They grow up so fast 

How old would you say the UK’s hospitality sector is? This isn’t a chance to rerun that hackneyed gag about it being the world’s oldest profession (although who wants to miss out on a chance to use the punchline ‘Deliver-oOOOoo’?) but a chance to think about where we are and how best to respond to its issues. 

The hospitality sector as we know it – branded high streets, eating out being a regular habit – is a relatively new experience. 

According to the Commons Library Research Briefing on the sector from May this year, in 2019 the economic output of the hospitality sector was £59.3bn, which was around 3% of total UK economic output. Hospitality businesses represented 3% to 5% of businesses in each country and region.

In 2010 the sector was estimated by the BHA and Oxford Economics to be worth £46bn to the UK economy. Before that, figures were even more open to debate than they are now, but we can consider them to be heading upwards. The fight for VAT reduction has, of course, been going on since the dawn of time.

Growth, much like civilisation, is not a guaranteed upwards trajectory and the UK is currently stymied by inflation, cost of living and the issues around manning a sector largely on cheap labour which is no longer available. This we know and there’s not point trawling over that ground again.

So back to our summer pondering on how old the sector is. We act as though it is as old as Methuselah and should therefore have all the answers, all the accumulated wisdom. But really, it’s about the same age as the popular adoption of the internet, and that dissolved into porn and discounted books after a start which promised societal change. Should we expect more from hospitality when it’s only just grown up?

In our 20s we are still convinced that our early dreams – vet, astronaut, global chicken chain – are still possible and we may not be realising the reality of where we are. Maybe we never passed GCSE biology, or physics, or have a realistic chicken supply chain. 

We may not yet know who we are, or what we stand for. We may still look very different from how we will 10 years down the line. We may have made unsuitable friends who we are having issues shaking off. We may find it hard to take responsibility and when something goes wrong, we look to pass on blame. We may still need support from the bank of Mum and Dad. 

Horrendous though the image is of referring to Boris Johnson as ‘Dad’ – obvious ‘so many can empathise’ joke also side-stepped here – we have all seen hospitality businesses, indeed the whole sector – go through the phases above.

We can be unforgiving of the sector. It needs to be more realistic. It needs to appreciate that when consumers have less money they will spend less, not prioritise eating out over paying their rent. It needs to plan for the rainy days, not assume everything will be great forever.

But if we see it as decades and not centuries old, that might make it easier to lend a sympathetic ear and be a bit more flexible. It might be naive, but it also might have fresh ideas which will benefit us all. It has much to learn, but we all want it to be happy, fulfilled and making that contribution to society as a whole.

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