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Kate Nicholls on building resilience in hospitality

As the chief executive of the UK hospitality sector’s leading trade body, Kate Nicholls has advocated for bars through the challenges of the pandemic. We discover how she fell in love with the industry and her hopes for its future.

Kate Nicholls
Kate Nicholls became CEO of UK Hospitality in 2018

*This feature was originally published in the November 2021 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

It’s difficult to overstate just how devastating the Covid‐19 pandemic has been for the UK’s on‐trade. Since March 2020, the hospitality industry has suffered trading losses of more than £100.2 billion (US$140bn), and thousands of venues have permanently closed their doors. Now, even as bars fully reopen, the path to recovery is scattered with stumbling blocks in the form of staff shortages, rent debts and no‐shows.

In the midst of these challenges, UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls has been a crucial champion for the sector. As the head of the country’s leading trade body, she tirelessly lobbies the government to keep the industry front of mind in policy making, and reports back to UK Hospitality’s members to demystify what political issues mean for their businesses. Her work has helped set operators in the country on an upward trajectory following some of the darkest days the industry has seen.

Nicholls’ drive to boost the sector stems from a deep, earnest love of hospitality – “I’m naturally a feeder”, she says. That passion was sparked during her days as a student at Cambridge, when she worked behind bars and covered catering shifts. “It’s about making guests feel appreciated, giving a great experience, the fun of working as a team to deliver something exceptional,” she muses. “That’s what I really enjoyed about it.”

At the time, she dreamed of becoming a journalist. She idolised Kate Adie, the dynamic BBC TV correspondent who covered conflicts in war zones around the world.

“That’s who I wanted to emulate,” Nicholls explains. Ready to follow in her hero’s footsteps after graduation, she secured a trainee spot at a regional newspaper, but the gig fell through at the last minute.

Instead, Nicholls ended up taking a job as a researcher in the House of Commons and at the European Parliament – not bad for a back‐up plan. There, she helped to write legislation for issues on food, consumer affairs and environmental protection. “That was where I was first lobbied by a large number of the hospitality businesses, the food producers, the brewers who were going to be affected by that legislation,” she says.

The path to policy

Hospitality once again came calling when restaurant and hotel giant Whitbread took notice of her work and hired her to cover government relations for the company. The move marked an important turning point: “I was then able to combine two of my big passions – politics and hospitality – and from that moment started working on influencing policy, representing the hospitality sector.”

Nicholls has held a variety of roles in communications and public policy in her 25‐year‐plus career, making a name for herself at agencies and through her own consultancy. In 2010, she joined the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) as strategic affairs director, and was appointed CEO of the organisation four years later. She took her current job in 2018, when the ALMR merged with the British Hospitality Association to form UK Hospitality.

Though her professional life has turned out different from the career she envisioned in her university days, Nicholls sees “a lot of parallels” between her public policy work and her original journalistic aspirations.

“[Journalism] is about making things clear to people, engaging people in telling a story,” she says. “And that’s what I do in my day job now: tell a story about political decisions – or Covid, or any external factor – and what they mean for people, for their jobs, for their livelihoods. It’s storytelling in a different form.”

A dire situation

But Nicholls also has a direct impact on the narrative she’s communicating. On 28 January 2020, at a meeting with government officials, she learned the Covid‐19 virus was spreading internationally, “before many people in the sector had even heard of or considered what Covid might mean”. It was a pivotal moment, and she had to act quickly.

“I don’t claim any special foresight; I didn’t realise it was going to be so devastating and have such a dire effect,” she says. “But I knew at that moment we needed to alter what we were doing to make sure the industry was well equipped, and that we could go to government and talk about the likely effects. And I think that stood us in better stead when the decisions hit and closures came.” Her preparation and persistence contributed to major wins for the hospitality industry in the months following the first lockdown, including the government’s Eat Out to Help Out programme and a temporary reduction in VAT rates.

In July 2021, the sector secured another victory when the government unveiled its Hospitality Strategy, a three‐year plan for the industry’s recovery. Nicholls was appointed to the hospitality council that is helping to deliver the plan. She believes the strategy represents a critical opportunity for the on‐trade to emerge from the pandemic as a top priority for policy makers. “It’s about making sure that we use the Covid moment to embed the importance of hospitality culturally, socially and economically at the heart of government and build on that recognition of the role it can play,” she says.

Indeed, hospitality is a major player in the UK’s financial recovery. In the second quarter of 2021, the country’s economy grew by 4.8% – and the on‐trade was responsible for 40% of that growth, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics and CGA. To ensure the industry can continue making these massive economic contributions, Nicholls is focusing on immediate goals such as tackling debts, addressing labour shortages, fixing supply chain problems and locking in lower tax rates for businesses. “It’s all about making sure the industry is more resilient,” she explains.

And the work she has put into building that resilience has not gone unnoticed: last December, she was made an OBE as part of the Queen’s New Years Honours list. It’s a distinction that most would consider the high point of a career, but in keeping with her unyielding passion for hospitality, Nicholls’ proudest accomplishment is how she and her team were able to support the industry in its hour of greatest need. “In the grand scheme of things, there are devastating losses, human tragedies,” she says. “But to have got the sector through that, to have carried the weight of those three million people and have been able to protect a large number of those jobs – I think that would have to be the highlight of my career.”

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