The BHA Hospitality and Tourism Summit is told that easing red tape and reducing VAT are key to helping the industry. Elizabeth Mistry reports
Joined-up thinking on red tape and reducing VAT are key to ensuring the UK hospitality sector boosts its competitiveness, delegates at the British Hospitality Association (BHA) summit were told.
More than 500 BHA members together with senior industry figures from airlines, destination management organisations, major hotel groups and branded restaurants met in London earlier this month at the first Hospitality and Tourism Summit.
BHA chief executive Ufi Ibrahim used her opening speech to issue a call for "collective action" and reiterated that engagement must be the cornerstone of industry's partnership with the coalition Government.
The conference, aimed at rallying the sector prior to the Olympics under the theme "Ready, Set, Go", was clearly meant to send a signal to the Government to up its game.
Audience members and speakers, who included Tourism Minister John Penrose, were left in no doubt that the newly reorganised BHA was planning to take a central role in pushing inbound tourism higher up the Government's agenda.
In his keynote speech, Penrose said that after two years in the role he felt the job was "part done".
"You are a bigger player than perhaps you have been given credit for in the past," he added. "The industry has been undervalued in the past. That is wrong. It is up to me to make sure that Whitehall helps you where it can."
And while Penrose appeared to welcome a stronger partnership with the sector, he also made it clear that the Government expects industry to do the lion's share of the work, including shouldering most of any costs involved.
"This has to be something where the Government is a support act but you are the main event," he said. "There is only a limited amount a government can do. We all know there is no money. Where we can help we will."
He said the Government had made an effort to cut red tape but ignored the thorny issue of VAT, leaving many pondering Prime Minister David Cameron's insistence when he came to office that he wanted to see the UK in the top five tourist destinations in the world.
Asked if he would say when the Government might be prepared to make a gesture towards reducing the current rate of VAT or if he would commit to a timeline to phase in a simplification of the current visa requirements for BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China in particular), Penrose said: "We are aware of the concerns of many in the tourism industry in relation to VAT. Tax is a matter for the Treasury and our financial position means we must give priority to maintaining our fiscal base.
"Improving the pre-entry visa experience is something we are looking at and we are working with the Home Office to look at what more can be done. However, it is important to strike the right balance between maintaining the most secure and effective border controls in the world, and ensuring the visa system does not inhibit the UK's ability to continue to attract those businesses, migrants and visitors who most benefit the UK."
Angela Brav, InterContinental Hotels Group chief executive, Europe, said that the 70 million annual Chinese outbound tourists were much more likely to visit France than the UK because of the relative ease of obtaining visas.
comments from the floor
"It brought together a fragmented industry; now we need to use that voice to remind the Government and the wider public how large and important we are."
Adam Fox-Edwards, proprietor, the Arundell Arms hotel, Devon
"I came away proud to be involved in the hospitality industry. I was heartened to hear that one of the key messages was to act collectively rather than in silos. Another key message I took away was that the finance and service industries could not survive without tourism and hospitality underpinning them."
Shara Ross, general manager, Hotel Felix, Cambridge
"A bold initiative, with consistent messages for industry to take to Government, especially around the reduction of red tape. Good to see an event run for the benefit of the industry rather than the organisers."
Robin Rowland, CEO, Yo Sushi
The summit: winners and losers
The BHA aims to galvanise the sector to raise the number of UK holiday-makers who choose to stay in Britain for four nights or more to a level matching the number who currently choose to holiday abroad - about 29%.
It said that would create an extra 4.5 million domestic journeys a year, and generate an additional £750m, creating up to 11,000 new jobs. To achieve this will require input from all levels, especially across the embattled regions whose main priority may not be whether Chinese visitors can get visas.
There were a few grumbles about the lack of small and medium-sized enterprises representation on panels - last-minute hitches meant some speakers were unable to attend and in spite of the presence of several worthy replacements among delegates, the independent sector was woefully under-represented on the podium.
And aside from the presence of British Airways' head of environment, Jonathan Counsell, no mention was made of the business case for responsible tourism or sustainability in the industry.
Dr Rebecca Hawkins, of the Responsible Hospitality Partnership and co-author of the forthcoming book, Green and Travelism : Letters from Leaders, said: "It was a shame the sustainability agenda was a little light. The BHA should be working to ensure that is not overlooked."