Spiderman – not just a comic book hero. Susan Young interviews Stephen Montgomery

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Stephen Montgomery’s name over the last four months has been synonymous with advice and help when it comes to his fellow colleagues in hospitality. On social media he is a force to be reckoned with and his sharing of Government information and putting forward the case for the industry is to be applauded. That’s not just my view but licensees from all the country have made their appreciation of his help public. More so because his tenure as President of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, a voluntary role, was brought to an abrupt end when he was asked to resign at the beginning of August.

The news came as a shock to the trade, especially since his 17 weeks in the post saw him preside over an unprecedented pandemic and subsequent lockdown, and re-opening.

Stephen, who runs the Townhead Hotel in Lockerbie, tells me, “My father had joined the association in 1990 and went onto become President, so when I became President on 26th March it was a proud day for the family. I was only the second ever person in its 140 years history to hold the office of President, who had a father who had also held the position.”

To say that the post started with a bang would be an understatement. Says Stephen, “I certainly hit the ground running. I was involved from the off on Zoom calls with the Scottish Government and the Tourism Skills Group and liaising with other official bodies and associations. This meant I could bring information back to our members and give it out to the wider licensed trade audience.”

This is what sets Stephen apart – his advice was for everyone. So much so that having been asked by the SLTA to resign because of an article that appeared in the Evening Times in which he believes he was misquoted, he has decided to found a new organisation to continue the work needed. Explains Stephen, “I have been answering telephone calls at 2am from people in tears, or needing advice, answering email after email, and doing conference calls after conference calls on every subject under the sun – from rates help to grants, best practice to guidance – seven days a week! I also ran and run the Facebook group Scottish Leased and Tenanted Pubs, so I know how much information needs to get out there. Fortunately, despite stepping back from the SLTA, I am still on the Government calls so I can get information to licensees and provide the Government with feedback on what licensees are thinking. 

“My role at the time as President of the SLTA, was originally mainly for the benefit of paying members however with the association only having 310 paying members in total, it was clear that the help that I was giving was going far beyond that, and some of the people receiving it possibly didn’t even know the SLTA or what it stood for. I have come to realise that there is a real need for an ‘on the ground’ operator-led assocation. Our main aim at this point will be the obvious – to get through this pandemic and remain a strong voice on the Government calls, task forces, etc. which I am already part of, and in turn, this can then be fed down to operators.”

The new organisation, supported by DRAM, is certainly a breath of fresh air. Stephen too is a breath of fresh air.

He hails from Northern Ireland and followed his dad’s footsteps, first of all into the army and then into the licensed trade. He also ran a haulage company.

He reflects, “My dad was in the army and then the police and I too joined the army. I went to Germany, did the First Gulf war in 1991, then Northern Ireland. I was in a frontline regimental band and my secondary role was as a medic. In the Gulf I was in the 7th Armoured brigade.” 

The day he set for the Gulf (17th October 1990) was the day that his parents arrived in Castle Douglas to take over their first hotel. He says, “It certainly was a momentous day!”

After coming out of the army Stephen set up his own haulage business and moved to Lockerbie in 1994 after meeting his then wife. He says, ‘My parents were up the road and my haulage customers at that time included a local company, and during his time in the town I used to drink in The Townhead. After it went into receivership. I realised that perhaps I could have a go at it. I had always wanted to run a pub, and I saw the success my dad had made of The Market Inn in Castle Douglas and thought I could replicate that.” 

Things didn’t quite go to plan. Although he and his wife took over the hotel in 2009, they divorced in 2011 the hotel was a casualty. He then bought a pub in Lochmaben before taking The Townhead back on in 2014. Says Stephen, “I knew it was going to be aood buy and was able to buy it back off the brewery on St Paddy’s day. Then I set my heart on making it what it is now – a successful eight bedroomed hotel.”

Certainly Stephen is not afraid of putting his head above the parapet. He entered and won Channel 4’s Four in A Bed back in 2017, going head to head with other hoteliers and B&B owners from Aberfeldy, Keswick and Redbourne. After taking his fellow competitors rock climbing he was referred to as ‘Spiderman’. A comic book hero maybe but he certainly turned into one of the unsung heroes on the trade over the last four months.

He comments, “It has been challenging but I like communicating with people. There is no point beating around the bush. Find out the information and if it is not good news give it to them. It is what it is. You have to be honest.”

Stephen certainly doesn’t beat about the bush when it comes to folk breaking the rules on guidance. He says, “Having spent the last 4/5 months helping people it would be catastrophic for many if there is a local lockdown. As for licensees not carrying out due diligence, risk assessments and adhering to the guidance, they need to take a good long look at themselves. Unless they start doing it right there will be no hesitation from Government to shut down hospitality. It doesn’t just affect them, if affects their community and the industry as a whole. I think there is morale responsibility to do the right thing.”

Of course now it is mandatory for Test and Protect but it wasn’t that way to begin with. Stephen was aware of the reluctance of some. He reveals, “There originally was some confusion around Test and Protect – customers thought (and perhaps think) it goes to the government and big brother is watching, but it comes to the owners, we hold the data. I did suggest to the Scottish Government that they came out with an app because I think every licenced premises should have one for their own specific premises with the information going straight to the Government. It would cut out the need for licensees to comply with GDPR – many people didn’t know that they needed to register with Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) which costs £50.”

Stephen admits that the ‘guidance’ is confusing. He says, “The SLTA helped put it together, but maybe we needed more time. I am not saying it was rushed, it was just that so much was happening at the time. It is certainly better now that it was and the Q&A’s were released. There were so many questions getting asked e.g. could people sit at the bar? TV’s on/off? etc. And of course the EHO, LSO and Police were all talking about the guidance in different ways. The EHO has the lead on it, with trading standards backing them up which is working well.”

One of the key issues around the guidance and subsequent changes has been getting the information of timeously. My involvement with the Scottish Government meant I could and indeed can send it to my contacts right away. People are at the point now that they don’t know what future holds so they need information fast to make decisions, particularly when these changes are mandatory. People need that information there and then – when it happens. I am happy to help facilitate that. 

He continues, “I think confusion comes because there is so much guidance and so much to contend with. I also think it will get worse. If mitigations are already in place it is easy if they are made mandatory, but if they are not in place we need time, and we can’t be expected to change the way we operate with no notice. In my view test and protect should have been mandatory from the start, the wearing of face masks should also have been mandatory.

“Questions and lack of understanding of the guidance is still ongoing – for instance three families can come and sit inside but have to be socially distanced – how do you do that in a restaurant? You are taking it on trust that it is only three families. If you have eight customers – a two, two and a four seated together but socially distancing – what does that actually look like? 

“We are doing everything possible – our adherence to the guidance is giving our customers peace of mind and this has encouraged them to return. We were sitting at 82% occupancy pre-covid and that business is coming back. Over the weekend we served 300 meals, and during the week it has been positive too. Eat out to Help Out has certainly helped create this demand. The good news is that people who can eat out out any day of the week have been coming earlier in the week and this has meant I can free up space on a Friday.”

As for business operators that are still not following the guidance, he doesn’t have much sympathy. “I think there should be fines. If you are not following guidance and you are caught you should face a licensing review. It is part of licensing objective ‘protect and improve public health’. I think give them a warning then close them. Operators have had long enough now to put measures. They have had all the warnings ever single day If you are not compliant now you will get shut down and the onus is on you, but the customer also needs to understand that if they don’t comply they are putting not only the health of their friends at risk, but employees and operators lives and businesses on the line. It is not just about business. None of us can afford to put health before profit. If you have no health you have no profit.

“We are not a pub so my clientele are a bit older but with pubs it is the younger generation who are more problematic. They think they are above catching it, but that has been proved wrong. They are the ones need to be challenged more often. I don’t know how to do it. We need to try and get into their heads. If you are not going to give your own details or don’t socially distance you could end up killing somebody.”

On the subject of Aberdeen he was impressed by the pubs who took the initiative to shut before they were told to. However, he is not so complimentary of the football players saying, “These players are held up a icons to young folk, if they break the guidance, youngsters think it is okay to follow suit. That has to be stamped out.”

Adding, “The hospitality industry is getting the brunt of it – but there is no test and protect in the supermarket. People are traced back to a pub but we are taking details so they can be traced, but how many people are being put at danger of the virus in other retail places? We sanitise the tables, chairs, toilets and much more – but how many times now do you see someone walking around a supermarket sanitising things that are touched?

As you can hear Stephen is passionate about the trade and those that work in it, which is why he has decided to found a new organisation.

“The work that has been done over the last four months is unprecedented. I never realised that the scope of work I was doing was reaching so many people. There is now a broader opportunity to reach out and to take a fresh approach to representation for which I am currently planning and taking forward.”

Certainly the trade is relieved – particularly since leaving the SLTA Stephen has continued to furnish his contacts with all the necessary information on Government updates and further regulations.

Says one of the licensees he helped, Marc Sievewright from the Ramsay Arms Hotel in Fettercairn, “I called Stephen for some advice and he spent an hour on the phone with me. Not only that but he took the time to send me links so that I could source various things to help me get open. He couldn’t have been more helpful.”

While Adele Fox of the Harbour Inn said on hearing of his resignation said, “You did a great job using your position with the SLTA to reach out to a wider audience using different platforms and bringing issues to the forefront. That was a great example of building a community.

Stephen concludes, “My advice to hoteliers and pub owners is to stick with it. I can’t believe that no further funding will be forthcoming. We definitely need specific sector help. Hospitality is an integral part of Scotland’s GDP and I aim am to ensure that our voice is still being heard. The last thing we need are places with a RV of over £51K being left empty or turned into nursing homes or residential homes, and pubs lying empty in towns and rural places – people and the Government need to understand that.”

If anyone can help them do that it is Stephen.

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