By Mark Laurie
This year has been hard for a number of quite obvious reasons; the pandemic, the closure of events and hospitality for the majority of the season, but arguably the hardest part has been the feelings of frustration, helplessness and anger when our sector has repeatedly missed out on government support. The Chancellor has announced five separate packages of financial support since March for the hospitality sector and every single one of them has failed to help our sector in a meaningful way.
The timing of the pandemic was particularly cruel as it essentially condemned seasonal businesses to three consecutive winters. It’s asking a lot even of highly successful businesses to survive for 18 months with no income – this is the position that we are in, those that have made it through to now at least. We believe at least 3,000 independent food businesses have closed just in our sector since March, the majority but certainly not all, were new starters.
As things stand, mobile and independent catering is one of the few sectors to have received almost no financial support from government. Restaurants have benefitted from furlough, VAT cuts, hospitality grants, Eat Out to Help Out, though mobile caterers have not. This is a bitter pill to swallow for business owners, not least as we have never been given an explanation as to why the government values restaurants above mobile catering.
Possibly the kindest assumption, is that the government could not get their heads around the nuances of seasonal businesses or the complex eco-systems of small businesses that come together to produce shows, put on street food or supply private functions. While we are repeatedly told that outside is safer than inside, the businesses without foundations and rooves have received no support.
Not that support for restaurants and café’s has been anything like what is needed, feels ominously at times, that the collapse of sections of hospitality is a can being kicked down the road, that cannot go on forever or be easily resolved. Ultimately, the fate of these businesses will depend on how realistic the property owners are. Every town and city centre rent is now at least twice the real market price – even when things re-open properly. Business owners are increasingly seeing furlough as ‘an expensive universal credit’ and about protecting staff rather than helping businesses; open but not trading, sitting idle while the government pay their wages – for sites that may never re-open.
We have been actively lobbying since March and have watched as financial support for our sector seemed to slip through our fingers every time. We have been in near constant communication with the Dept of Business (BEIS), but our demands have so far not been adhered to at the Treasury or the cabinet.
The pressure on the ecosystems that we work in continues to be of concern. The events industry has almost uniquely missed out on support; at risk of falling apart without government help for insurance and the vital finances needed to retain the talented people and essential infrastructure in the industry. If the portaloo businesses fail there will be no events industry, it’s the same for a hundred other component businesses – including mobile catering, which as well as necessary nourishment, provides a significant cash boost to events during the planning stage – where will that money come from?
We will continue to push for support for our sector and the wider economy in which they operate, to get the industry trading again and if possible, to get the financial support needed to get many businesses, previously profitable back to work when they are able to do so.
No government in my lifetime has had to deal with an emergency or global catastrophe such as this before. There is no set play book, every decision has a potentially fatal consequence for an individual or business. With that in mind we have and continue to be understanding and patient, we believed that Government would eventually get round to the more nuanced issues after they’d resolved the obvious problems, but they never have. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be happy for others who have received support while we remain ignored. Even those who have received financial support are smarting at the tiers system, which seems arbitrary and unfairly penalises hospitality businesses. It’s hard to rationalise rules where you can go to your preferred place of worship but there can only be 15 of you at a wedding or 30 for a funeral. How can gyms be safe but restaurants are not? There has been a creeping fear in the sector that regardless of the outcomes, the solution is always to limit hospitality. If a measure doesn’t work – double down on hospitality, if it does work – keep doing it by doubling down on hospitality. Arguably, although the lack of clarity and trade has been damaging, the sense of hopelessness that has crept in over time could be just as destructive as people are unable to respond, frozen in fear, mentally and physically exhausted.
For some, it’s a feeling of invisibility, of suffering in silence, ignored and forgotten. By chance, there is a glimmer of hope. Discretionary grants that were intended to support the governments tiering system, were due to be accessible by mobile caterers, but only in tiers 2 & 3. Meaning, at the time that vast swathes of the mobile catering industry would miss out again, this time due to their postcode. Events, however, overtook the government and a national lockdown for England meant that in theory at least, mobile caterers were eligible.
The grants are discretionary, currently only available in England and seem to vary quite a lot from borough to borough. We are hopeful but not certain that NCASS members will receive them. But this is not a reason to give up or not apply. It is vital that members do apply and do report back. If the grants are largely successful and do provide the necessary support for customers to survive the winter without too much hardship, we need to know that.
Equally, we need to know if this was one more missed opportunity. So, find your local councils ARG or discretionary fund, fill in the form and provide the evidence. As your trade association we need to know if you have finally got the support you deserve or not as this will determine how we lobby in future.
Finally, when the lockdown lifts – go out and trade. Get permission from a private landowner and trade. If you’re a festival caterer new to social media and marketing, learn those skills and partner with others that can support that. Apps like NoQ could become a platform for independent food trucks and mailing lists could be aggregated and activated. Know your rights and don’t be bullied into licences you don’t need to pay
It’s been an awful year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, vaccines are coming available, treatments are improving and management of the disease gets better across the board. The ever agile events sector will find ways to survive and return, but it won’t be business as usual for some time, more likely, this is the beginning of a shift in how the economy works, in events and in hospitality. We have shown we can roll with the blows this year. We could definitely do with some financial help, but we cannot guarantee that will come and with every Treasury statement it becomes less likely. Its going to be a rocky couple of months and we’re all exhausted, but we will overcome this pandemic and move forward; we may even create the new normal.