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In Conversation with Rachel Harty, Founder of HospoDemo

Credits: Rachel Harty

As of the 12th October, England was introduced to Boris Johnson’s new 3 Tier system, London recently being placed into Tier 2. On the 1st of November, the new Job Support Scheme will be introduced to replace the furlough scheme from March earlier this year. Many members of the hospitality industry staged a protest on the 19th of October voicing their concerns about their future and the perils ahead due to lack of government support. This HospoDemo protest was successfully organised by hospitality marketing professional Rachel Harty. Baristas, chefs and waiters, including the likes of big names such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Jason Atherton and Fergus Henderson, attended the protest with pots and pans to create a peaceful but noisy and noticeable statement to parliament. Strand spoke to Rachel Harty about what these restrictions mean for the hospitality industry and why they need more support now than before.

What do Tier 2 restrictions mean for the hospitality industry?

The 10pm curfew and the banning of indoor mixing between households has proved more problematic than pragmatic. Tier 2 has opened up a ‘no-man’s land’, where businesses face severe restrictions without the government support available in Tier 3. London restaurant and bar owners argue that they have been destined a ‘death sentence’ from the government.

Could you tell us about your background in the industry and why you founded HospoDemo?

I’ve worked in hospitality for most of my career, on the marketing side. For twelve years, I was Head of Marketing & Events for a media owner that published an annual restaurant guide and various hospitality magazines, and ran various hospitality-related events and exhibitions. After that I decided to go freelance, doing marketing and PR for restaurant, bar and hotel clients. I was also involved in launching PX+, a festival solely for the hospitality industry, and TRADE, a members’ club for hospitality professionals. From this experience, I have a pretty unique understanding of what makes the industry tick, and a large network. I founded HospoDemo as a response to the terrifying situation so many hospitality businesses, and ancillary businesses that support them (including freelancers like me), are faced with. People are desperate because their livelihoods are on the line.

Did the protests garner support from the public and the hospitality industry? Did the parliament acknowledge this demonstration?

The protest went better than I could have imagined. Despite turning the whole thing around in eight days, the response snowballed quickly, and we had around 600 supporters on the day, including big names in the industry such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Jason Atherton, Fergus Henderson, Alessandro Palazzi and Alex Kratena. I was concerned there might be too many people attending, making social distancing challenging, but it was a decent-sized crowd that were respectful of social distancing rules. The response from both the public and the industry was overwhelmingly positive, and the demo received coverage on all major news broadcasters, every national newspaper and throughout the hospitality trade press. Yes, the government listened as Rishi Sunak announced an extension of the JSS three days later (more below).

The new Job Support Scheme is being put in place on the 1st of November. In what ways does it not support the hospitality industry?

The new scheme doesn’t take the nuances of the hospitality industry into account, including TRONC, meaning employees whose pay is normally topped up with tips (and which they pax tax on) are paid far less than other employees. Hospitality is a very low-paid industry, people don’t go into to the industry to make money. The percentage increases on contributions (from the announcement on 21.10.20) in reality is a negligible amount for someone already on a very low wage. The business grants available have been increased marginally, but they also don’t go anywhere near to helping businesses where 50-100% of their business has been wiped out by COVID restrictions.

Following the protest, Rishi Sunak has since responded with a fourth economic update. Has it addressed the concerns of HospoDemo and the wider hospitality industry?

While it’s encouraging that the government has listened to us and responded quickly on the situation for those operators and employees stuck in limbo in Tier 2 with its multiple restrictions, Rishi’s latest announcement is just a small step in the right direction. The Job Support Scheme for hospitality workers in Tier 2 and 3 needs to go further. Hospitality operators need higher grants, the introduction of rent relief and an urgent review of the 10pm curfew, to avoid a tsunami of insolvencies and associated job losses.

The hospitality industry does not have its own minister. What do you think this underlines in parliament’s treatment of the hospitality industry? What long term changes would you want to see for the hospitality industry?

Hospitality is the UK’s third largest industry and accounts for 10% of all employment, not to mention thousands of ancillary businesses whose survival depends on outlets staying open. It is also a very unique and nuanced industry with its own set of challenges: it’s been clear from government policy during COVID-19 that a sector-specific approach to policy and financial aid concerning hospitality is required. Yes, the furlough scheme helped to an extent during the first lockdown, but the killer issue of landlords demanding full rents from businesses that couldn't trade has been handled badly too: the moratorium protecting businesses from eviction was a start, but most businesses are still being hit with massive rent bills when their turnover has reduced by up to 100%, which just does not make sense. Data from UK Hospitality shows that more than three quarters (76%) of businesses are currently failing to break even, and only 1 in 10 are trading in profit. We would like to see a commitment to regular reviews of Public Health England data relating to specific sectors of the hospitality industry, and adjustment of policy accordingly; a guaranteed Job Support Scheme, across Tier 2 and 3, until restrictions are lifted and enhanced Job Support Scheme for those whose earnings are normally topped up with tips; an extension of the business rates holiday for a further year; VAT relief extended to December 2021, and rent relief.

Hospitality is essential for people’s welfare; statistics show only that only 2.7% of Covid cases are linked to hospitality settings. What do you think the effect would have on the general public?

The UK's world-beating hospitality industry is part of the fabric of society, providing millions of jobs, and generating massive VAT revenues. Its decline is damaging to society as a whole: in rural areas, pubs are the hub of the community, and across the country, restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes are social places where we go to meet friends and family. We've already lost some incredible businesses, and if things don't change, we will lose too many more, never to be seen again. Hospitality attracts some of the most tenacious, hard-working and creative people in the world, who will do everything to protect their businesses and livelihoods. But how much longer they can hold on for, in the face of such adversity, remains to be seen...

Check out the regular updates from HospoDemo here .