The history of the BHA

28 June 2007
The history of the BHA

So the British Hospitality Association has been around for a century - but where and how did it begin? And what has it been up to in all that time? Linda Pettit reports

Lobbying has always been at the heart of the British Hospitality Association. Indeed, it was set up in 1907 to fight the new Liberal Government's plans to reform the Liquor Law, which threatened to abolish a third of the country's liquor licences, including those held by hotels.

Frank Bourne-Newton, editor of The Caterer, Hotelkeeper and Refreshment Contractors' Gazette (now Caterer and Hotelkeeper), joined forces with a hotel manager called Dudley James to form a national association. About 130 hoteliers supported the National Hotel-Keepers Association, with its 36 founder members. In the first of several name changes, the association then became known as the Incorporated Hotel-Keepers Association (IHKA).

Another change came in 1910 when it merged with the Incorporated Association of Hotels and Restaurants (IAHR), keeping the latter's name. President of the new IAHR was the Earl of Bessborough, chairman of Gordon Hotels, then the UK's largest hotel group. Bessborough proved fairly ineffective, however, and the association struggled for support in an industry that, back then, was rife with intense jealousy between operators.

In 1920, George Reeves-Smith (the hyphen was added by him for gravitas) emerged as a more stable force. He was appointed vice-president and chairman of the council of management, a position he held for 30 years. Reeves-Smith was a publican's son who became managing director of the Savoy Hotel Company. He put in long hours and worked hard for the association, although it was still accused by some of representing only the major hotel groups, despite splitting into divisions across the country. Many would-be members wanted it run on far more democratic lines and voted with their feet by not joining.

The war years

A new set of challenges faced the industry with the onset of the First World War. Many hotels became offices or hospitals to help the war effort, losing their profits overnight. For those that remained in business, income came in the shape of the tens of thousands of soldiers spending time at home on leave.

Food rationing also caused a headache for hoteliers, who were forced to fill out myriad forms to account for the food they used. At this time, alcoholism was becoming a growing problem among the population, leading to the introduction of strict licensing hours which were relaxed only with the implementation of the 2003 Licensing Act.

During the war years the IAHR formed a Parliamentary committee, which became the negotiating body for the industry. The association offered financial help towards the legal costs of a test case regarding the new Entertainment Tax and the caterer J Lyons & Co, which also owned the Trocadero restaurant. The company argued in the Court of Appeal that, as guests were eating, the Entertainment Tax didn't apply. The money spent fighting this battle was criticised by some members, although it proved an important test case and helped strengthen the credibility of the IAHR.

In the post-war years, the Government decided to tax luxury goods, and included hotels. Again, successful lobbying by the IAHR persuaded the Government to drop the clause. The IAHR also campaigned on behalf of members for compensation for business lost during the war years.

In 1926 the organisation became the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Great Britain. In 1933 Hugh Wontner joined the association, and remained a dominating force for the next 30 years, as well as becoming managing director of the Savoy Hotel Group in 1941 and its chairman in 1948. In 1948 the association was renamed the British Hotels and Restaurants Association (BHRA) after a merger with the Residential Hotel Association, a 30-year-old organisation that represented independent hotels. But it still had only 2,000 members and income of just £14,000.

After the Second World War the job of the BHRA was to make Government take the industry seriously and recognise tourism as one of the country's most important growth sectors. Luxury hotels were now being built in London and there was a new influx of foreign investment in hotels in the capital. The subsequent growth of catering colleges and training courses for chefs and hotel managers meant the industry was entering a new phase of professionalism.

In the 1960s a group of restaurateurs became disillusioned with the BHRA, arguing that it was concerned only with its hotel members. In 1967 they broke away to form the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain, but it lacked support from major restaurant chains and eventually reunited with the BHA in 2003.

Tough times

In the 1970s, the association ran into what was probably its most turbulent period. Trust House Forte (THF) and GrandMet were the industry's largest companies, and both wanted a greater say in association matters. Neither Sir Charles Forte or Sir Max Joseph, their respective chief executives, was happy about the continuing control and influence of Wontner.

In 1971 Lord Shawcross, former chairman of the Catering Wages Commission, was commissioned to write a report on the association's future. He saved it from bankruptcy by reconstructing the council of management, raising subscriptions and creating a new national council, with a board of management recruited from that. He also then served as its president from 1975 to 2000. By 1976, following a merger with the Caterers' Association, the now British Hotels, Restaurants and Caterers' Association (BHRCA) represented more than half of the country's hotels.

Clive Derby, who took over from the long-serving Eric Croft as chief executive, retired in 1986, and was replaced by Air Vice-Marshal Robin Lees, who set about strengthening the relationship with Government departments and working more closely with other industry bodies. He also saw the benefit of establishing some basic facts about the industry, including its size and earning power. This was the beginning of a more outward-looking association. Lees published the association's first annual report and was also involved with terrorism insurance, interest rates, live music copyright tariffs, business tax and package holiday regulations. Under Lees, the association lobbied Government on VAT harmonisation and in 1992 succeeded in getting Wages Councils abolished.

The association, which became the British Hospitality Association in 1992, argued in favour of the Hotel Buildings Allowance - recently abolished - and contested a ruling imposing VAT on staff accommodation. It also opposed a proposal that hotels should pay more for TV licences.

"When I was interviewed I was asked to recreate links with various industry associations - politicians wanted to speak to one voice," says Lees. "Also, no one knew the facts about the industry, so we had to establish some facts and figures to enable us to talk to ministers with some clout."

Lees eventually ascertained that there were 2.4 million catering workers in the UK, representing 10% of the workforce. It took time, but eventually the BHRCA managed to encourage representatives from all sides of the industry to sit round a table to discuss industry-related issues. "Many of the battles it has fought are still ongoing. Some you may win, but two years down the line it can all change. These are battles that can't be fought by individual companies, so you need some sort of association to put these views across," says Lees.

Reshaping for the future

When Lees stepped down in 1996 he was replaced by Jeremy Logie, who had spent his career with THF, Center Parcs and BAA Hotels. Logie recognised that to survive financially the association needed to be stream-lined. He also upgraded its image, developed its IT system and, crucially, improved links between the association and the new Labour Government. The BHA Council was also established, made up of the major groups. For the first time the association's income topped £1m a year.

When the Government asked the association to recommend a tourism adviser to work - partly funded by industry - at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), former THF director Roy Tutty was put forward. After Tutty, former Gardner Merchant director Bob Cotton filled the role for 15 months, then becoming the association's chief executive in 1999.

The BHA has evolved to suit the industry of today, and has been shaped along the way by everyone involved. Now, under Cotton as chief executive and Martin Couchman as deputy chief executive, it has become the industry's most powerful voice, and one that Government can no longer afford to ignore. However, many of the battles it faces now are remarkably similar to those it has fought over the last 100 years.

The changing shape of hospitality

A full history of the BHA and the industry, Hospitality: A Portrait, written by Derek Taylor and Miles Quest, has been published by the British Hospitality Association. It costs £20 and can be obtained by calling Bob Bacon at the BHA on 020 7404 7744.


  • The association started with just 130 members.
  • Edwardian waiters were paid no wages, living off their tips until the Catering Wages Act of 1948.
  • Some hall porters and doormen even paid the big hotels to work in them.
  • Dress was formal. In public, George Reeves-Smith, managing director of the Savoy Hotel Company and the association's vice-chairman for 30 years, always wore either morning or evening dress. Prime minister David Lloyd George once apologised to Reeves-Smith for wearing a suit, rather than evening dress, to dinner at the Savoy.
  • Hotels were affected by food shortages during the First World War. Meatless days were introduced on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Mansion House in London the Lord Mayor put whale on the menu.
  • Resort hotels, such as Gleneagles, shut for the winter until the early 1980s.
  • Alcoholism was an ongoing problem, particularly among workers in munitions factories during the war years. Opening hours were restricted to try to combat the problem.

… and now

  • The BHA represents more than 20,000 members.
  • All hospitality staff are subject to the national minimum wage, with the BHA involved with negotiations on its annual increase.
  • Tips are now part of a tronc system.
  • Dress in hotels has relaxed. Some hotels still insist on jacket and tie, but guests can often be found padding around in dressing gowns on their way to the spa.
  • Food is now so plentiful that hotels can choose where it is sourced - down to which farm their meat comes from.
  • Overseas tourism is now worth £15b to the UK, with 32 million people visiting this country each year.
  • Binge-drinking and obesity are modern-day concerns, fuelled by cheap alcohol and cheap, fast food, which is high in saturated fats and protein.

Leading lights over 10 decades

The early 1900s

The Earl of Bessborough - chairman of Gordon Hotels, as well as the Brighton and South Coast Railway. Helped shape the growth of resort hotels.


Sir Francis Towle - one of "the great and the good" of the industry. The association's chairman for four years, chairman of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association and founding chairman of the Hotel and Catering Institute.


Sir Bracewell Smith - former headmaster, Lord Mayor of London and MP, Smith owned the Café Royal and was chairman of Practical Press, then publisher of Caterer and Hotelkeeper. He was also chairman of the Ritz hotel until he died in 1966.


Sir Hugh Wontner - joined the BHRA in 1933 and remained involved for 30 years. As managing director, then chairman, of the Savoy Hotel Group, he set high standards of hotelkeeping and set up the Savoy Educational Trust.


Frank and Aldo Berni - brought catering to the masses with the development of the Berni Inns steakhouses in the early 1950s.


Len Lickorish - ran the British Travel and Holiday Association (now VisitBritain) for 40 years until 1986. He was responsible for establishing the Hotel Development Incentive Scheme which enabled a further 50,000 hotel rooms to be built in the UK.


Sir Maxwell Joseph - built up what became Grand Metropolitan Hotels. The company became one of the first UK conglomerates and the 10th largest company in the UK.


Lord Charles Forte - his business grew from milk bars to encompass hotels, restaurants, motorway service areas and then contract catering. It merged with Trust Houses in 1970 and in 1986 bought the Happy Eater chain. It was taken over by Granada in 1995 for £3.8b and subsequently broken up.


Sir David Michels - former chief executive of Hilton and now BHA president. One of the first hotel school graduates to become a chief executive of one of the UK's top 100 companies. Helped rescue Stakis from the brink of collapse in the early 1990s to then be taken over by Hilton, where he became chief executive.


Alan Parker - chief executive of Whitbread. Joined in 1992 from Holiday Inn. Acquired Marriott's UK business and developed Travel Inn into Britain's biggest budget hotel chain. Appointed group chief executive of Whitbread three years ago and is now refocusing on its Premier Inn and Costa coffee chains.

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