BHN Review: The Annual Hotel Conference (AHC) 2019

UK: This year’s AHC focused on the theme of ‘unlocking the potential’ and hot topics centred on the war for talent, business evolution, and the value of strong F&B.

Organised by Questex Hospitality Group, the two day event gathered the industry’s top decision makers at Manchester’s Hilton Deansgate to discuss, debate, and share insight on the sector’s operational successes and challenges.

The attraction and retention of talent has long been a concern for the hospitality industry, and one that is emerging more prominent than ever. As generations acquire a greater sense of their selves, amid the complex and confusing backdrop of Brexit, employers are faced with the pressing need to address the negative perceptions of working within the sector.

Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, estimated that UK employment would grow by 10 per cent by 2020, however continued to explain that “weak consumer and business confidence is at a two-year low.” She then referred to the Tourism Sector Deal as a catalyst for action: “We can use this as a very big stick to push for the [government] backing we deserve.”

From an employer’s perspective, general manager at Ham Yard Hotel, Laura Sharpe, commented on the importance of institutional innovations: “People don’t choose hospitality as their career; they fall in to it.” Sharpe therefore stressed managerial flexibility as key to nurturing loyalty, as well as providing entry-level options for staff such as English lessons.

Ravi Kathuria, founder of Talash Hotels Group, espoused this outlook. During a one-to-one discussion, he explained that the company lost staff to Germany on the basis of a salary increase. Kathuria expounded the idea that retention “is not just about the perks” but requires thinking outside of the box.

In keeping with these conversations, focus shifted to examine business evolution amid a highly competitive market. OYO has exponentially grown in the UK over the past year, having partnered with independent hotels and gaining 150 properties. Yet with technology at the company’s heart, Jeremy Sanders, head of OYO UK, said that guest experience is paramount and that the technology does not replace the number of staff.

Similarly, Julie Grieve, CEO of Criton, commented on the reliance on technology within the industry: “There’s back systems that really help, but technology takes away from hospitality and all that it truly means. We hire people based on their personality, attitude, and interaction… they’re essentially experts.” Whilst she acknowledged that technical innovation is an “unavoidable force” in the industry, Grieve was sceptical of how this might play out.

The personalisation of experience hence materialised as a central topic of debate. For Kevin Charity, CEO of Coaching Inn Group Ltd, this is organically cultivated from the top-down. He mentioned that staff are treated “as a first customer” in order to set and maintain high standards of the business. When looking at the knock-on effect, Charity described this as creating “a perfect combination between an independent feel but with branded bedrooms.”

Reputation is therefore pivotal to success, and heavily feeds into the strategic evolution of some hotels. The value of an effective USP seems more vital than ever when the market is saturated with comparable companies. That said, in recent years the UK food and beverage market has taken off, whereby attention is increasingly paid to the emergence of specialist brands.

As Nicholas Northam, EVP at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, summarised: “With F&B, if you try and stay still, you’ll get run over.” The introduction of celebrity chefs or the launch of new concepts are constantly under review, and mid-market brands are gradually becoming incorporated into hotels.

Deliveroo is but one brand that is disrupting the food and beverage market. Alexander Lewis, corporate business development manager for Deliveroo, described the company as a “logistics partner” with particular reference to its partnership with a Holiday Inn Express in Australia.

Taking this one step further, Jon Yantin, director of Stake Concepts, believed that the incorporation of food halls will be “game changing,” arguing that a strong F&B offer will increase ADR. Adding to this, Thibault Bouquet de Joliniere, co-founder of Initiative Group, backed the idea in terms of its simplicity: “In London, the life of a concept is four-to-five years, so you have to keep changing this all the time. But with a food hall, all you need to do is change the vendors.”

Looking forward, it seems that the food and beverage market will take a drastic turn as high-street offerings pose the greatest challenge to hoteliers. As restaurateurs crave expansion and hotels look to differentiate, perhaps it’s not a far cry that the two coincide. When the guest experience underpins the industry, this becomes increasingly important for a business to evolve successfully. Yet speaking of the short-term, there’s no doubt that issues surrounding recruitment lay heavy on the minds of most.

For more information on the AHC regarding its speakers and sponsors, or information to do with the 2020 event, you can visit the official website.

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