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News review of year – survival of the fittest

23 December 2009 by
News review of year – survival of the fittest

The industry can look back on 2009 with relief that predictions of widespread carnage had been exaggerated. Many businesses have proved resourceful in the face of economic meltdown, but the year hasn't been without its casualties, as Daniel Thomas reports.

The year began on the worst possible note for businesses as it was officially confirmed that the UK was in recession. No sector of the hospitality industry was immune, with hotels hit by plummeting corporate travel, restaurants affected by the drop in consumer spend, pubs closing in droves and contract caterers seeing the business and industry market shrink as clients cut costs and employee numbers.

But the industry proved resilient, with the predicted "bloodbath" of failing businesses never coming to fruition as operators reacted nimbly to the adverse conditions, offering deals, adding value and focusing firmly on the bottom line.

Top stories that made the headlines in 2009

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HOTELS

The recession hit the hotel sector hard, with revenue per available room down 10-15% on average, although operators managed to keep occupancy levels up on the back of aggressive promotions (despite everyone solemnly vowing not to discount).

Corporate travel fell off a cliff, but this was partly mitigated by an increase in domestic tourism and the weaker pound helping to attract foreign tourists.

In April Starwood Hotels & Resorts initiated legal action against Hilton, accusing its rival of stealing tens of thousands of pages of documents that detailed Starwood's strategy for its successful 10-year-old W chain ahead of Hilton's launch of the Denizen brand. Hilton was forced to postpone the launch of Denizen, and the executive it poached from Starwood to head up the brand, Ross Klein, was placed on gardening leave before resigning in September.

A number of hotels fell into administration in 2009, including the Real Hotel Group, the Forbury in Reading - which was rescued by Von Essen - Niche Hotels and Owner Hotels, the buy-to-let operator.

But the recession did not dampen the appetite for new hotels, with a number of high-profile openings.

November was the month of choice for new launches, with the Lime Wood hotel opening at a cost of £30m, marking the return to the industry of Hotel du Vin co-founder Robin Hutson; AB Hotels opening the £25m Arch hotel in central London; and the Town House Collection unveiling the £25m Blytheswood Square hotel in Glasgow.

September saw the £12m opening of "luxury eco-hotel" Scarlet in Cornwall, while the end of this month will see the launch of Rockliffe Hall in County Durham, with Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson.

RESTAURANTS

In the year that the original celebrity chef, Keith Floyd, sadly passed away, serious questions were raised about the business model of many of those who have subsequently taken on the moniker.

The most high-profile of them all, Gordon Ramsay, was forced to plough millions of pounds of his own money into Gordon Ramsay Holdings to avoid administration after it was discovered that the business was losing millions of pounds on its overseas expansion plans. He was also threatened with winding-up petitions by HM Revenue & Customs after it emerged that the company owed £7.2m in taxes.

Elsewhere, Antony Worrall Thompson's business, AWT Restaurants, went into administration in February and John Burton Race declared himself bankrupt in March.

There was also a high churn rate of chefs during the year, with John Campbell, Kenny Atkinson, Eric Chavot, Andrew Turner and Ramsay's right-hand man Mark Sergeant finding pastures new.

It was a busy year for Heston Blumenthal, who returned to Little Chef to see how his menu changes had gone down in a Channel 4 show, as well as signing a deal to open a restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, marking his debut in London.

But Blumenthal's year was dominated by the food scare at the Fat Duck, which saw the three-Michelin-starred restaurant closed for more than two weeks after more than 500 customers reported feeling sick after dining there. It emerged later that contaminated shellfish had caused the outbreak.

In October, the controversial legislation outlawing the practice of topping up minimum wage with tips came into force, despite industry pleas for a delay.

A number of chain restaurants trialled displaying nutritional information on their menus, in a scheme that the Food Standards Agency hopes to roll out across the sector.

PUBS

The row over the beer tie - the exclusive purchasing obligation for pub tenants - dominated the landscape in the sector. Tenants, backed by campaign groups such as Fair Pint, and trade unions including the GMB, complained that they were paying way above market price for their beer. Pubcos such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns retorted that the beer tie provided a low-cost route to market for licensees.

The matter came to a head in the summer when MPs on the Business & Enterprise Committee concluded that the tie should be "severely restricted". The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) followed this up with a "super-complaint" to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), warning that the beer tie was protecting pubcos from competition, and that it led to higher beer prices and less choice for consumers.

However, the OFT rejected the complaint, saying it had found no evidence that supply ties were having an adverse impact on consumers, concluding that there was "generally effective competition between pubs".

Tenants refused to lie down and formed the Pub Revolution movement, which was then brought into the GMB fold. The union balloted pub members about industrial action earlier this month.

The row came against a backdrop of a continued slump in the market, with up to 50 pubs closing every week. Independent operators were the worst hit, whereas managed pub chains largely kept their heads above water, helped by discounting on food. However, chain operators were not immune, with victims of the recession including Regent Inns, Merchant Inns and the Globe Pub Company.

Binge-drinking remained high on the political agenda, with both main political parties promising to crack down on it. There was at last some recognition that rock-bottom supermarket prices were largely to blame.

CONTRACT CATERING

For contract caterers, 2009 was the year of the buzzword, with talk of "local sourcing" and "sustainability" never far from the lips of senior executives.

Compass Group unveiled a new strategy, dubbed Truly British and Truly Local, under which products must have guaranteed British provenance and be fully traceable back to the source. As part of the initiative, the company announced in October that all its fresh beef would be sourced from Britain - a month later than BaxterStorey, which had gone a step further in revealing that all meat would be purchased from British farmers.

Compass also pledged to stop serving 69 varieties of endangered species following the advice of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), while Sodexo became the first school meals provider to achieve MSC certification across multiple school contracts in England.

The recession did nothing to slow the pace of contract wins. Compass picked up a series of bumper deals, including a £500m win with Jockey Club Racecourses, a £200m deal at Shell and an estimated £100m contract at Lloyds Banking Group.

The downturn saw the demise of ethical caterer Gold & Brown and events caterer Red Snapper Events, although the management of both firms returned with different companies.

School meals remained a hot topic, with nutritional standards becoming mandatory in secondary schools in September. However, industry leaders warned that many schools - particularly those that catered in-house - were paying lip service to the standards or ignoring them completely.

Recommendations that a free school meals trial for children in the first three years of school in Scotland be extended to cover all primary pupils had a lukewarm reaction from the industry.

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