For as long as I’ve been a journalist covering leisure and hospitality (31 years if you must know), the industry has fought, mostly in vain, for recognition in the corridors of power of its importance to the UK economy.
While rival industries like aerospace, car manufacturing and financial services seemed to have no problem catching the ear of government (mostly coming under the wing of the big beast departments of Business and the Treasury), hospitality struggled to attract attention, being made the responsibility of the backwater that is DCMS. It didn’t make it into the name of the department – even when it was expanded to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.
That is probably harsh on some of the perfectly capable people who work in the department, but the truth is that, in the world of politics, an appointment to DCMS is regarded as a temporary staging post to a more influential and interesting department like Business or the Foreign Office – even (or especially) for the Secretary of State.
Part of the problem back in the day was the splintered nature of the lobbying carried out by the industry. The myriad trade and professional bodies could never quite agree on a united approach to asking for government support on many key issues. To be fair, government, for its part, did at least try to encourage some of the main bodies to join forces to create a single point of contact for ministers and civil servants to deal with.
Thankfully, the situation has improved following the merger in 2018 of the British Hospitality Association and the Association of Licenced Multiple Retailers to create UK Hospitality and in Kate Nicholls, the UK H chief executive, the industry has found a talented, tireless and above all effective advocate.
Going back to the bad old days, the only time I can recall any proper acknowledgment of the industry’s importance was in the aftermath of 9/11 and possibly the 2008 financial meltdown, when a limited amount of government funding for tourism marketing was made available. In truth, we are talking small amounts of money – the odd million or two to fund campaigns aimed at attracting overseas tourists so it was small beer.
What a difference a pandemic makes. The government in general, and chancellor Rishi Sunak in particular, have fallen over themselves to support the industry in its hour of need, although since it was the government’s decision to close the industry down in the first place that brought it to its knees, it seems only fair for ministers to come up with ways of resolving the problems.
By the same token, the newly high-profile hospitality sector has become a frequent visitor to our TV screens, radio airwaves and national newspapers, with disgruntled, disenchanted or otherwise distresses operators lamenting the devastating impact of the coronavirus on their businesses. And where once Tim Martin of Wetherspoons was one of the very few sector operators who’d appear on programmes like Newsnight, in the past 24 hours alone I’ve switched on the TV to find Hugh Osmond, Luke Johnson and Peter Borg-Neal putting the hospitality industry’s case on, respectively, BBC Breakfast, Newsnight and Question Time. Even a year ago such exposure for leading hospitality figures would have been unthinkable.
The only pity is that it’s taken the closure of hundreds of pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels and hundreds of thousands of job losses to grab the attention of the political and media worlds and put the hospitality industry in the spotlight it has previously lacked.
As the coronavirus crisis has continued, I’ve spoken to quite a number of hospitality industry figures I had not dealt with before. Two stand out: Franck Arnold, the new managing director of the Savoy Hotel, and Jens Hofma, the chief executive of Pizza Hut Restaurants, the UK dine-in business owned by its management and backed by Pricoa Capital.
What struck me about the two men was how straightforward they were to deal with. When I asked Arnold how many job cuts the 5-star hotel on the Strand had made, he immediately replied that 300 had been laid off – mainly in F&B and banqueting - and 200 retained, although he admitted that forward bookings ahead of the reopening of the hotel’s bedrooms on October 1 were so poor he could have got by with only 100.
No avoiding the tough questions there!
Hofma, who was outlining the detail of his company’s proposed CVA to me, was just as easy to deal with: straight questions received straight answers. No skirting round the issue or trying to avoid answering the question. I was particularly struck by his answer to my question about the ethics of using a CVA to shed the poorest sites and get landlords to agree to take a haircut on rents.
The Pizza Hut boss said that in this kind of crisis it was important for business leaders to demonstrate a “moral compass” and do the right thing. “It requires you not only to save your business but to show solidarity with suppliers, landlords, with your employees and with the taxman even,” he said. “It’s a careful balancing act between on the one hand making sure we’ve got a viable business for the future and on the other hand not inflicting more pain on those around us than is absolutely necessary.” Powerful stuff.
Both men, as it happens, are from the Continent - Arnold is French and Hofma is Dutch – and both are 53. Neither of which is remotely relevant, I’m sure, but if everyone I spoke to was as easy and pleasant to deal with, it would make my job a hell of a lot easier.
As I write this column, I am keeping half an eye on the football on TV. Here’s a question for you. Which is more ludicrous? The dishing out of penalties for hand ball like confetti under the VAR regime or the imposition of a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants? I’m still scratching my head on both.
How does getting everyone to spill out of pubs at the same time help control coronavirus? Surely it does the opposite. Plus it’s plain stupid to force restaurants to start evening service at 5pm or even earlier to ensure customers are finished and gone by 10pm. It’s even more stupid to force hotel guests to rush to finish their dinner so they can be back in their rooms by 10pm. There is no benefit to the fight against covid, yet it makes life that little bit more difficult, operationally and financially, for hard-working operators.
Roy Hodgson, the Crystal Palace manager, declared that the handball rules were killing the game. If Boris Johnson is not careful his increasingly scattergun approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic could end up killing hospitality.
Dominic Walsh: What’s stupider, the 10pm curfew or VAR?
For as long as I’ve been a journalist covering leisure and hospitality (31 years if you must know), the industry has fought, mostly in vain, for recognition in the corridors of power of its importance to the UK economy. While rival industries like aerospace, car manufacturing and financial services seemed to have no problem catching the ear of government (mostly coming under the wing of the big beast departments of Business and the Treasury), hospitality struggled to attract attention, being made the responsibility of the backwater that is DCMS. It didn’t make it into the name of the department – even when it was expanded to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.