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Artillery Row

Could a Minister for Hospitality save our pubs?

The support being offered to the hospitality sector is far from adequate, and many businesses are falling through the cracks

England is in the midst of a third national lockdown, with most of the hospitality sector having had to close its doors for a total of five months in the last year, as well as a string of restrictive measures such as “substantial meal” requirements and curfews which – although have enabled some venues to remain open – mean many pubs and restaurants are barely breaking even.

Several industry professionals have told me that they believe the sector is being made a scapegoat for rising infection rates, even though this claim is not scientifically supported. Yuma Hashemi, chef patron at The Drunken Butler in Clerkenwell, has insisted that “a sense of panic has been created and it’s difficult for some people to see beyond the headlines … the narrative needs to change and reflect the truth – which is that hospitality isn’t the reason behind the rising rates, and never had been”. Only then, he argues, will consumer confidence be able to recover.

I also spoke to Piers Zangana, the director of a comms and PR company representing businesses across the hospitality sector, who summarised the current sentiment of the trade:

Hospitality employs 3.2m people directly and 1.8m indirectly, and helps to generate a significant proportion of GDP. Many in the sector feel let down by the way they’ve been treated by the government and the lack of understanding of how one of the UK’s most significant industries works has been made apparent by bizarre and irrational measures taken over the last nine months or so.

On 5 January, the Treasury announced a £4.6 billion package designed to support businesses and protect jobs in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. A one-off top up grant worth up to £9,000 per property to help businesses and “provide them with certainty” through to the spring is being made available but, unfortunately, such measures are far too little and come much too late.

In addition, arbitrary regulations give the impression that the government hopes to be viewed as proactive in the fight against the virus, but instead nonsensical decisions have led to a detrimental impact on public morale and has clearly had little effect in countering the spread of Covid-19.

Sporadic announcements of one-off grants are viewed as kicking the can down the road

One such publican who shares this view is Gary Murphy, a tenant landlord of a London Greene King pub and a director of the Campaign for Pubs organisation, who told me that the industry has never experienced such an existential threat as the one it is now facing. One contrary rule he particularly opposes is the new ban on takeaway for pubs, while supermarkets are still allowed to sell alcohol for takeaway purposes. This means that, while the “big boys”, as he describes them, are undoubtedly suffering throughout the pandemic, Gary says the “little people” like him cannot survive. Left with short notice to implement a string of inconsistent rules means that Gary has been saddled with over £4000 worth of wasted stock.

The loss of stock and reduced footfall, however, pales in comparison to the issue that many publicans are now at the mercy of their landlords, with only a voluntary code of practice in place – a measure which Gary says is as useful as a chocolate teapot. Meanwhile, venue managers across the country have struggled to keep up with constantly changing rules, all the while having to deal with customers who are in a similar state of confusion; one manager of a Merseyside golf club told me that, while trying to enforce social distancing rules, customers have labelled him “draconian, Nazi and gestapo”.

However, it is not just pubs and restaurants that are suffering, but all those businesses which support and supply them, too. It appears as if those businesses which are interdependent on the hospitality trade have been largely neglected. Adam Sternberg, director of Sternberg Clarke – a company which supplies live music, dancing, and other entertainment for events – told me that, due to not being a venue, his business doesn’t qualify for the basic grant and is instead left to rely to rely on the discretionary funds of the business’s local council, which has been particularly reluctant to part with any cash. The failure of these businesses will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the wider hospitality sector, which will be “a much poorer place” if many suppliers cease to exist when we come out the other side of the pandemic.

Many of those involved in the trade have stressed the point that one of the most frustrating aspects of the restrictions is the fact that hospitality is a wide and varied sector – from hotels to B&Bs, village pubs and micro pubs to city centre bars, fine dining restaurants to cafes, nightclubs – and yet all such venues have been placed under “one-size-fits-all” blanket restrictions.

We must keep our hospitality sector afloat today if we want it to be there for us in the future

A key factor which has been cited for the spate of illogical measures applied across the industry is that there is no minister of state for the hospitality sector, despite it being the fourth biggest employer in the UK. This lack of understanding shown for an industry which is far from homogenous has prompted calls for a Minister for Hospitality, with a petition pushing for this now reaching more than 200,000 signatories. Other measures which have been proposed by industry staff include extending business rates relief and VAT cuts for another year allowing businesses to plan ahead rather than manage short-term loans. Instead, sporadic announcements of one-off grants – while welcomed – are generally viewed as kicking the can down the road.

However, the reality is that that there will be many businesses that don’t come out of this on the other side, regardless of how established they once were. The Three Hills in Cambridge is an award-winning pub which has recently been included in the influential Estrella Damm top 50 UK gastropubs list, although its managing director told me that it remains to be seen whether the pub will still be around for the award ceremony next month.

Nevertheless, some industry leaders remain positive. Jonathan Price, managing director of London-based event production company Absolute Events, told me that, “the pandemic has not killed off large sections of the industry… it is simply on ice”, and that people are desperate to get back to socialising. While this very well may be the case, one thing that is looking more and more certain is that the choice of venues on offer for our post-pandemic party is getting slimmer by the day.

In the meantime, however, Piers Zangana has imparted some useful advice to a struggling hospitality sector:

I’d naturally argue that brands need to maintain their presence and profile, even during down times, to ensure that they are front of mind when things return to some sort of normality. Brands and people can be easily forgotten so those who maintain their communication with guests in some capacity will always be more prepared to hit the ground running when the sector is allowed to reopen.

Until then, those of us who can support the sector from afar must be able to do so, whether that be continuing to buy takeaways from your local restaurant or purchasing vouchers which ensure future custom. We must keep our hospitality sector afloat today if we want it to be there for us when we are allowed to use it again.

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