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INTERVIEW – UKHospitality

With Kate Nicholls now head of the newly formed trade association UKHospitality. LEWIS CATCHPOLE sat down with her to find out how the new look body will affect UK hoteliers

Can you start by talking me through your hospitality career and your work at ALMR?

I started at the House of Commons doing a lot around food safety, food hygiene and food labelling back in the early 1990s and some of the things I was writing were reports about the legislation in food colourings and additives in food and I had a lot of food companies and hospitality companies and brewers coming over to lobby me.

I was approached by Whitbread to join them and out of politics I moved into hospitality in the strategic affairs department in Whitbread, advising the board on a range of European legislation and UK government relations. So I combined my two passions of hospitality and politics and have been doing that ever since. For the last 20 years I have worked in that sector advising companies and trade associations on how to get the message across to government from hospitality companies of all sizes and shapes, and having been at whitbread I then moved into public affairs agency and some of my clients were licensed retail pubs and hotels – one of them was the ALMR, and I started working with them 16 years ago.

What have been some of your main accomplishments while at ALMR?

While working at the ALMR we have had success in getting the government to think again on business rates and make some changes to how transitional relief they were providing to hospitality business. We had more success in Scotland than in England and Wales. Over the last two budgets in 2017 we managed to get much better transitional relief for supporting businesses and hospitality-specific relief, and we got the government to think again about the taxation of online businesses and how they are picked up in the business rates review.  We also secured a commitment to root-and-branch reform which is critical for hospitality business going forward. The other one I would pick out is around the National Living Wage where we have made sure that the government has kept that as being a economically driven decision rather than a political one. We have stopped the rate becoming a political football. The final one I would mention is Brexit – over the last 18 months since the referendum vote we have been meeting on a monthly basis with the government to make them aware of the impact on the sector and that has been reflected in the decisions taken around migration and specifically now around food and regulatory alignment.

So, the merger – can you tell us how it came about and what it means?

It came about following two campaigns that we were working on collaboratively with the BHA – one around the National Living Wage and another around Brexit – so probably about a year ago where the boards of the two organisations that they would work jointly to influence government thinking in those areas. The success in the joint thinking took us so much further forward. The boards then decided that this is something that should be continued and we should look at a way of formalising the collaboration and do it more widely. Then 6-9 months ago the two chairman met and the two boards met and we realised that the best way achieving that was the merger between the two organisations.  

We have strong recommendations from the working group making sure that it is a true merger of equals and a balanced representation going forward, and brings together the best of both organisations to have an even more effective voice in the future.

How quickly will this happen?

I think we would like to move very quickly, I think we have strong momentum behind the merger itself and also behind the campaign work we are doing, so we are keen to crack on with pace to make sure we don’t lose any ground with the government. I imagine that would be completed in a short space of time so to be up and running in April/May time.

How will UKHospitality be structured?

For a lot of the members there will be limited difference to how it looks and feels when they are dealing with the ALMR or BHA, other than there will be more access points for those individual businesses to have their views heard. There will be a strong mechanism to ensure that there is real grassroot SME engagement as that is what gives us the power when we talk to politicians and government.

We will have an executive board that looks after the association as a business and makes sure that the strategy is right and the finances are right, and we will have a broadly based advisory council with representative at each of the sections that the organisation looks after to make sure we are debating policy decisions. Underneath that you will find the engagement with SME and sector-specific groups for hotels, pubs, contract catering and so on, making sure that all those commercial issues they are facing are right at the coal face are picked up and addressed.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

So it is an amalgamation?

In terms of corporate governance it will take the best of both with a small management board and a larger advisory council looking at policy the new element will be the sector specific groupings that will meet that will provide for grassroot engagement and particularly SME engagement.

What are the main aims of UKHospitality?

I think it is a continuation what we are talking here is evolution not revolution. the aims are is to do everything we are doing now but to do more of it and to do it better – so it is not tearing out and throwing away, it is about taking it forward with a stronger voice to make sure we are taken into account by the government. The proposed core purpose of the merged body continues to be those we are pursuing separately. A strong campaign voice to lobby on those big structural and financial challenges such as Brexit, tax, business rates, we will also take a lead in delivering an integrative careers and skills strategy for the hospitality industry that is meeting the challenges that have been put forward by government for all the industry so we can secure a good sector deal. We have an international role so it is really about promoting the sector, protecting the business within it from the unnecessary costs of regulation and promoting a vibrant environment in which businesses can thrive.

Specific short term aims?

Brexit – making sure we are getting a deal for our sector that avoids a cliff-edge and provides talent that we need to continue to grow and generate the jobs that the economy as a whole is continuously growing to rely on. To reduce business rates so we can invest in our high streets. To make sure the tax regime is fair for all. To make sure the costs of employment are balanced and don’t inhibit what we are able to achieve and invest in our teams so we have the headroom in our businesses to develop new and exciting training and career and personal development teams. A 10-year plan, and finally VAT disparity.  

What can UKHospitality do better than ALMR and BHA did separately?

I think it about making sure you have a commonality of message so you are going to have a very big body that is going that comes together that will punch very much punch above its weight so it brings together over 700 businesses 65,000 individual outlets almost 2.5m employees, so when it comes to the business stage we can punch above our weight whereas previously we have had three or four bodies that talk for separate segments of hospitality, and that allows government to divide and conquer. It’s about having one voice and one message with powerful clout, as you have all of the sector coming together for the first time. It means hospitality is the third largest employer but the government gets in regularly on business councils the CBI the FSB and the Engineering Employers Federation and the BRC – we should be there as well, we should be the fifth party to that and think that is what this merger will do.

Why is now the right time?

It’s hard to think of a more turbulent time than the hospitality sector has weathered in the last year, we have faced unprecedented regulatory cost pressures that were totally unexpected and could not have been foreseen with what happened with business rates and national wage. That is then combined with Brexit and a minority government, which means we can’t be certain what is going to happen in the political environment which impacts investor and consumer confidence. It is a perfect storm that created at the present moment in time that means businesses are needing a strong and powerful voice to get he message across so their situation improves and doesn’t worsen which has galvanized us to come to gather and achieve those objectives.

Is hospitality being ignored by the government?

I don’t think it is being ignored I just think that the government doesn’t appreciate its size scale and importance. Our sector is made up 80% by SMEs – that means you don’t have that critical size and scale. If the government wants to talk to food manufacturing it goes and talks to Unilever. Because we don’t have that concentrated mass, government takes us for granted and doesn’t recognise the importance of the industry as a whole as nobody has been speaking for it as a whole. Now we can say here we are we are a £130bn turnover industry, we are 10% of UK employment, 5% of UK GDP and 1% of UK investment, and by the way we generated one in six of all new jobs last year. Suddenly they can take you seriously. I think we haven’t just been good and effective enough communicating that to government.

UFI Ibrahim, who left her position as CEO of BHA after the merger was confirmed.

How are you planning to liaise with hoteliers specifically?

We are planning to set up a separate hotels policy group and we are making sure that on out advisory council which is made up of 20 people representing each sector, there will be a strong hotels presence. Clearly the BHA represent almost all the hotel chain and has a large number of independent hoteliers, we want to make sure they are heard at the advisory council and the specific hotel group where we discuss hotel specific issues. We will make sure we are plugged in as much as hospital and any independent hoteliers that are members of localised hotel associations are members, we want to work closely together with them to tackle tourism taxes and locally where additional taxation proposed we want to provide support at even a local level.

So hoteliers don’t need to worry about being forgotten through the merger?

Absolutely not if you look at both associations you’ve got very strong hotel representation from both sides, we are a very broad church but there is that complimentary fit so there  absolutely no way that the interest of hotels and small hoteliers will be overlooked in the new organisation.

Where do you see UKHospitality in five years time?

I’d like to make sure that when we are walking into downing street because there is a business council hospitality is there with the other four business groups and are not overlooked. I would also like to make sure that we have grown and increased out coverage so we have everybody within the tent and cover all sectors of hospitality. Finally I would like to see a regulatory environment that allows businesses to grow, invest and thrive, and which doesn’t impose unnecessary cost and burdens.

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