The British Hospitality Assocation – the road ahead

04 April 2010 by
The British Hospitality Assocation – the road ahead

With the announcement that Ufi Ibrahim, chief operations officer of the World Travel & Tourism Council, is to replace Bob Cotton as chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, Neil Gerrard asks six key industry figures for their thoughts on the challenges facing the new boss of one of hospitality's most important mouthpieces.

You'd be forgiven for genuinely believing that British Hospitality Association (BHA) chief executive Bob Cotton has enormous feet, given the number of times people have remarked that his departure from the role leaves "big shoes to fill".

His decision to step down immediately after the next General Election has been sensitively timed to allow his successor - Ufi Ibrahim, currently chief operations officer of the World Travel & Tourism Council - the chance to get her feet under the table right at the start of the creation of a new Government, whatever colour that may turn out to be.

But what challenges face Ibrahim and what qualities will she need to meet them? Before Ibrahim's appointment we asked some key industry figures for their thoughts on the subject. Unsurprisingly, it's the state of Britain's faltering economy that is the most pressing concern for the industry.

"As far as key challenges are concerned, the first three are economic growth, economic growth and economic growth. Until we see that start to happen, it is going to be very difficult for anybody," says Peter Lederer, Gleneagles' managing director and chairman of VisitScotland.

Philippe Rossiter, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, takes a similar view. "I don't think we are anywhere near out of the woods at the moment," he says.

"One of the factors that made survival more feasible from the industry's point of view last year was the fact that they managed to cover the costs out of their businesses."

He reveals that a number of operators have said privately that they were carrying costs that - had they been a little more focused on them in the boom times - would already have been shed from their business.

"The problem with that is you can only take those cuts once," Rossiter adds. "So I think this year and probably next will be more difficult because there is less fat to cut out of those businesses."

Inevitably that means the industry won't thank the Government for saddling it with an even heavier tax burden. But combating politicians' urge to squeeze businesses for cash in order to bring down the size of public sector debt is also going to be a key challenge.

"VAT continues to be an issue," says Michael Gray, chairman of the Master Innholders and general manager of the Hyatt Regency London - the Churchill. "Other countries seem to be dropping their VAT way down but we seem to be out on a limb. It really does make things very expensive."

But persuading the Government to make exceptions for the hospitality industry will be a big ask, according to Rossiter. "Room for manoeuvre is pretty limited," he explains. "The BHA has always done a good lobbying job on taxation but I think it will have its work cut out in the future because it won't be alone. Everyone is going to be in the same boat, and hospitality has never enjoyed a particularly full response in Whitehall."

It is a point echoed by Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, who says the industry still has a huge opportunity, thanks to the weak pound.

"We all hope that tourism will be part of the next Government's planning process and not an afterthought," he says. "The new head of the BHA has a major role to play in getting the message across to Government."

On top of taxation, financial pressure is likely to be compounded by the ever-rising cost of energy. Businesses will be forced to budget in an increasingly volatile market, even without considering the debate over sustainability. And the BHA will need to be seen to make a stand for the members to try and keep costs as low and as predictable as possible.

Meanwhile, there is a potential threat to the way in which new blood for the sector is trained. Gray is concerned that Tory mutterings about dumping the recently-introduced Diploma in Hospitality qualification for 14-19-year-olds may transform into policy if they win the election.

"We really have to get behind this and I hope that the BHA as well as People 1st can keep it very much in people's headlights," he says.

"I shudder when I hear politicking - whether the Tories are not going to support it because Labour supports it. Believe me, this diploma is the best thing that has happened to our industry for a long long time and we have just got to keep it alive."

But where there are dangers, there are also significant opportunities, not least the 2012 Olympics. Even here, though, hard work is still needed. "We need to support it and we need to be well communicated with," Gray says.

"Everything we need to know needs to be discussed and debated well in advance so we are ready for it. We need to know about transport, how to get our supplies in, how to get our staff in, because roads will be closed or opened at different times during that period, and so on."


All of the challenges facing hospitality mean that the sector as a whole needs to communicate well, and agree on the message it wants to put across. But Ian El-Mokadem, the chief executive of Compass UK, whose organisation took the decision in 2008 to leave the BHA, warns that this is no mean task.

"It is very hard to come up with a common agenda that cuts across the very broadest definition of the hospitality sector. We just couldn't get that interested in some of the things that the association was starting to get interested in," he admits.

"While I was a member of the council we were trying to argue that maybe a strategy review was required, and asked whether the association should be narrower and not represent the outsourcing businesses. We just didn't think that with the investment of the membership fee we were paying that we were getting particularly good value compared with the other things that we could do."

The contract catering giant is now content to be a member of the British Services Association, headed by Mark Fox.

But El-Mokadem's point is well-recognised by others. "Doing less, better would be preferable," says Lederer. "There are about 100 things we want to see changed and we tend to be very poor at getting the message across. In my experience of Government, what they say about this industry is that if you ask 10 people their opinion, you get 15 different opinions. The BHA needs great communication with the Government, industry and the key stakeholders."

That's a view echoed by hospitality sector skills council People 1st's chief executive Brian Wisdom. "I think the key challenge is going to be developing and maintaining the unity of the hospitality industry. It's very fragmented and could lose its influence and voice," he says.

Then there is the spectre of devolution to contend with. "The new chief executive will need a very good understanding of devolved Britain," Lederer adds. "Britain is a very different place to how it was when Bob Cotton took over. And various organisations were slow to understand the nuances and the difference that a devolved UK means. So that is very important because the issues in Scotland are very different to those in England and Wales."

So what qualities will Ibrahim need as she takes on the role of chief executive at the BHA?

"She should go in to bat for the industry, but without bullying the Government," Rossiter says. "We need someone who is politically savvy but who is not prepared to be beguiled by the Westminster village, which occasionally occurs."

That's a standpoint that Lederer shares. Asked before Ibrahim's appointment what the key qualities needed for the job were, he said: "In any job like that - where you are representing an industry - you need the ability to listen and give people confidence.

"If you look at those skills, it may well be someone that is not in our industry at present. So actually a bit of fresh blood and fresh thinking, it could be argued, would be a good thing."

Meanwhile, Wisdom says he would like to see "tenacity, perseverance, diplomacy and stamina".

With some exacting standards to meet, Ibrahim will have just a couple of months to compose herself before work starts on persuading the new Government to be as hospitable to the industry as the sector is to its customers.

Ibrahim will have a major role to play in making sure the next Government will include tourism as part of its planning process, and not as an afterthought

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