Susan Young reports:
I know it is hard to believe but it has only been six months since the Scottish Hospitality Group was formed. Today its voice reverberates around the corridors of Holyrood – as the group campaigns and demands answers from the powers that be.
Its formation was swift, and it came out of a need to have a ‘voice’. The group’s founders didn’t feel that they were being heard at government level. They were larger well-known businesses and yet they didn’t appear to have a voice and they were increasingly frustrated at the lack of knowledge that key politicians had with regard to the issues surrounding hospitality.
That frustration was voiced in a small ‘WhatsApp’ Group, that was originally set up by myself and Kenny Blair of Buzzworks. Its purpose, to begin with, was to share information and worries and to gather intel on what was happening with each other’s businesses. The small group grew to about 10 and Mario Gizzi of DRG suggested that the group actually activated itself physically and orchestrated a PR campaign to get their voice heard. This coincided with Stephen Montgomery, resigning as President of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. The timing was right, and the Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG) was formed with Stephen as its voluntary and unpaid spokesman. The SHG included Signature Pubs, Lisini, Caledonia Inns, Buzzworks, the DRG Group, G1, Manorview, Caledonian Heritable, Mor-rioghan pub group, Siberia Bar & Hotel, Montpeliers and the Townhead Hotel, who employ around 6000 staff.
With the day to day running of the group being done by Stephen, along with a small steering group, SHG appointed communications experts BIG to drive a PR campaign to highlight the issues and safeguard their collective interests at both a local and government level. And it wanted a seat at the table when it came to government. Since then, the group has, through its public relations campaign seen 1,600 pieces of coverage. There have been 1.7bn opportunities to see their views giving it the highest share of voice of media compared to other trade bodies – secured 39% of voice in Scotland, the 2nd highest in the UK.
Issues SHG have tackled have included “Rogue traders”. They didn’t want the whole trade tarred because of the actions of some. It wanted to emphasise that responsible licensees, who were doing the job right should be allowed to continue to do so. That got really positive feedback and lots of coverage.
It criticised the Government for not giving hospitality enough time to adapt to new guidance – the guidance was being issued on a Friday for implementation on a Monday, and at some stages overnight.
It campaigned for the removal of the music ban and it ran a petition which saw 23,500 sign it in one month. It supported and campaigned for the continuation of the rates relief for a further year and to keep VAT at 5% (as did other trade organisations).
In November SHG put together a survey and presented this to government. It showed the actual cost of opening and closing – and the losses that businesses were making every week even with the grants.
It has also been very vocal regarding hospitality being part of the solution not the cause of the problem and has pushed the information out that despite serving 1.8m people, and with 6,000 staff, last summer from 15th July to 30th September, had only 17 positive cases.
Relationships have been formed with party leaders, MSP’s and MP’s from all parties, at Holyrood and at Westminster. This has led to SHG questions being asked at First Minister’s briefings, and in the Chamber of Holyrood during debates. And it was part of the Tourism Taskforce Recovery Group – which has helped form a five-year plan for recovery. SHG have also been involved in giving evidence to Scottish Government committees, and Stephen will now be giving evidence at the Scottish Affair Committee in Westminster later this month.
Says Stephen Montgomery, “Throughout all our meetings we have warned politicians and civil servants of the seriousness of not consulting with the trade. We are a group of grassroots entrepreneurs who know the business of hospitality and know the implications of decisions being made. For instance, we told them that hospitality curfews would cause drinking at home – it did. We told them that the banning of music would cause drinking at home – it did.
“They may listen to our issues, but they still don’t get the problems we are having, or the simple mechanics of running a hospitality business, despite SHG inputting and giving the government a practical route to reopen. For instance, the frustrations in level 3 – last time round we had a 6pm close. This time we asked for 10pm because 6pm was totally unviable, and they knew that, and they have given us 8pm. We wanted alcohol outside without a meal, gave us that, but didn’t give us alcohol inside.
“There needs to be a go-to person in government for hospitality who understands the issues around hospitality. I’ve always believed that should be an individual, not a party political. This is important because hospitality is not the same as tourism.
“Hospitality has a part to play in making up tourism, but it is also separate, but Government don’t seem to get that. The needs and the business model are different. We have higher overheads than most other tourism businesses. Tourism encompasses everything from a highland gift shop to a visitor attraction on Mull to Edinburgh Castle– we can’t be under the same banner when it comes to support. The support we have seen to date has been disproportionate to say the least.
“We are a year-round industry – not just for holidays. Hospitality is an industry that comprises entities of food, beverages and social interaction. We have the best-looking castles, beautiful scenery and attractions, but unless you have pubs, hotels and restaurants there is not the same attraction – 73% of people coming to Scotland want to visit our pubs…”
He continues, “The next six months we will be concentrating on getting hospitality to the other side of the pandemic and promoting it in every way we can. We will continue to fight for the extension of business rates into 2022/23. That will be the date we start paying the rates on the assessment of 2016 and the business won’t be able to afford that. We want support for those that need it – rather than blanket support for everybody. Grants stop on 19th April, no matter what way you look at it, but many wet-led pubs, wedding venues, and nightclubs etc will have to remain closed.
“We will be pressurising the UK government to retain 5% VAT permanently, we will try and get the deposit return scheme pushed back another year, and more generally we are helping hospitality business operators get through what has without doubt been the worst time on record.
“The SHG has a website coming, and we will be inviting more people to get involved. We are different because we don’t pussyfoot about. The aim of SHG is to promote and protect the fantastic hospitality we have in Scotland – not just for ourselves, but for our employees, customers and tourists. We will look forward to working closer with Scottish Government after the elections, and hopefully in doing that, we will be able to get our sector back to some kind of normality, and back to doing what we do best, slainte”