The top five news stories of 2011

30 December 2011
The top five news stories of 2011

Luxury hotel group Von Essen's collapse into administration in April this year, with debts of nearly £300m, sent shockwaves around the industry. Many were surprised, while others claimed they could see it coming. The empire built by Andrew Davis comprising 31 hotels was a darling of the media and there were few suggestions to the casual observer that anything was amiss.

But a report by Ernst & Young, which later became administrator of Von Essen Hotels, revealed that three months before the firm's demise, senior management had attempted to restrict access to accountants while they were trying to conduct an independent business review (IBN) of the company.

Since the administration, 27 hotels within the group were put on the market, piecemeal, with a total price tag of £203.25m. Despite the tough climate for regional hotels, interest from buyers has been strong. The Samling in Cumbria, the Greenway hotel and spa near Cheltenham and Bishopstrow House in Wiltshire are among the properties already sold, while greetings card entrepreneur Andrew Brownsword snapped up four - Lower Slaughter Manor, Amberley Castle, Buckland Manor and Washbourne court.

More recently, Halcyon Hotels and Resorts, headed by Nigel Chapman,bought seven properties including Woolley Grange in Bradford-on-Avon, and Fowey Hall in Cornwall.

Four more hotels connected to Davis, but owned outside the Von Essen Hotels group, met varying fates. Hotel Verta in London and Llangoed Hall in Brecon, Powys, entered administration, while Hunstrete House near Bath was put into liquidation. The Forbury in Reading is still trading.

Hotel Verta was sold earlier this month and is now being managed by the Hong Kong-based Rhombus International Hotels Group.

London riot
London riot
The August riots proved an unwelcome distraction for several hospitality operators in London, whose premises came under attack from rioters in a night of madness in early August. Hooligans ransacked venues and assaulted staff and diners in some sections of the capital. Areas like Birmingham and Manchester were also hit in copycat incidents.

Among the worst affected was the two-Michelin-starred Ledbury where up to 50 thugs barged in in the middle of service, submitting customers to a terrifying ordeal.

According to food blogger, Naked Sushi, who was dining at the restaurant, there were loud bangs before the restaurant was overrun. "The restaurant staff was yelling at us to get away from the windows. Before I knew it, the front door, a solid piece of glass, shattered and people came crashing in with hoodies, masks and random weapons," the blogger said.

"The looters were yelling at us to get down and throwing stuff all over the place. I got down and started taking off my wedding and engagement ring to hide somewhere, but unfortunately wasn't fast enough. One looter told me to take off my rings and grabbed my hand, trying to yank them off."

However, Ledbury staff came to the rescue of diners rushing up from the kitchen with rolling pins, pans and other kitchen utensils chasing away the thugs.

The Walmer Castle pub in west London was also hit by looters. JD Wetherpsoon's the Great Harry pub in Woolwich was burned to the ground, while other venues including Ottolenghi and Pizza Express' Clapham Junction branch had their windows smashed. Nando's in Brixton was also looted while elsewhere, Jamie's Italian in Birmingham had its windows smashed.

TripAdvisor, the world's online review site, has been in the headlines almost ever since its inception. But in 2011, it caused particular controversy across the hospitality industry. The year began with hotelier and TV personality Duncan Bannatyne calling for more support for businesses impacted by dishonest reviews. Bannatyne was incensed when a guest submitted a disparaging review comparing his Charlton House spa resort in Somerset to Fawlty Towers. He claims TripAdvisor did not allow him to respond to the review "with the truth".

Then there was the saga involving the use of red badges - employed by TripAdvisor to indicate when it suspects an establishment of being involved in submitting false reviews, either positive or negative. That was the fate that befell the Riverside hotel and restaurant in Evesham, although owner Deborah Sinclair strenuously denied the accusation. She claimed the effect of the red badge was so severe that she had to halve rates in order to bring occupancy levels back up. But TripAdvisor stuck to its guns and the red badge remains.

But it appears that all the negative criticism of the site may not have been in vain. Despite TripAdvisor's apparent reputation for inflexibility with hoteliers, it has gone on a charm offensive, offering a dedicated helpline for customers and hospitality operators alike to help resolve problems. An ongoing investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) into claims that hotel and restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor were misleading and untrustworthy, following a report by reputation management firm, may have helped, too.

Big Mac Calories
Big Mac Calories
March saw the Government's unveiling of its Responsibility Deals for food and drink, which aim to get private companies to take more responsibility for public health.

The voluntary pledges covering food committed signatories to:

â- Reduce salt so that people eat 1g less a day by the end of next year.
â- Remove artificial transfats by the end of 2011.

On alcohol they had to commit to:
â- Simple consistent information in the on-trade to raise awareness of unit content, with messages from health bodies on drinking guidelines.
â- 80% of products on shelf to be labelled with clear unit content by December 2013.
â- Clearer information on units, calorie counts and health risks of over-consumption in the off-trade.
â- Reduce and prevent under-age sales through Challenge 21 and Challenge 25.
â- Maintain levels of financial support for Drinkaware.
â- No alcohol adverts within 100 metres of schools.
â- Support for local initiatives such as Best Bar None and Pub Watch.

By the end of this year, hundreds of organisations had signed up to the initiative, agreeing to take at least one of the pledges.

The pub industry, particularly in London, was alive with takeover activity as consolidation in the sector continued. Greene King felt confident enough to bid £53m for Realpubs, which runs 14 pubs in central London locations. But it wasn't just London where Greene King decided to expand. It also paid £56m to take on Cloverleaf, which operates large freehold pub restaurants in the North of England and the Midlands, which is performing well in the growing carvery market. Greene King said the deal would help it to reposition itself towards food-driven outlets.

Meanwhile, Fuller's turned its attentions to Capital Pub Company, another London-based firm which expanded rapidly to 29 sites in the south of the city. Fuller's made a £54m takeover approach for the business in June this year, but it was rapidly rejected by Capital boss Clive Watson who said it "seriously undervalued" his firm. Under city rules, Fuller's was obliged to "put up or shut up" by 1 August but before the end of July, Capital was snapped up for £93m by none other than… Greene King. The deal means that the Bury St Edmunds-based brewer and pub company now operates about 250 pubs within Greater London.

For a while, it looked as if the ownership of pub and restaurant group Mitchells and Butlers would change hands, too, after billionaire currency investor Joe Lewis, who owns 23% of the company, made a takeover offer valuing the company at about £940m. After opposition from the board, he later dropped the offer.

News review 2011 - what happened when >>

By Neil Gerrard

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