In the darkest days of the pandemic, with the industry she represented on its knees and no light at the end of the tunnel, the boss of UK Hospitality, Kate Nicholls, went to see a therapist.
She had been acting as an “emotional sponge”, soaking up the anguish of tens of thousands of pubs, bars and restaurants fearing oblivion, while trying to shield her team, particularly the younger members, from the ravages of a uniquely stressful event.
“There were times when it was really quite bleak,” she says. “Particularly when you got to October and November last year. We were in tears: there was that sense of frustration that businesses are open but not able to trade and you could see it all sliding away from you again.”
During tense negotiations with the government, banks and insurers about financial support for the sector, she simply ploughed on. It has been in the quieter moments that the pent-up effect of relentless pressure has made itself known. “You can slightly fall apart,” she says. “I’ll probably crash when we come out of it.”
While she insists her relationship with ministers has always been cordial and collaborative, dealing with the absurdities of politics has taken its toll. “Things like scotch eggs and the 10pm curfew,” she says, referring to the period in late 2020 when politicians cobbled together compromises about what time venues should close and whether the pub snack constituted a substantial meal .
“For some reason there was a break in communication where the government didn’t come out effectively to ask the industry how we could work to [reopen safely]. And after that we’re forever playing catch-up.”
Restrictions on socialising have eased, allowing punters to return in droves, but more pain could be on the horizon without meaningful support. Last week, the worst fears of Nicholls and her members arose, as concerns about
Family Civil servant husband and two daughters, 19 and 16.
Education Comprehensive school before reading English at Cambridge, then postgraduate competition law and an MBA, both while working.
Pay “We are not-for-profit so I’m not going to go there publicly, if that’s OK.”
Last holiday December 2020 in the Arctic circle, hunting the Northern Lights and doing a husky safari.
Best advice you’ve been given “‘Lift as you climb’. This is something I’ve tried to do throughout, particularly being a woman in several male-dominated industries. It came from one of my first bosses at Whitbread, who always emphasised the importance of being helpful and supportive to everyone.”
Biggest career mistake “I kept too much of a professional demeanour and lost out to someone else on my first chief executive job because people didn’t know the real me.”
Word she overuses “I don’t think I have one but probably something like ‘synergy’ or ‘passionate.’”
How she relaxes Reading – “at least two books a week”. She challenged herself to read all 20 of her Christmas-present books before the end of lockdown. “Needless to say, I had to buy more.”
the Omicron Covid-19 variant prompted a flurry of Christmas party cancellations. “We’ve lost 10% of the industry during Covid,” she says. “I think you could see business failures as big again.”
Her warning is founded not so much on Omicron, but on concerns such as the £10.5bn of debt built up by venues during the pandemic, including £2bn of rent debt that landlords will not defer forever. Meanwhile, costs are running hot, with soaring utility bills and higher costs for food and drink.
The crunch comes at the end of March, when the 66% relief on business rates comes to an end and VAT on hospitality returns to 20% from 12.5%. “We’re going to have to put up prices, but if you put a tax increase through at the same time, you will kill a lot of these businesses,” says Nicholls. “Many are running on fumes.”
She will be pressing the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to extend both measures at his spring budget, which comes weeks before one of the year’s four “quarter days” – the point at which rents come due and businesses that cannot pay them often go to the wall.
“They [the government] have the opportunity to put a larger proportion of the sector into that vulnerable and failing business category, or they have the opportunity to accelerate the recovery and get the economy moving.”
Nicholls has been wrestling with the effects of Covid-19 for longer than most. She was holding industry meetings about it in January last year, as her members started reporting how bad things were getting in their overseas outposts.
She was also one of the first people in the UK to catch the disease, in March. Like many sufferers, she lost her sense of taste and smell. But that gave rise to a much more unusual symptom.
Nicholls has synaesthesia, a rare neurological trait that causes one’s senses to overlap, meaning she can taste and smell words. “The word Facebook to me tastes like the smell of baby powder,” she says, while the word Northumberland tastes like petrichor, the smell of rain on dry earth. Since she caught Covid, however, her synaesthesia has all but disappeared.
Her connection to her roots in north-east England is something she has not lost, however, and she retains her Durham accent. That was where she grew up, the child of teachers, and was educated at the local comprehensive before reading English at Cambridge – the first in her family to go to university.
She went on to gain experience of the industry she now represents, pulling pints as a student and serving meals at the restaurant chain TGI Fridays in her first job, with hospitality firm Whitbread.
The 51-year-old lobbyist is also well versed in politics. In her early career she worked for Conservative politicians in the House of Commons and European parliament, where she claims to have “saved the prawn cocktail crisp” from Brussels bureaucrats concerned about food additives.
Asked whether the Tory party remains the “party of business”, she recalls the so-called “prawn cocktail offensive” of the 1990s, when Labour sought to woo industry luminaries via catered meetings.
Has Boris Johnson’s party lost that mantle now, via his infamous “fuck business” comment regarding Brexit and, more recently, a fumbling performance at the annual CBI speech? Nicholls merely says: “I think at times, business gets taken for granted by political parties.”
At least now she feels hospitality is no longer being singled out as a hotbed of Covid-19 transmission and the government has grasped her message about the mitigating impact of measures such as ventilation and sanitation in keeping customers safe.
“It’s really good to have the politicians endorsing that because that’s what you need to maintain that consumer confidence.”
She has learned to stop fearing condemnation from those who see efforts to keep venues open as a disregard for the danger of Covid. “All I can do is stay true and authentic to what the industry needs and wants, and just keep focused on that. I’m not an epidemiologist.”