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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 18th Jun 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: We’ve achieved so much but the work must go on, the manipulation game, the right stance
Authors: Kate Nicholls, Paul Chase, Glynn Davis

We’ve achieved so much but the work must go on by Kate Nicholls

On a typically damp April day in 2018, I walked into a meeting at Downing Street. It wasn’t my first – and there have certainly been many since – but, in retrospect, it was one of the most important in the three years of UKHospitality.

That morning, a well-known casual dining chain had announced it was planning a company voluntary arrangement at the same time a major international car manufacturer revealed it planned to close one of its UK factories. Both of these decisions would cause the loss of 1,600 jobs apiece and yet all the talk was of the car plant. “Where,” I asked, “was the minister hot-footing it to the restaurant company HQ on a mission to save those jobs?” It was a lightbulb moment for government. 

It was at that exact point I knew the hospitality industry was getting cut through. Ministers at the highest level were finally realising how big the sector is, how many people we employ and the scale of our economic contribution. 

For many of us, spring 2018 seems like a lifetime ago, given all we have faced since. It was then that we officially “launched” UKHospitality – created from the merger of existing trade bodies: the British Hospitality Association and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. It was a significant moment. For too long, our vibrant and dynamic sector had been overlooked in policy decisions, which directly damaged jobs and value creation. 

At launch, we had clear objectives: to promote the industry as a great place to work and invest and to highlight it’s cultural and economic importance to the UK; to prevent unnecessary regulation and secure a tax and regulation system that encouraged investment and therefore job creation; and to provide advice, guidance and support on all the operational, consumer and workforce challenges our members face.

UKHospitality was born of a desire to speak authoritatively and with one voice for the whole of hospitality on these, and all matters, to government and to represent everyone – from independent single-site operators to major chains – and we have achieved this. We doubled membership in those three years and increased representation from 60% to 90% of hospitality businesses.

By bringing this multiplicity of voices together as one, we could come to the table as one of the six big business interest groups, important for an industry that, at the time, generated more than £130bn in turnover and employed in excess of three million people. 

Building credibility
When we look back over the past three years, it is tempting to focus on the pandemic but there was another major event before that, which will also shape the UK for years to come: Brexit. Being the only body speaking for the entire hospitality sector in all its facets gave us an authoritative voice and enabled us to get more deeply involved in the complex Brexit negotiations and further build our credibility. It ensured that when covid struck last year, we were recognised and sought out by ministers across different policy portfolios. Therefore, when the government quickly decided it couldn’t deal with multiple voices and only wanted contact with the major business groups and trade bodies, we were in the room.

We were among the first group to raise concerns over the potential impact on the UK of a virus emerging from Wuhan. As early as January 2020, we were engaging with the government on the issue, drawing on the knowledge of our members with international business interests to develop world-leading response and best-in-class guidance. The depth and breadth of our membership also meant we could sound the warning of the impact commercially by tracking footfall and visitor downturn through February. By March, at a breakfast with the chancellor ahead of the budget, I was raising the issue of potential support if covid was to disrupt sector businesses. 

Although I don’t think anyone could have predicted what was to come in the weeks and months that followed, the ability we had to leverage our industry and member insight and outline what was happening on the ground, demonstrated we were an authoritative source of information, insight and solutions the government needed.

Of course, over the course of the past 18 months, not everything has gone our way. However, as our membership has grown to encompass even more of the industry (we now represent businesses from all ends of the industry, from wedding venues to escape rooms, and bowling alleys to self-catering accommodation), we have succeeded in keeping hospitality and tourism front of mind and prioritised in policy making. During this time, hospitality has been referenced by the prime minister as a priority on many significant occasions and it has been an area of focus for the chancellor, too. We have successfully secured a Tourism Recovery Plan and Hospitality Recovery Strategy to address the longer-term issues for growth as we recover and rebuild, something that would have been inconceivable pre-UKHospitality when we were speaking with many voices and not one.

Reset moment
When we do emerge from covid there is still plenty of work to do. This is a reset moment for the sector and we need to build on the goodwill and new-found appreciation people have of hospitality, their local venues and the community bonds the sector forges. We need to capitalise on the gains we have made with key figures such as the mayor of London who has publicly recognised the critical role hospitality plays in a thriving capital. 

This strong platform we have built will be used to amplify our voice when it comes to the critical issues. Currently, these include root-and-branch reform of business rates, which so unfairly penalises our sector; a long hard look at the rent issue; and to permanently secure a lower rate of VAT. At the same time, we will show how hospitality can be part of the country’s efforts to build back better, in helping deliver government objectives such as levelling up, job creation, growth and sustainability. We need to dial up positive messaging around the wide range of quality jobs available in the sector, the career pathways, the training and support offered by employers. This includes reviving a campaign tackling misplaced perceptions among the public, which was promised as part of the Tourism & Hospitality Sector Deal signed off by government pre-covid.

But that is all to come. As it is, we remain in crisis mode and UKHospitality’s main mission now is to keep reminding the government hospitality can be part of the solution to building back better. To ensure those at the very top of government fully understand the scale of our challenges, what we need in terms of support and how we can be a key player in ensuring their agenda on jobs, growth and investment across the UK succeeds. That job is far from done.
Kate Nicholls is chief executive of UKHospitality. This article first appeared in Propel Premium

The manipulation game by Paul Chase

Between June and August last year, I wrote a series of three articles for Propel: The Numbers Game, The Risk Game and The Politics Game. I was attempting to lay bare the underlying dynamics of the policy response to the covid pandemic, but I have since felt that something was missing from my understanding. While I have always understood the extent of institutional capture by an ideological public health establishment, I failed to fully appreciate the extent of professional, psychological expertise used to keep the population compliant with covid restrictions. The climate of fear that now exists is no accident, it is a deliberate strategy.

Psychology professor Susan Michie summed up the nature of “public health” perfectly when she commented recently it is “intrinsically ideological, choosing a collective population approach over emphasis on individual freedom, individual rights”. Well, quite so. And professor Michie has been front and centre in delivering the fear factor needed to persuade people to trade their liberties for state protection. So, who is she, and what does she do? Professor Michie is a lifelong communist. She was previously a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it split, and she joined the new faction, the Communist Party of Britain, of which she is still a member. She is also a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and heads up a sub-group called the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B). 

In that latter capacity, she helped frame a document issued in March 2020 by SAGE, called “Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures”. It concluded we were not yet frightened enough. It read: “A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened”. So, we needed to be scared a bit more. It recommended: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” And we’ve all seen how this worked. The problem for the government is how to unwind all that fear when and if they do decide to get rid of covid restrictions and open up the economy and society. As the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift put it: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into.”

But will the government want to get rid of covid restrictions and fully reopen society? Not if professor Michie can help it. She told Channel 5 News: “Vaccines are really important to pandemic control, but they are only a part; an important thing is people’s behaviour. That is the behaviour of social distancing, of when you’re indoors making sure there is good ventilation and hand and surface hygiene. We’ll need to keep these things going long term and that will not just be for covid but to reduce other diseases at a time when the NHS is under pressure.” When the presenter asked her what she meant by long term, she replied: “I think forever, to some extent.” 

As for things like mask-wearing and social distancing, she went on to say: “I think there’s lots of different behaviours we’ve changed in our lives. We now routinely wear seat belts; we didn’t use to. We now regularly pick up dog poo in the park; we didn’t use to. 

“And I think we can just begin to adopt routines. When we go out of the house, we check to see we’ve got our phone, our keys, we’ve got tissues, we’ve got a face mask in case we need it.” But professor Michie wants us, and the government, to go much further: “We also need to change the way we plan our cities, our transport, our lifestyles. Instead of going back to huge, long commutes, have more local working hubs where people don’t have to travel so much – good not only for health, but the environment.”

I don’t find it remotely surprising that a communist wants to curtail individual liberty in the name of the collective. But what I do find extraordinary is that she has, since 2009, been a member of SAGE and therefore an official adviser to government, including the current Conservative government led by a supposed libertarian. And, more generally, our public health establishment is comprised of people with a similar collectivist outlook, even if they aren’t avowedly communists many of them are Sunday school prohibitionists, which is arguably just as bad.

I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist. No one can seriously argue that inept governments are clever enough to have planned all this to create a more conformist society. But a crisis such as the pandemic provides opportunities for all sorts of people with long-standing agendas to advance their cause of choice. Professor Michie is just a particularly egregious example of this.

So, Freedom Day has been delayed from 21 June to 19 July. By that date, the “third wave” that public health believes is already under way will have increased the number of people infected with covid, the number hospitalised is also predicted to rise. Will the government then abolish all remaining restrictions? I’m not optimistic about the future direction of policy, but I bet professor Michie is.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

The right stance by Glynn Davis

Visiting St John restaurant in the Clerkenwell area of London for the first time in about 15 years was an enjoyable experience, partly because of the familiarity I felt even though I can hardly call myself a regular.

From my recollection, very little seemed to have changed over the intervening years apart from the fact we were eating in the bar area because of the need to space tables further apart. The decor looked the same, the menu still included some of the same dishes (notably the signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad), the egalitarian style of service was unaltered, and the wine list remained resolutely French.

There is still no pandering to the whims of vegans and vegetarians with its menu despite myriad other restaurants now recognising the dietary trends and adjusting their proposition to appeal to this growing group of people. You see more greens on a snooker table than on the St John printed A4 sheet of options (same format as on my first visit). Roast tomatoes, goats’ curd and mint was the sole concession to non-meat eaters. 

The wine list also sticks to its original format – with the options being French or French. It eschews incorporating any English wines despite their dramatic improvement since St John opened its doors in 1994 and the fact it continues to so beautifully champion British ingredients and support UK producers. When I enquired why the list had remained so Gallic, the waiter simply stated the restaurant opened with this preference and nobody has found a reason to make any change.

From my observations, I concluded St John has a characteristic that I do admire – it is uncompromising. It can so often be seen as a negative because of the connotations of being unbending and an unwillingness to accommodate and make concessions to others. But then the upside is that taking such a stance can show commitment to a cause. For a business, it might mean life is very tough initially but success can, ultimately, be achieved because a hard-fought proposition invariably proves to be well differentiated in the market.

Businesses can clearly succeed or fail through taking an uncompromising stance. A few years back in the craft beer epicentre of Bermondsey in south London could be found one of my favourite bars, The Bottle Shop. It stood out because of its founder’s uncompromising policy on beer selection. Unless it was a limited edition brew or an ultra-rare import, he saw little appeal in stocking it. This made it a great place for the modest number of aficionados such as myself but for the more mainstream drinkers it simply made it an expensive place to visit with a beer list that was difficult to navigate. Needless to say the business model was flawed and it failed. 

For foodservice businesses in the current (seemingly now frustratingly never-ending) climate, it must be so tempting to change the model and operate with more flexibility than in the past because this is what has been so absolutely necessary over the past year or so in order to ensure survival. But care has to be taken now that dining rooms are back open.

St John had been offering takeaway and home delivery but there seemed to be some pleasure that it was now being wound down somewhat because it was seen to be impacting the dining room experience. As if to prove the point, my dessert of baked-to-order madeleines was accidentally given to a take-away customer. Its uncompromising stance that has seen it remain a success for so many years means it is unwilling to accept this scenario.

As customers we want some reassurances as we come out of covid-19. We desire a return to normality whereby we can reacquaint ourselves with the things that we’ve been most comfortable with in the past. Those businesses that have some of the uncompromising gene might well find they are giving returning customers exactly what they are looking for.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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