Industry relations with government dominated the British Hospitality and Tourism Summit in London yesterday. Ian Taylor reports
Members of the government were thick on the ground at the British Hospitality and Tourism Summit in London, with secretary of state for culture Maria Miller, employment minister Mark Hoban and financial secretary to the Treasury Greg Clark delivering speeches.
Miller heads the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) which includes tourism in its brief - though not in its title, a point sharply made by all-party Parliamentary group chairman Lord Lee, who was also at the summit.
It was an impressive political turnout for an industry event.
Miller began with a line she must have realised would be music to the ears of a travel industry audience: “I’d like to start by emphasising the role tourism and hospitality plays in delivering economic growth.”
The audience so wanted to hear it. Yet frustration with the government had long since bubbled to the surface.
InterContinental Hotels Group chief executive Richard Solomons anticipated Miller’s speech when he remarked early on: “It’s not what you say but what you do that makes a difference.
“We want to see tourism and hospitality much higher up the government agenda.”
Willie Walsh waded in – the IAG boss accusing the government of being “anti-aviation” and “lacking policy and ambition”.
InterContinental chief executive for Europe Angela Brav went further, suggesting: “We need to force the government to listen to us. What does it take?
Possibly inspired by a small demonstration in support of Free Tibet outside the summit venue (the InterContinental Park Lane), Brav suggested: “Maybe we should picket the prime minister’s office.”
The protest denounced InterContinental Hotels as “Parasites in Paradise” for opening a property in Lhasa.
PricewaterhouseCoopers economic advisor Andrew Sentence told the summit: “There is not enough recognition of the role of the sector.” He insisted: “The government does not get it” – which is fairly damning from a recent member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee.
Lord Lee agreed: “The government has not got the message.”
Yet we subsequently heard Greg Clark pledge: “The message you have given loud and clear today will be taken back by Maria, Mark and I.” Really?
Clark went on: “I’m struck by the need to join up government departments.” He even pledged: “You have a partner in government.”
I was struck by Clark’s mistake when he hailed the number of pledges on youth employment by those attending the summit. There were more than 31,000 and Clark got the figure wrong by a factor of 10 – a worry when he is financial secretary.
Hoban assured the summit: “We’re working together to ensure young people have the skills they and the industry needs.”
This was flatly contradicted by Sir John Armitt, chairman of City and Guilds and of the Olympic Delivery Authority, who argued: “The current education system is not delivering young people fit for employment.”
Never mind: according to Hoban: “We’re working to ensure we have a benefits system that encourages people into work to take the opportunities you offer.” Think about that.
Miller’s speech would not have gone down well with an outbound travel audience.
The culture secretary extolled the virtues of the government-backed domestic tourism campaign, Holidays at Home, saying: “Not so very long ago, people would visit their travel agent and almost automatically think of a holiday in Spain or Turkey.
“The word ‘holiday’ became almost synonymous with ‘abroad’. Holidays at Home changes that,” she said.
Miller obviously does not consider that booking a holiday with a travel agent, perhaps with a UK tour operator, probably with a flight on a UK airline, contributes to UK employment and the UK economy – but it does.
British Hospitality Association chief executive Ufi Ibrahim pointed out other industries have ‘sector councils’ meeting across government departments.
She told the secretary of state: “Aerospace has one. The creative industries have one. Even the retail sector has one.
“I urge you to come together with your colleagues to think about our sector in a joined up way.”
Ibrahim is right. But should we hold our breath?
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