Kate Nicholls: the woman who tries to protect pubs and clubs in a pandemic

Kate Nicholls: the woman who tries to protect pubs and clubs in a pandemic


In the darker days of the pandemic, with the industry she represented on her knees and no light at the end of the tunnel, UK Hospitality boss Kate Nicholls went to see a therapist.

She had acted as an “emotional sponge”, absorbing the anguish of tens of thousands of pubs, bars and restaurants fearing oblivion, while trying to protect her team, especially the younger ones, from the ravages of a particularly event. stressful.

“There were times when it was really pretty dark,” she says. “Especially when you arrived in October and November of last year. We were in tears: there was this sense of frustration that businesses were open but unable to trade and you could see it all slip away again. “

In tense negotiations with the government, banks and insurers over financial support for the sector, it simply continued. It is in the quieter moments that the pent-up effect of relentless pressure is known. “You may collapse slightly,” she said. “I’m probably going to crack when we get out of this.” “

While she insists her dealings with ministers have always been cordial and collaborative, dealing with the absurdities of politics has taken its toll. “Things like scotch eggs and the 10pm curfew,” she said, referring to the period in late 2020 when politicians concocted compromises on when venues should close and whether the snack from the pub was a substantial meal.

“For some reason there was a communication breakdown where the government did not intervene effectively to ask industry how we could work to [reopen safely]. And after that, we always play catching up.

Restrictions on socialization have loosened, allowing punters to come back in droves, but more pain could be on the horizon without significant support. Last week Nicholls and his members’ worst fears surfaced as concerns over the Omicron Covid-19 variant sparked a wave of Christmas holiday cancellations. “We lost 10% of the industry during Covid,” she said. “I think you might consider business failures to be important again. “

His warning is based not so much on Omicron, but on concerns such as the £ 10.5bn in debt the sites accumulated during the pandemic, including £ 2bn in rent debt that landlords will not carry forward. not forever. Meanwhile, costs are skyrocketing, with utility bills skyrocketing and higher costs for food and drink.

The crisis arose at the end of March, when the 66% reduction on professional tariffs ended and the VAT on hospitality returned to 20% against 12.5%. “We’re going to have to raise the prices, but if you raise the taxes at the same time, you’re going to kill a lot of these businesses,” Nicholls said. “Many run on steam. “

She will pressure Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the two measures in her spring budget, which comes weeks before one of the four “day shifts” of the year – the time when rents come due and companies that cannot pay them often go to the wall.

” They [the government] have the opportunity to place a larger proportion of the sector in this category of vulnerable and failing firms, or they have the opportunity to accelerate the recovery and move the economy.

Nicholls has been battling the effects of Covid-19 for longer than most. It was holding industry meetings about it in January last year, as its members began to report how badly things were going in their outposts overseas.

She was also one of the first people in the UK to catch the disease, in March. Like many patients, she lost her sense of taste and smell. But it gave rise to a much more unusual symptom.

Nicholls has synesthesia, a rare neurological trait that causes the senses to overlap, meaning she can taste and smell the words. “The word Facebook tastes like baby powder to me,” she says, while the word Northumberland tastes like petrichor, the smell of rain on dry land. Since catching Covid, however, her synesthesia has all but disappeared.

The sign on a pub door in Surrey in May of last year. Photographie : Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

Her connection to her roots in northeast England is something she hasn’t lost, however, and she retains her Durham accent. It was there that she grew up, the child of teachers, and was educated at the local high school before reading English at Cambridge – the first in her family to go to college.

She continued to gain experience in the industry she now represents, pulling pints as a college student and serving meals at restaurant chain TGI Fridays in her first job, with the hotel company Whitbread.

The 51-year-old lobbyist is also well versed in politics. Early in her career, she worked for conservative politicians in the House of Commons and the European Parliament, where she claims to have “saved the crispy shrimp cocktail” from Brussels bureaucrats concerned about food additives.

When asked if the Conservative Party remained the ‘business party’, she recalls the so-called ‘shrimp cocktail offensive’ of the 1990s, when Labor sought to woo industry luminaries via meetings with catering.

Has Boris Johnson’s party lost that mantle now, via his infamous ‘fuck business’ commentary on Brexit and, more recently, a clumsy performance at the CBI’s annual speech? Nicholls simply says, “I think sometimes business is taken for granted by political parties. “

At least now, she feels that hospitality is no longer seen as a hotbed of Covid-19 transmission and the government has understood her message on the mitigating impact of measures such as ventilation and sanitation to ensure customer safety.

“It’s really good that politicians approve of this because it’s what you need to maintain consumer confidence. “

She has learned to stop fearing condemnation from those who see the efforts to keep the premises open as contempt for the danger of Covid. “All I can do is stay true to what the industry needs and wants, and stay focused on that. I am not an epidemiologist.


Age 51

Family Civil servant husband and two daughters aged 19 and 16.

Education Comprehensive school before reading English at Cambridge, then postgraduate competition law and an MBA, while working.

Payer “We’re a non-profit, so I’m not going to go publicly, if that’s okay with you. “

Last holidays December 2020 in the Arctic Circle, Northern Lights hunt and husky safari.

The best advice you have ever received “’Get up as you go up.’ It’s something I’ve tried to do all along, especially as a woman in several male-dominated industries. This comes from one of my first bosses at Whitbread who always emphasized the importance of being helpful and supporting everyone.

Biggest career mistake “I kept my demeanor too professional and lost to someone else in my first GM job because people didn’t really know me. “

Word she abuses “I don’t think I have one, but probably something like ‘synergy’ or ‘passionate’. “

How she relaxes Reading – “at least two books a week”. She challenged herself to read her 20 Christmas books before the lockdown ended. “Needless to say, I had to buy more. “


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