Social value of hospitality to economy and society will be key component in accelerating planned recovery

The hospitality sector is vital in tying together the social fabric in Northern Ireland
Colin Neill

WHEN we talk about the hospitality sector, it is often through the prism of profit and loss.

Firing on all cylinders pre-pandemic, the sector in Northern Ireland contributed £2 billion to the economy each year and employed around 65,000 people, with 45,000 of those in food and drink service.

Growth presented by greater tourist numbers and reform of liquor licensing meant that opportunity was there for the taking.

But lockdown after lockdown took that away. Businesses in the sector have gone to the wall already, and many more likely to follow. It is a pretty clear indicator of the state of things.

What has not been so clear, but worth focusing on, is the significant impact on the social value created by the hospitality sector.

Without the ability to go to the pub for a pint or out to a restaurant for dinner or stay in a hotel, and with everyone confined to home, many have begun to realise just how important the role the hospitality industry plays in community inclusion and social cohesion.

The hospitality sector is evolving to ensure that it reflects and meets consumer demands. Whether that is things like low or no alcohol drink options, reduction in red meat on menus and providing choice for those with specific allergies, it is reflective of the fact that hospitality venues are the meeting point of choice.

They are no longer regarded as a place ‘to get the drinks in'. They play a huge part in being community hubs – regardless if that is in a rural or an urban setting.

Venues and establishments across the north have for years been the places where local book groups and families meet, charities host special fundraising nights and teams go for a post-match drink.

They serve a significant purpose for friendship and business meetings and are the spaces in which millions of pounds are raised for good causes every year.

It's clear that we need to get the hospitality sector up and running again. Yes, there is a strong need to get the registers ringing again, but we also must remember that the hospitality sector is so important in tying together our social fabric here.

Cohesive communities and successful local hospitality businesses are mutually beneficial. They need each other. Lockdown restrictions and the decline of the sector have, without doubt, impacted on increased social isolation, mental health and wellbeing. We are social animals, and this socio-economic issue should not be overlooked when decisions are made around future re-opening

We now have one eye on the plans for the recovery programme. It is not going to be easy, nor will everyone survive.

But we must encourage our Executive, Departments and Public Health advisers to make sure they consider the social purpose that society benefits from with a vibrant hospitality sector.

:: Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster

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