So with the garden centre allowed to stay open, we’re trying to find out if the grotto can open.

“We have spent a lot of time planning the grotto this year. Traditionally we have two small rooms for Santa, and now we have built two large rooms, eight metres by four metres. It means the photographer has their own space and Santa is at least two metres away from the people.

“Temperatures will be checked on the way in, hand sanitiser at the beginning. For the first time, we have done bookings. Every family has a five-minute slot to keep them apart.

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Robin Mercer in the Santa’s grotto at Hillmount Garden Centre (Liam McBurney/PA)

“They’ll go through the grotto, see Mrs Claus and go on to the sleigh. We’re limiting this to six per family on the sleigh where the photographer can take a picture with Santa standing two metres away, but it’ll look like he is beside them. The elf will then give them a specially made teddy bear.

“We have got 4,000 teddy bears on the way with 2020 on them, although if I had of known I would have got a mask put on them. We ordered these in January but they were held up.

“We are trying to make it safe for everyone, including Santa, Mrs Claus, the elves and everyone coming through.

“All we’re trying to find out is it OK to open, and no-one can really tell us.

“Our phone hasn’t stopped with people ringing to ask and we had to put out a note saying we are working on it.

“I would hate to cancel and then next thing you can go ahead.

“It’s not just for ourselves, it’s for all the other places that do Santa’s grottos.”

Mr Mercer said his business has felt the consequences of the new circuit-break with some hotels cancelling their Christmas tree orders.

“I have a pile of 12-foot, 14-foot and even a 24-foot Christmas tree sitting down the back which may not be needed now,” he said.

“It’s all off and on like a yoyo.

“In our industry, we are used to ups and downs with the weather so you just get on with it. But it’s a challenge for all of us, even down to staff rotas.”

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Santa ornament sits on a bench at Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday November 23, 2020. See PA story ULSTER Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Mr Mercer is also contending with the uncertainty ahead of the Brexit transition period.

“Companies in England are wanting to send us plants now rather than in January, so we’ve plants coming in now, and seeds,” he said.

“We have also got barbeques in and even a phone call about furniture, there is going to be an increase in the furniture price because of Brexit, but we need it so we just have to pay for it.

“In this industry, we always worry around this time of year about snow on the hills, the electric or the water going off. There is always something, but this is the biggest challenge of all the years.”

PA

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