Walpole Editorial | Why hospitality urgently needs ‘a seat at the table’ by Lisa Grainger

As Robin Hutson will readily admit, politics isn’t normally his bag. If he was a Minister of anything, the ever-cheery hotelier says, “it would probably be the Minister of Fun”. Yet, in the past few months, the founder of Hotel du Vin and then The Pig, has become the lead voice in a campaign to create a permanent Minister of Hospitality in government – a campaign that garnered so many signatures that a couple of weeks ago it was debated in the House of Commons, with support from MPs across the country.

Like thousands of other British businessmen affected by the pandemic, Hutson spends most days juggling and planning – whether that’s sorting furlough payments or cancelling food orders. Yet when I phone him, he is in the middle of writing, yet again, to Boris Johnson – “because it’s not only essential, but urgent”.

To have a seat at the table is important, he explains, because unlike other leading industries such as manufacturing, retail and aviation, hospitality does not have a dedicated minister.”

The sector is shared between business and DCMS, and, he says wryly, “the guy who oversees it is far more interested in sport, if you look at his Twitter feed”. This in spite of hospitality’s contribution of £59.3 billion, or about 3 per cent of output, to the UK economy, and its employment of twice as many people as the financial services, and more than the automotive, pharmaceuticals and aerospace industries combined.

“What the government don’t seem to appreciate is that hospitality is a massive part of what Britain is known for,” he says. “It’s the soft side of our mainstream culture – our museums, our galleries, our cities – and key to why people want to live and visit in this country. It’s the glue that binds our culture together.”

The lack of expertise in senior government was key, he feels, to the “total chaos” the sector experienced during Covid. “We were told to open, then shut, then close tomorrow, then open with our hands behind our back – all while throwing out our food, cancelling 5,000 reservations and furloughing our staff. Which was all costly – and frankly exhausting.”

It also “cannot happen again,” he states firmly. “We need someone in government who understands what we do, and helps us to plan in a way that works for the sector.”

Besides, he adds, when we can congregate safely again, hospitality will be a booming sector and one that could kickstart the economy pretty quickly. “Using the industry as a central plank of our economic recovery strategy would be a win-win,” he says. “It doesn’t require infrastructure. So, if we plan properly, and with the right encouragement and promotion, we could come out of the blocks at a hundred miles an hour. The country has a lot of cash in their pockets and there is now a pent-up demand, so our contribution to rebuilding confidence post-Covid could be very fast. But we need a national plan, by someone who understands the nuances of the business. We need a champion and a defender and guardian who will stand up at every twist and turn, who understands how tourism works in seasonal villages in Cornwall – not just on Park Lane in London.”

Post-Brexit, he adds, they will also need a champion who recognises that British taxes are far higher than those in Europe. “On the Continent, sales tax on hospitality and tourism is around 10 per cent. So if we are to equal our opportunities on the global stage, we will need to lower VAT and to cut the brutal business rates, if we are to see small businesses return.”

Long-term, though, he is optimistic, he says – primarily because “we are good at what we do in this country. We have hotels and restaurants to match anything else in the world here, as well as great culture and theatre and retail, which is a pretty powerful offering.”

Because we have always been a trading nation, we have a broader offering than many countries, especially when it comes to food and wine. Our style of service is much appreciated as it is not robotic as in some other countries. Add to that our historic properties and we have a great message to get out there.”

Although the world will have to adapt, he says, particularly in the world of luxury. “In the old world, luxury often meant gold taps and marble. Now I think it’s rather about space and tranquility and a more natural environment. Which makes it even more important that we don’t lose all those exciting little country places we love so much: the little mom-and-pop operations that are such a joy. That’s really who we are fighting for.”

To sign the petition, log on to seatatthetable.org.uk
Lisa Grainger is the Deputy Editor of Times Luxx.
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