The annual Arena Savoy Lecture is one of the most hotly anticipated events of our industry. 12 months on from her last lecture Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality – which represents 70,000 outlets – was back to share her thoughts on Brexit and what it means for the food and drink industry and food and drink agencies.

When we first pencilled the lecture into our diaries – like Kate – we thought she would be talking about the agreed deal and what it means for hospitality, but with one week to go to when the UK is supposed to leave the EU, we’re still no closer.

So, what does this all mean?

First Kate set the scene how important getting the right deal for the UK and the hospitality industry in particular is and why she has been ensuring we have a place at the table when it comes to the Brexit deal and Government decisions. The UK hospitality industry is worth £130bn, it employs 2.9 million people and represents 10% of UK employment, 6% of businesses and 5% of GDP. As an industry it performs better than any other, including automotive and is the only industry that is in steady growth – despite all the challenges that it has and continues to face.

Brexit will have a significant impact on all this, hospitality relies on a) tourism and b) foreign workers. The sentiment of voting ‘out’ has had an impact on how the UK as a nation is viewed – sadly, that we are unwelcoming. Two thirds of the UK’s tourism come from Europe – to vote out sent a very clear message to how people (and I’m not one of them) feel about being in the EU, although whatever happens we will always be part of Europe. Another interesting fact is that 25% of our industry’s workforce are foreign workers (a large proportion of which are from the EU), without a steady flow of people coming to the UK there could be an acute labour shortage – there’s simply not enough people in the UK to fill that gap – with unemployment figures currently at their lowest.

Kate went on to explain this is why UK Hospitality has been lobbying and looking out for the sector’s interests when it comes to tourism, workforce and taxation. Calling on the government to tax the ‘clicks and mortar’ economy, as well as the ‘bricks and mortar’ economy and ensure future employment in the sector is secured.

Her message was very clear.

We are stronger together. As big and as fragmented as the foodservice and hospitality industry is, it’s vital we speak with one voice, not only for the right Brexit deal but to safeguard our future by attracting new and fresh talent. Kate spoke candidly about negative perception of the industry as a career path, and the importance of being positive to inspire young people. Yes, hospitality is hard work, yes, it’s long hours, but it’s also very rewarding – “Show me one sector where you don’t have to work hard. We need to celebrate ambition.”

After Kate’s fascinating lecture, she then joined the panel discussion with Andrew Selley (Bidfood), Duncan Garrood (Ten Entertainment Group), James Bielby (FWD) and Peter Borg-Neal (Oakmann Inns) the panel agreed that the industry is very resilient and attracts glass half full people, but we will need to be agile and adaptable in the months and years ahead. Brexit will mean suppliers and operators will need to work together, be positive and look for opportunities. Warning that we may see more seasonality and scarcity of some foods – remember the courgette shortage last year?

It was a fascinating discussion and left me feeling optimistic that whatever Brexit brings, the industry will pull together. It sparked a lot of conversations around the table as we tucked into our fabulous menu prepared by the Savoy team of Scottish Smoked Salmon, Slow roasted Salt Marsh Rump Lamb and to finish Tropical tart – good choices Lorraine!

A huge thank you to The Savoy, Arena and Lorraine, for yet another excellent event.  The burning question though remains – will a Brexit deal be agreed? Well Kate predicted it will happen on the 28th March, but with an extension to June looking likely things seem to be changing on an hourly basis – so we’ll just have to wait and see…