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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Carl Weldon

02 December 2011
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Carl Weldon

After a career spanning roles in finance, analysis and strategy with some of the biggest names in the business, HOSPA President Carl Weldon has just overseen the rebranding of the UK industry's only representative body for hospitality finance, IT and revenue professionals. On the eve of HOSPACE, the annual members' conference, he tells Elizabeth Mistry why there's always room for more.

Congratulations on the new name - HOSPA, the Hospitality Professionals Association (the organisation was formerly known as BAHA - The British Association of Hospitality Accountants). But why change now? It became obvious we had to change the name - we were expanding so quickly and we had to change the rules to accommodate the increasing number of new members who weren't just finance people. I also think there may be other disciplines that want to become involved in the future - purchasing and security could be a natural fit. We wanted to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

How did you go about it? We set up a ‘name change committee' and it didn't take long to establish that the word accountant was a barrier to people joining. We knew we wanted to include the words hospitality, professional and association so we bounced around all sorts of variations.

As we were planning to revitalise our web presence simultaneously we needed to look at our online interface as well - at one stage we were looking at 13 different logos. Altogether the process took about two years - which was probably right, to allow all the various inputs and considerations of our more than 900 members.

Do you have international members? Yes - we have over 80 international members ranging from Ireland to Hong Kong and ­Singapore. Their reasons for joining are various but essentially two - one is ‘Brits abroad' wanting to keep an eye on the ‘old country', the other is the international career hospitality professionals who want to understand what is going on in the UK, and to follow UK issues and practices - general and technical.

Our overseas members particularly appreciate the revamped newsletter, the Overview, which is also available on our website. At some point we may even look at setting up international events or even establishing an overseas chapter.

How will you make the organisation more attractive to prospective members from other fields such as Revenue Management and IT? One of the main drivers of the change to HOSPA was to make the name more accessible for IT and revenue management professionals, so that they did not consider us specifically just for accountancy. We have separate committees now for all disciplines which drive content and discussion in these areas - and they are also represented on our Council.

We have restructured our website completely with a communities portal - each has its own dedicated area, but all members have access to relevant information, such as HOTSTATS. And we have developed a new section - Solutions Showcase for Hospitality IT Systems and Services.

How will this work in terms of your training and qualifications? We've ramped up training as well. In addition to the finance course - which has been running for over 20 years - we provide educational qualifications for revenue manager and IT that complement the finance course.

At HOSPACE there will be dedicated panels with senior hotel and consulting representatives and a large number of educational sessions are also IT and revenue management driven. We hope this will enable members to look at the business more holistically - one financial controller told me recently that since they joined, his revenue manager and IT people are working with finance much better.

You've driven and implemented massive change within your organisation. What was the biggest challenge and what would you do differently next time? The biggest challenge was the change of name itself - even before the branding aspect and website redevelopment - we soon discovered that hospa.com takes you to a hotel in Japan, so we are hospa.org.

Looking back I think we underestimated the amount of time and effort that these would take - luckily we were supported by seven companies who have stepped up as founding sponsors which was fantastic.

What are HOSPA's plans for the next three years? We really plan to leverage the investment we have made this year to bring the message to those who have not heard about us - and concentrating on providing the new educational courses to those that do. We're developing the website further and it will be easier to sign up for courses and other events online.

We'll also be much more visible offline - at Hotelympia we'll be at Technology with a members lounge providing master classes, as well as a special finance and IT directors' dinner and debate. Our Christmas awards are being expanded with two additional categories - IT and Revenue Manager of the Year.

How do you plan to work with other industry bodies such as the BHA? Is there a risk you might be overlapping on some issues? Of course there are a number of industry bodies - but our aim is to work with them wherever we can. For example, our Tax Committee is a joint committee with the BHA and we worked together to fight off a bed tax.

Ufi Ibrahim is on our leaders panel at HOSPACE - just as Bob Cotton was in the past. And of course we share concerns about the VAT issue. I'm glad to see Caterer's VAT campaign gaining momentum and we'll be keeping a close eye on developments.

We also have a number of strategic Partnerships with other organisations - The Considerate Hoteliers Association and HFT (Hospitality Finance and Technology Professionals, based in the US) - which bring external inputs to our membership.

How will HOSPA help members deal with some of the tricky issues facing the industry, such as compliance with S-OX (the US law on trading with blacklisted countries) which is particularly affecting the bigger operators? Compliance generally is an issue for all businesses today - not just the big ones. Sarbanes-Oxley (known as S-OX) needs competent professionals - ideally with a knowledge of US reporting requirements - as does any company dealing with PCI Compliance for Credit Card Security; are you holding any data that could damage your client for instance?

The discussion board on the new website is a great place to debate the extra requirements that S-OX, and other legislation affecting the industry, demands.

Every business should have a champion that ‘bangs the drum' internally to avoid costly mistakes - don't forget health and safety here.

With the prospect of a second recession looming, what do operators need to do in the current climate to future proof their businesses? Well every business is different of course but education and staff development are essential to maintain - even when things are tough. Understanding what is going on is crucial, so encouraging and keeping the best staff must be a priority. Most businesses will have examined their cost bases well enough by now - for hospitality the trick is to do this smarter than before and not affect the guest experience negatively. Understanding guest patterns and appropriate staffing and cost levels is one of the smartest things to do - and you need clever systems for this. Spreadsheets on their own will just not do.

The larger businesses, and smarter, businesses adapt to the latest issues and trends - and social media is a good example of this. Linking social media with clever revenue management and marketing is essential for driving sales today - and every business needs to drive sales. Guest patterns and business mix can change quickly with new competition arriving and forecasts changing rapidly. And of course there's the telephone debate - only today it is about Wi-Fi…

FROM BAHA TO HOSPA: THE STORY CONTINUES

From modest beginnings 41 years ago, HOSPA is now reaching out to the industry's ‘back office' at a time when competition - and margins - are increasingly tight.

Weldon, who is proud of being born into the industry (at the Red Lion pub in Colchester where his parents worked), has overseen a three year process helped by his "terrific team" as well as the "incredible energy of new chairman Robert Cook".

HOSPA's scholarships and support of new entrants to the industry are gaining respect and Weldon is hoping that standards will rise along with recognition of the input members have made into what he says is still a relatively young sector.

"One of my greatest pleasures - and something I'm genuinely proud of is when I see our young award winners mixing with the senior industry figures," he says.
www.hospa.org

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