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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 24th Sep 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Hospitality now has a seat at the top table but there’s much more to do, the age of uncertainty, Indian restaurants spicing up the market once again
Authors: Steve Richards, Paul Chase, Glynn Davis

Hospitality now has a seat at the top table but there’s much more to do by Steve Richards

It’s worth reflecting on the fact UKHospitality (UKH) as a trade body is relatively new. It was formed barely 18 months before the pandemic, with a merger of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers and the British Hospitality Association to create “one big voice” for the sector, when talking to government and officials about the strategic issues we face.

To say a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then would be the ultimate understatement; no sooner had Kate Nicholls been appointed as chief executive, the teams integrated and the new office opened, we as an industry were facing into the ramifications of Brexit and then of course, covid.

I think the words “just in time” resonate, and when the crisis did hit we fortunately did have a body able to inform, educate and influence government at the highest level.

We also had a very large, well-resourced and knowledgeable platform that enabled Kate and her team to take a leadership role on behalf of our sector. Hopefully, we can all appreciate the high profile the lobbying and media campaigns generated for our businesses.

Clearly, while we didn’t by any stretch get all we wanted and indeed all we needed, which was deeply frustrating, I think it fair to say we fared much better than other sectors who don’t talk with one voice; such as perhaps the airline industry or car industry.

What is for sure, is the government does now understand the scale, complexity and size of the sector, plus its importance for local communities, to first-time workers, for investment in towns and cities and, to be blunt, its very significant tax contribution. 

There cannot be a serving MP who doesn’t know now that hospitality and domestic tourism contributed £40bn of tax pre-pandemic. Nor the fact that in revenue terms we generated £130bn, which is more that the car, aviation and pharmacy industries combined. Clearly, the government needs us to recover and recover fast if it’s serious about balancing the books.

The crisis really represents the best of times and worst of times. For UKH, the demands on the team, the sky-high expectations of members, the unrelenting briefing, lobbying and member communications have been brutal.

However, at the same time we have also seen an organisation grow, its leadership step up to the plate, and its team-ship come through massively. Today we do have a trade body fit for purpose and one with huge momentum. Membership in the past six months alone has grown by 80 individual companies (to 742), and we now have 90% to 95% coverage in our core sectors; hotels, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, tourist attractions, holiday parks, fast food and contract catering.

These companies combined operate more than 100,000 outlets or locations between them, and employ just under three million people.

We have more than 20 active membership groups covering property, people, tax, rent, tourism to name a few, bringing experts in from companies to drill down into complex matters. We have more than 100 active individuals (mainly company chief executives and chairman) sitting on our council, board and various sector working groups helping steer our direction of travel and priorities.

As an indication of the strength and breadth of the body, we have 24 affiliate smaller lobbying and trade groups we work with or represent. And when the top echelons of government call a meeting with business, we are now there at the table in Downing Street alongside the manufacturing, retail, energy and financial services sectors.

So does all this matter? Well, yes, of course; having a strong trade body is crucial for any sector, particularly at a time of extreme government intervention and also as we look ahead to deal with the very challenging aftermath of covid.

In the coming weeks and months, more than ever we will need one voice and to campaign together, and acknowledge there is a huge amount of work to do collectively to deliver the change that tourism and hospitality needs. As Kate said earlier this week, we must and will fortify the position we have built with government through the pandemic. 

We are vital to the recovery. No other industry can invest in communities, create jobs, build back and help level up at pace, like we can. Moreover, no industry can return faster to contributing to the public purse to anything like pre-covid levels.

The government acknowledges this, too. As Paul Scully, the minister for London, and for small business, consumers and labour markets, told the UKH conference earlier this week, a successful recovery of the economy will be underpinned by a successful recovery for hospitality.

In order to play our part, we need the right conditions to deliver that recovery and growth. It means a fairer tax playing field and the government could go a long way to recognising this issue with a permanent lower rate of VAT plus genuine and long-overdue business rates reform.

The VAT message is critical. We are industry in recovery – in addition to the lost revenue figures and closure rates, we now broadly employ close to one million less people than before 2020. The prospect of a swingeing increase in VAT (from 5% to 12.5% then to 20%, longer term) is a huge concern and will do deep damage.

We are asking the government to help us to help it. We need support as we make the case for the UK to align itself with our tourist competitors such as Ireland where VAT on hospitality is 9%, and in France where VAT on hospitality food is 5.5%.

We understand the need of government to balance the books and we can be an engine for this recovery, driving growth, investment and new jobs in communities around the country. This is our message and now more than ever we all need to get behind UKH and campaign relentlessly for this fairer deal.

On a final note, let me say thank you to our member companies for your support thus far and thank you to those who get directly involved in the work of the organisation. And of course, a huge thank you to the UKH team for the tireless and relentless work of the past 20 months. 
Steve Richards is chief executive of Parkdean Resorts and chairman of UKHospitality

The age of uncertainty by Paul Chase

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” is variously attributed, among others, to foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger and to Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22”. So, the UK government announced Plan A was to learn to live with covid and not reintroduce any of the restrictions on our liberties that were so recently lifted. However, if covid infections threatened to overwhelm the NHS this winter, then Plan B might kick-in and this would involve the reintroduction of mask-wearing, social distancing and the dreaded “covid passports”. Many people have since assumed the real plan was Plan B. 

This paranoia was reinforced by the announcement the Scottish government and the Welsh Assembly government would introduce covid passports for nightclubs and similar venues in any event. Well, they have to go further than Westminster, just to prove how different and independent they really are, don’t they? Campaigners, and some of our finest legal minds, waited with bated breath for the legal definition of “nightclub”. This was announced last week in the Scottish parliament, and the definition was comprised of four elements, all of which would have to be present if your venue is to be classified as a nightclub, and thereby oblige you to require proof of covid vaccination to let someone in.

These are the four elements of the definition of a nightclub premises:
1. Must be open between midnight and 5am.
2. Serves alcohol after midnight.
3. Provides live or recorded music for dancing, and
4. Has an assigned space – which is actually in use – where dancing is permitted.

So, two things occur to me. Firstly, a lot of premises could be caught by this definition, which are not by any stretch of the imagination “nightclubs”. I’ve visited social clubs that are open after midnight, sell alcohol and provide a DJ or a live band and a dedicated dancefloor on a Saturday night. Average age of those attending when I visited was about 70. Not exactly a super-spreader rave event.

Secondly, the only difference between a nightclub, as defined above, and a busy, city centre bar is the absence of a dedicated dancefloor in a bar, because customers dance wherever they are standing. If I was running a nightclub and I wanted to escape the covid passport requirement, I would be tempted to remove the dancefloor and encourage dancing everywhere.

We shall of course have to wait for regulations and guidance from the Scottish government on this, but it seems to me this is simply unenforceable.

The fear felt by many is covid passports are a form of digital ID by the back door. I recall when Tony Blair attempted to introduce them by the front door with The Identity Cards Act 2006 that was repealed in 2011. It seems to me while campaigners may succeed for now in resisting covid passports in England, a digital ID card system is probably inevitable, irrespective of what happens with covid. 

Why might this be inevitable? Firstly, social and economic change is driven by technological innovation. Once the means to do something exists, momentum is created to make it happen. Continental European countries have required citizens to carry national ID cards for decades. It may seem “un-British” to many, but it’s coming, and it is attractive to governments for many different reasons. As Lord Smith, chief executive of the Tory Clubs Association presciently observed, covid has led to an acceleration of the inevitable. We no longer put a tax disc on the windscreen of our cars and by 2024 the DVLA will stop issuing plastic driving licences – records will be digitally stored and available on an app on your smart phone. Our passports are read by machines when we enter other countries or return to our own, and perhaps soon they will become digitally stored so that an actual document isn’t needed. The government wants to introduce voter ID to prevent voter fraud and perhaps also to establish whether someone has a right to be here. And the delivery of many public services, including access to the NHS, may in future be contingent on proving your citizenship by way of an ID.

The NHS app, which is used to identify our vaccination status, has had 16 million downloads in England alone – making it the most downloaded app in the country. As an aside, this has led to an additional 265,000 people registering for organ donations. Numerous businesses are already asking for covid certification as a condition of entry to large-scale events, and I suspect use by the private sector will increase even without government enforcement.

Some people fear this could lead to a Chinese-style social credit system and a much more controlled society. They may be right, but I suspect the public will be receptive to the idea that it is preferable to have one app, where all this information can be accessed, rather than a plethora of apps for individual pieces of information. In the age of uncertainty people want the state to make them feel safe, and covid paranoia has indeed accelerated this trend. 
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

Indian restaurants spicing up the market once again by Glynn Davis

In the early-1990s dining in an Indian restaurant in the UK on a midweek lunchtime was deemed to be rather odd, but this is what my work colleagues and I did on a monthly basis. It enabled us to escape the office, annoy the non-curry club members with our pungent smells when we returned, and to also experience the cooking of Cyrus Todiwala. 

He had come to the UK and pitched up in a restaurant called Namasté in Alie Street in east London just near my office and was producing Indian cooking that moved beyond the bog-standard dishes we’d all become accustomed to in restaurants up and down the country. These identikit venues with Taj Mahal-shaped windows largely fed a raucous post-pub clientele and did little business during the daytime.

Todiwala was going to help change this ill-informed, one-dimensional view of Indian cuisine and it began with his move on to much bigger things, initially setting up his own restaurant Cafe Spice Namasté nearby in Prescott Street. Now armed with an OBE he is about to close this 25-year veteran establishment and move into a new site in Docklands, which coincides with a period of arguably unprecedented activity and increasingly deep respect for food from India and the region.

There is no doubt many Indian restaurants have had a tough time over recent decades as younger diners have been brought up on a much broader diet of exciting cuisines including Thai, Vietnamese and Mexican. It’s been sad that many Indian restaurants have failed to adapt and their clientele has simply aged with them.

Recalling these hard times Vivek Singh, another pioneer like Todiwala whose Cinnamon Club restaurant celebrates 25 years this year, says it was a battle to remove poppadoms and chutneys from the menu and it was almost deemed sacrilegious to not have the likes of rogan josh listed.

Much has clearly changed in the UK’s food landscape and the hard fought battles of Todiwala, Singh and others have ultimately benefited the whole industry. And there is much more to come because at this incredibly tough time for the hospitality industry I doubt there is a more buoyant category than Indian cuisine right now.

In the space of a few months we’ve seen the announcement of Gunpowder opening its third site, which will bring its incredibly spiced dishes to a broader audience and prove the UK has upped its tolerance to spice. This has been helped by the wizards at JKS, which took the cuisine up a notch with Trishna, Gymkhana and Brigadiers, whose dishes did not hold back on punchy flavours. We can expect no less from its newly opened venue BiBi. In addition, widely respected Sanjay Anand, of the famed Madhu’s in Southall, has recently opened an outpost in the Dilly hotel in London’s Piccadilly and Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar is in the process of opening five new restaurants, including one at London's Heathrow airport.

Although much of this activity is skewed to London it is not exclusively so because the one place I’m most excited about visiting is Opheem in Birmingham where chef Akhtar Islam is really pushing the boundaries. When explaining his thinking he suggests many of the people who came to the UK from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh dreamt of returning home but that dream for lots of families is now dying: “They’re British, they just don’t realise it, and they cling on to the food and culture of yesterday for familiarity and comfort. The food we cook at Opheem is definitely not that.”

Another expanding business outside the capital is Bundobust with outlets in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. It has cleverly mixed craft beer with Indian street food and proved incredibly attractive to a young audience who wouldn’t bother going into the nearest Tesco for a chicken tikka masala but will cross the Pennines for Bundobust’s Vada Pav.

This vitality in the category hopefully provides inspiration to the rest of the sector as it gets back on its feet. It also indicates just how far Indian food, and the nation’s tastes, have progressed since my early days receiving strange looks for merely eating lunch in Namasté. I had a Dishoom bacon naan from a meal kit for my breakfast recently and my children enthusiastically tucked in too. Progress indeed.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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