After a decade at the helm of the British Hospitality Association, Bob Cotton is bidding farewell. In this retrospective he describes some of the changes that have taken place in the past 10 years - and makes a suggestion for the future.
Little did I realise, when I took up the appointment at the British Hospitality Association (BHA) in January 2000, that a year later the two biggest dramas to hit the industry for many years would erupt.
The first, the foot and mouth outbreak, inflicted £5b of damage on UK tourism. I found myself with the then tourism minister, Janet Anderson, in TV studios in New York, trying to explain to the US audience that foot and mouth was not the same as mad cow disease, that British meat was safe to eat and that Britain was not a land of vast funeral pyres of cattle.
The second drama, of course, was 9/11, which made 2001 an annus horribilis.
In 2003 SARS hit the headlines. Then in 2005 came the 7 July bombings in London. And lastly, the economic recession, which began to swirl around the industry in 2008, gathered pace in 2009 and is still with us.
The industry has survived all these events and I think I can claim that the BHA has played its own part in overcoming their impact. Certainly, in 2001 we persuaded the Government to help tourism regain the initiative with £15m of additional funding to VisitBritain (matched by an equal sum from the private sector) as well as a temporary postponement of VAT and PAYE payments.
A HIGH POINT IN GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
Looking back, that was perhaps the high point of our relations with the Government. Since then, regulation has piled upon regulation, funding has been cut back for VisitBritain, and tax breaks for new hotel construction have been abolished. It is as if Whitehall has decided that tourism is not worth taking seriously.
Noticeably, regulations and voluntary schemes are now beginning to pour not only from the Government but also from its agencies, like the Food Standards Agency. Here, caterers and restaurateurs are under pressure to introduce costly calorie-counted menus and healthy food dishes in support of the Government's anti-obesity campaign.
The fact that the Government does not appear to understand the value of tourism and wants to tie it up in red tape gave birth to our Take Tourism Seriously campaign, which the Tourism Alliance launched in 2008. Although this message more or less fell on deaf Labour ears, we can only hope that the coalition will be more receptive. We shall see.
PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE
But we - the industry and BHA in particular - have made progress. When I joined, our annual lunch was attended by just over 130 people. We had more than 1,000 at our centenary celebrations in 2007 and this year, we'll welcome over 800. If anything, this signals a growing and sustained interest in the association and all it does for the industry. Even so, we recognise that we have to get together with other associations to make our combined presence felt.
We have helped to create new alliances - the Tourism Alliances in England, and Wales and the Tourism Forum in Scotland, for example. We were a key party to the creation of the Safe and Local Supplier Approval scheme (Salsa) to help push local produce. We've worked closely with Business in Sport and Leisure and the British Beer and Pub Association - the latter in fighting the tariff increases of Phonographic Performance, a case we recently won with a £15m payback. We were instrumental in forming the Best Practice Forum.
And we campaigned successfully against the introduction of a bed tax - though I suspect this will re-emerge.
Meanwhile, the industry has developed hugely. We estimate that investment in new and refurbished hotels during my tenure in office is in the region of £30b, with more than 1,000 new hotels - in all categories - offering well over 80,000 new rooms. There are 40,000 new rooms in the pipeline.
Here, there has been a fundamental change. Major hotel companies have become hotel operators; few are now hotel owners. The development of franchising and the growth (and investment) in brands by major operators is changing the structure of the industry.
But it is not just hotels that have improved in number and quality. We have more Michelin-starred restaurants than ever before - 115 - many of them run by British-born and trained chefs who now confidently appear on television - a medium that has opened up the industry and given it a huge platform from which it can prosper.
Another sector, food and service management, or contract catering, has grown into a £4.2b industry, with one British company, Compass, acknowledged as a world leader.
And of course advances in technology have yielded enormous benefits, with state-of-the-art systems in the front and back offices. In restaurants, too, technology has led to direct, online bookings and to other developments, which transmit customer orders directly to the kitchen and prepare bills automatically.
Finally, our training schemes are producing high quality young people who match any worldwide standard. This is not to say we do not need more of them - we do. Training must continue because we need to recruit nearly one million people in the next few years to take account of leavers, retirement and expansion; skilled staff mean fewer staff. Staff turnover, however, remains a problem though employers appear to have taken the message on board: train to gain. The Hospitality Skills Academy, which I chair, is helping by identifying the best colleges and the best training schemes.
DEVOLUTION AND LOBBYING
Devolution has meant that the BHA's lobbying efforts now have to extend to both Scotland and Wales as well as to London and Brussels. The regional development agencies, with their varying degrees of interest and support in tourism, can be difficult to engage; indeed, they may not last long under the present Government. Local authorities, to which devolved powers will increasingly transfer, are even more difficult to influence.
At the same time, the EU has become ever-more powerful, driving much of our domestic legislation. More than ever before, we now spend time lobbying in Europe with our partners in Brussels - HOTREC on hotel and restaurant issues, and FERCO on contract catering issues.
And talking of lobbying, the introduction of 24-hour news and the raising of the BHA's profile puts a new burden on the association. Requests for radio and television interviews, often at very awkward hours, are now commonplace; 10 years ago they were a rarity.
What of the future? I believe the industry should have one overwhelming objective: to drive home the message to Government that tourism, hospitality and leisure is the main economic driver of many regions of the UK (even London) and needs to be nurtured if it is to reach its full potential. Other countries, from Spain and Italy to Dubai and China, have fully recognised the value of their tourism industry. Why not Britain?
In 1969, the Labour Government introduced a Development of Tourism Act, which certainly took tourism seriously. Now, despite several tourism framework reviews since 1969 (one of which I was involved with when I was tourism adviser at the DCMS in 1999) a new Development of Tourism Act, with input from the industry, is sorely needed.
Its aim would be to establish the right tourism structure in Britain. At present, there are far too many organisations involved in tourism, many competing against each other, some more competent and knowledgeable than others, but all without any coherent comprehensive strategy to take the industry into its next phase of development. In other words, we need to take tourism seriously.
Will the Government recognise the need for this? Let's hope so. Tourism and Government have muddled through for the last 10 years. Surely we can - and must - do better in the next decade?
ACHIEVEMENTS AND CHALLENGES
The BHA's top five achievements
1. Bringing the hospitality industry together (including taking in the Restaurant Association) and creating a more coherent approach to government
2. Persuading the Government to aid the hospitality industry so significantly after the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001
3. Helping to create the Tourism Alliances in England and Wales and the Tourism Forum in Scotland
4. Winning the bed tax argument
5. Winning the recent case against Phonographic Performance
The BHA's five biggest challenges
1. Persuading the Government to understand the contribution that hospitality and tourism can make to the UK economy
2. Persuading industry to invest more in training to improve standards of service
3. Ensuring that the industry is represented by one strong trade association; governments don't listen to individual companies
4. Persuading industry to take sustainability issues seriously
5. Ensuring that the Government recognises the dangers and costs of excessive regulation
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