The annual Arena Savoy Lecture is the jewel in the crown of the Arena foodservice networking calendar, with the great and the good of the industry in attendance. This year the line-up included the traditional key note speech, as well as a panel debate on the hot topic of Brexit, entitled Challenges and Opportunities. With representatives from finance – Bob Silk from Barclays Hospitality and Leisure team, law – Sebastian Calnan from EMW Law and crucially operator side – Jason Myers of Busaba Eathai, chaired by Vernon Hunte of the BHA, there was a good balance of viewpoints to inform the discussion. Each voiced their informed views on Brexit and what is certainly a hugely complex and challenging process.

The timeline of two years was generally felt to be unrealistic with concern the process of Brexit will take far longer. With the 29th of March set to trigger Article 50, the clock is ticking and although the general consensus was that a trade deal will be made, the panel is under no illusion that the process will be in any way quick or simple and of course whilst things are still up in the air, uncertainty itself is damaging enough. With a majority of twenty out of the twenty seven countries required to agree any Brexit deal, the ideal outcome was considered to be similar to what Switzerland has. However with constant calls for transparency on details of any deal from certain quarters of the media and parliament, Teresa May has a difficult task on her hands. Progress could indeed be hampered as a result. Anyone who has ever been on a Scotworks negotiation course or similar will know that the worst thing you can do when negotiating is show your hand, but this is exactly what will happen if the press and parliament get their way and May is forced to set out publicly what we want to get, rather than playing the game the way it should be played.

Jason Myers of Busabai Eathai, having been a firm remain supporter, took a broadly positive view on Brexit. His caveat was that we need to ensure our EU workers know they are valued and will be free to stay. Going forward he wants reassurances that foreign workers will be able to access working visas, in order to ensure the hospitality industry has access to the labour pool we need and give us the benefits that the cultural diversity of non-UK workers bring. He also urged the industry to work together and leverage the power and influence foodservice and hospitality have within the economy, to ensure the right deal for future success. Of course part of the right solution will be the flexibility to access the labour and goods we need, as well as getting inflation under control and reassuring those already living here that they should stay. This will be crucial he says as there is already a huge staff churn in the hospitality industry and with so many jobs filled by EU workers currently; as illustrated by the recent headlines from Pret (1 in 50 job applicants is British); it doesn’t bear thinking about what would happen if we had no EU workers.

So will we get to where we need to be in two years’ time? Certainly one thing that everyone agrees on is that it won’t be easy. With issues like the North/South open Irish border, whether we should negotiate with all twenty seven countries or just the big six, movement of labour, movement of goods and a myriad of other topics to cover in infinite detail, the government (and the EU for that matter) certainly has their work cut out. As for what will happen post-Brexit, assuming there is an acceptable trade deal negotiated, the consensus is that current EU food legislation will simply transfer to UK law and there will be far more pressing issues for government to deal with in the short term rather than tinker with the status quo. In the meantime in this era of Brexit doom and gloom there will still be opportunities for those who are ‘fleet of foot’ and flexible enough to take advantage. If the industry can act as a whole, we’ll be far better placed to secure the right outcome for the future of foodservice and hospitality in the UK.

After a lot of food for thought it was time to lighten the mood with some bubbles and networking, as attendees had a chance to catch-up with contacts old and new before moving on to the key note speech of the evening from Andrew Selley, Chief Executive of Bidvest (or soon to be Bidfood). He kicked-off by addressing the latest rebrand head-on with a self-effacing take on their continued brand development. He confirmed that on 3rd April the business will rebrand to Bidfood. Having covered this off, he moved on to share the internal refocusing process that the business has embraced in order to become ‘Future Fit’. By garnering input from the internal team on how they wanted to change the business, the leadership team found a clear vision forward and simple brand values of ‘Care, Share, Dare’. By decentralising their depots to create entrepreneurial business units empowered to make their own decision and build their own business, going back to basics, focusing on customer service excellence and keeping in touch with the grass roots, Andrew and his team has evolved the business into one that can compete effectively with national and regional competitors and in his terms is lean, strong and ‘Future Fit’. As for negotiating with suppliers on price, he had a clear message for them. We are happy to ‘deal in real’ where there are actual food inflation pressures, but not where Brexit is used as a catch-all to drive up prices.

Looking to the future also highlights the key issue of sustainability and the environment, with population set to outstrip food supply by 2050, Bidvest are doing all they can to embrace sustainable practices including a commitment to traceability, minimising food waste and generally helping support caterers to offer variety and choice for customers with a view to future sustainability. He also urged industry to come together and sign up to the Courtauld Commitment as Bidvest itself has already done.

Of course the killer question came at the end, as Andrew was put on the spot with regard to his opinion on the Booker Tesco deal. Having worked with Charles Wilson when he was with Booker, he has the greatest of respect for the business, but rightly pointed out that over the years there have been many prophets of doom as retailers launched home delivery services and many said they would simply move on to deliver to catering businesses and take over from the foodservice delivered wholesalers. But as we know that hasn’t happened. He made the good point that retailers can sometimes underestimate foodservice and the customer service levels required for catering businesses.

Then it was time for a stunning meal from the team at the Savoy (you can see the pictures on the Jellybean Twitter) which was as delicious as it was stunningly presented. After an informative and scalable night, the evening came to a close with the customary charity prize draw which raised £1,400 for industry charities Springboard and Hospitality Action. Well done to Lorraine and the team on another fabulous event. To catch-up on the event you can search #ArenaSavoy17 on Twitter.

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