Scottish hospitality boss sees bright future for industry despite latest Covid devastation

THE chief executive of central Scotland-based Manorview Hotels & Leisure Group has underlined his confidence in the future of the Scottish hospitality trade – despite the current challenges from coronavirus severely curtailing trading in the crucial period before Christmas.

The hospitality sector is currently reeling from the fall-out from the Omicron variant, with public health advice and restrictions introduced by government to halt its spread sparking a wave of bookings cancellations.

Under the latest restrictions, announced yesterday by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, pubs and restaurants will from Boxing Day be expected to reintroduce one-metre physical distancing between groups of customers, and offer table service to avoid crowding at bars, for three weeks. Ms Sturgeon said a total of £375 million has now been pledged to support businesses in Scotland, but hospitality figures fear the new restrictions will exert a heavy toll.

Despite the short-term challenges, Manorview boss Steve Graham insists the long-term outlook can be bright.

And he declared Manorview, which is a major player in the wedding market, is open to acquisitions as he targets the continuing growth of the business.

Mr Graham, whose company owns 15 managed and leased venues, including the Red Hurst Hotel in Giffnock and the Busby Hotel nearby, said Covid has become a permanent presence that the industry has learned to live with.

Asked if was concerned about stricter restrictions, he told The Herald: “Being honest with you, no, because it is the world we live in now. As a company, we have opened and closed so many times. We have adapted and we are efficient with it, and we know how much stock to be sitting on. We know how to manage the communications around the company, so in general it is not something that we are running away from. We are trying to run into it and think, let’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It is not something that is keeping me awake at night, to be honest.”

However, Mr Graham is mindful of the impact Omicron is having on the wider industry. He added: “It’s easy for me to say that because business is going very well. One of the things that we have been very fortunate around as a company is that we managed to postpone all our wedding business from Covid [lockdown] time. That period of business has now moved into this year, along with this year’s business, so what we lost during Covid we are making up for – and then some.”

Manorview won plaudits early in the pandemic by declaring that it would make no one redundant as a result of the crisis, with the commitment coming before the UK Government introduced the furlough scheme in March 2020. The company, which is now an accredited Living Wage employer, generally has between 500 and 550 staff.

Mr Graham, who is the majority shareholder, said Manorview has benefited from looking after customers who had seen their wedding plans delayed because of lockdown. Visits were paid to customers with gifts and cards to thank them for their patience.

He said: “I’ve seen Covid as an opportunity to reset the business, cement our culture and potentially grow, and work on the assets that we have got. There were things that we got done round the units during Covid that we wouldn’t have been able to do [while] trading.”

Staff spent time during lockdown refurbishing Manorview’s venues and training staff.

Noting that he feels “very grateful” for the position Manorview is currently in, Mr Graham said: “I’m not worried because we will push on, whatever happens.”

He added: “We have got another variant, which seems aggressive, but the Delta variant seemed really aggressive when it first came.

“When the Delta variant first came and we had the first Covid scenario we didn’t have any vaccines. Yes, we now have a new variant, but we have got vaccines and boosters. In my opinion we are in a better place. I think the government are just anxious the hospitals do not get overwhelmed now.

“It’s life now, isn’t it? There’s going to be variant after variant. This will not be the last time this happens.”

Mr Graham said the experience of the last 21 months has shown that government has stepped in to help hospitality businesses, for example with the furlough scheme, grants and the temporary reduction of value-added tax. His preference at the moment would be for the industry to have a short period of curtailed trading without support, rather than a long hiatus with financial aid.

“People still want to come out and enjoy food and drink and experience being out amongst people,” he said. “That’s one of the things about our industry – you can’t do it online. You can buy food, you can have it delivered, you can get anything online. But you can’t actually experience eating it, having it cooked for you and the social aspect… even in a virtual scenario it just doesn’t feel the same.

“And it is a business that comes back quickly, as has been proved. People want to get back out and socialise.”

When asked if this was a time when the company would consider acquiring further properties, Mr Graham said Manorview is always looking to expand. But he noted that prices were currently at a “premium”, despite the challenging backdrop.

He said: “Lots of opportunities that I am looking at tend to be of a higher value than I would consider to be an option for us. It’s not because we don’t want to expand. We are seeing opportunities, but not at the right asking price for us. We would definitely expand when the right opportunity comes along; I just haven’t quite seen that lately. Yes, we want to expand, but only for the right thing at the right time.”

“Consolidation is not a word I like to use to be honest.”

Mr Graham recently won a coveted industry achievement award from trade bible Scottish Licensed Trade News. He said it was “flattering” to receive the accolade, but feels he still has much work to do and to achieve at Manorview.

“I did say in my acceptance speech that it felt a bit premature,” Mr Graham said.

“I just feel like we have so much to do to make a real difference in the industry. It is such a challenge [and] it is far from being achieved. There is so much more I would still like us to do and achieve… but at the same time I am grateful.”

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