Former Merlin CEO Nick Varney knighted in the King's Birthday Honours

16 June 2023 by
Former Merlin CEO Nick Varney knighted in the King's Birthday Honours

Former Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney has been knighted for services to the visitor economy in the King's Birthday Honours 2023.

Hilton's Simon Vincent, VisitEngland director Andrew Stokes and chef Robert Thompson were also among those who have been recognised.

Varney led Merlin from 1999 until 2022 and built the company into a global leader in family-based entertainment, operating over 140 attractions including Legoland and Alton Towers, 23 hotels and six holiday villages in 24 countries across four continents.

He was also integral to the creation of Merlin's Magic Wand charity, which provides complimentary tickets and funds a contribution towards travel for children facing serious illness, disability or adversity.

Varney said: "I'm incredibly humbled and proud to have been awarded this accolade. Having worked in the tourism and leisure industry for over 30 years, I have had the privilege of helping to build Merlin from a small British business to the global company it is today.

"This enormous honour is shared with all those at Merlin both past and present, who were part of that amazing journey.

"Following the difficulties the hospitality and tourism industry experienced during the pandemic, this knighthood reinforces the importance of our sector to the UK, one which contributes more than £130b each year to the British economy.

"I'm proud to have played my part in that and will continue to champion and support this amazing industry."

Vincent, who has been executive vice-president of hotel giant Hilton and led its business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa since 2007, received a CBE for services to the tourism industry.

He is responsible for more than 1,000 hotels across 13 brands in 69 countries and was awarded an OBE for services to hospitality in 2015.

Outside of his industry work, Vincent is a trustee of Jigsaw School, an independent school for children with an autism spectrum disorder, and the Amber Trust charity, which provides musical opportunities for blind and partially-sighted children.

Vincent said: "It has been an enormous privilege to lead Hilton's business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the past 16 years. I am also proud to have represented the hospitality industry during my tenure as co-chair of the Tourism Industry Council alongside the tourism minister, and on the government's Cultural Renewal Taskforce, which was set up to support the recovery of the sector post-pandemic.

"I am honoured to be appointed CBE in recognition of these contributions which underscore the importance of hospitality and tourism to the UK economy."

Andrew Stokes, director at VisitEngland, was awarded an OBE for services to tourism.

His role has included developing a sustainable tourism strategy for England, and the award follows a busy year for the team around the King's Coronation in May. Stokes previously spent 16 years as chief executive of Marketing Manchester, where he worked on the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

David Walker, a trustee of industry charity Hospitality Action, received an MBE for services to the hospitality industry and charity. Walker's long career in the sector included 13 years spent in senior roles across IHG and he was a general manager at Grosvenor House in London in the 1990s.

Thompson, a 2006 Acorn Award winner and chef patron at Thompsons restaurant on the Isle of Wight, was recognised with an MBE for services to hospitality, tourism and charity.

Other recipients of MBEs included Martin Mulholland, head concierge at Belfast's Europa hotel, for services to tourism and hospitality in Northern Ireland, and Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation.

Valerie Hawkins, chief executive of Mid Wales Tourism, received an MBE for services to tourism and the economy in Wales.

A total of 1,171 people across the country received honours for their contributions to a range of industries and many were recognised for being inspiring entrepreneurs, innovators and philanthropists.

Those recognised in hospitality included


  • Nicholas John Varney, chief executive, Merlin Entertainments. For services to the visitor economy


  • Simon Robert Vincent OBE, executive vice president, Hilton Group Europe, Middle East and Africa. For services to the tourism indusrtry


  • Andrew John Stokes, director of Visit England. For services to the tourism industry


  • William Hugh Jack, proprietor, Duke of York public house. For services to the arts and to tourism in Belfast

  • Alan Edward Jones, lately chairman and consultant, the Village Bakery. For services to the food industry and to the economy in Wales

  • Bilal Bin Saqib, co-founder, One Million Meals. For services to the NHS and to the community in Stanmore, Harrow, in London

  • Robert Thompson, chef patron, Thompson's, Isle of Wight. For services to hospitality, to tourism and to charity

  • David Kenneth Walker JP. For services to the hospitality industry and to charity

  • Ehsan Shahid Choudhry, co-founder, MH the Open Kitchen. For services to the community in the London Borough of Hounslow

  • Martin Francis Mulholland, head concierge, Europa hotel, Belfast. For services to tourism and to hospitality in Northern Ireland

  • Patrick Gerald McCullough, Campus Food and Drink, Queen's University Belfast. For services to higher education in Northern Ireland.

  • Catriona Marcia Mcluckie, chair, Original Richmond Business and Tourism Association. For services to the environment and to the community in Richmond, North Yorkshire

  • Sandra Louise Ruddock, co-founder and owner, Scarlett & Mustard. For services to business and to the voluntary sector in Norfolk and Suffolk

  • Muhammad Arif Anis, co-founder of One Million Meals. For services to Frontline Workers during Covid-19

  • John Child, lately managing director, Sandcastle Waterpark. For services to tourism, people with disabilities and the community in Blackpool, Lancashire

  • Janice Rosanne Gault, chief executive, Northern Ireland Hotels Federation. For services to tourism and hospitality

  • Stephen Philip Hallam, lately managing director, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray. For services to the baking industry and the community in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire

  • Valerie Margaret Hawkins, chief executive officer, Mid Wales Tourism. For services to tourism and the economy in Wales

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