Hospitality sector professionals and entrepreneurs come together in Liverpool city centre for the last of three Power Panel discussions organised by business lobby group Downtown in Business. Tony McDonough reports
Hoteliers in Liverpool fear the proposed £1-a night tourist tax levied on guests each night in the city could hit their takings and lead to visitors departing with a bad impression of their stay.
And they called on the city’s inward investment bodies to up their game to attract more blue-chip corporates so they can fill their rooms in midweek when business is still much quieter than at the weekends.
They were just two of the issues raised at the the last of three Power Panel events organised by business lobby group Downtown in Business and held at 4 St Paul’s Square in the city centre.
The latest event featured a number business leaders in the hospitality sector and visitor economy and was sponsored by specialist Merseyside waste firm, B&M.
The events are held under Chatham House rules, which means we can report what was said, but not who said it, offering those present the freedom to speak frankly.
A recent report from Liverpool City Council painted a rosy picture for the city’s hotel sector, which has almost doubled in size in a decade and had seen more than 2m rooms sold in 2017.
The panel included representatives from more than one city hotel and, while they acknowledged business was pretty good, there was a desire for a better balance between weekdays and weekends.
One said: “At the moment it is a case of either feast or famine. If there is a Liverpool FC home game then most of the hotels will be pretty full. If that comes together with an event at the arena and convention centre then there won’t be a room available in the city centre.
“At the weekend we will attract a lot of stag and hen parties. However, on a Monday night the situation is quite different and we are having to work harder to fill the rooms.”
Others on the panel pointed out that many of Liverpool’s restaurants were in the same boat. One person explained: “I speak to lots of restaurants on a regular basis and they have the same issue – fully booked at the weekend and struggling to get into double figures on some weeknights.”
There was agreement that where Liverpool was behind a number of other cities was in the size of its corporate market. Too few corporate businesses meant there was no steady flow of business travellers during the week – unless there was a conference on at ACC Liverpool.
Another panel member said: “On occasion I have tried to book hotel rooms for business clients in Manchester during the week and struggled to find enough rooms. The increase in leisure travellers to Liverpool is fantastic but we need to be seen as a serious business city as well.”
This point was echoed by a law professional on the panel who pointed out cities such as Manchester and Belfast had done a better job in persuading large white collar businesses to set up operations and it was something Liverpool needed to work harder at.
The question was also raised: could Liverpool sustain a five-star hotel? The consensus was that the city was not yet at that point. One panel member pointed out that executives of the top 5,000 corporations across the globe only ever travelled first class and would only stay in five-star hotels.
On the proposed £1-a-night tourist tax for hotel guests, something that is common practice in other European countries, the panel was divided with some believing the idea to have merit if the money raised was used effectively to attract more people to Liverpool.
“I think as long as we communicate to people properly what the money is for then I think maybe they wouldn’t mind so much paying it,” one panel member said. “If that money goes back into the local economy then I think it could be ok.”
However, those from the hotel sector were less keen on the idea, with one saying: “From our perspective we may get pushed back on our corporate rate. Things will get rounded up and we will end up absorbing it in our own costs. If there was a extra £1 a night on offer we would love that for ourselves,
“Also, there may be an issue having to explain it to customers at the front desk. If they are not happy with it they go away blaming the hotel, not the city.”
There was also concern raised about the retention of talent in the city’s hospitality sector with one panel member saying the local industry needed to “professionalise” its workforce.
“One of the problems we have in the city is that too many students leave once they finish their studies,” she said. “It is accepted that those who work in hospitality are going to leave and do something else once they graduate – we need to make it an attractive career choice.
“We have some brilliant hospitality businesses in this city but we also have some very poor employers, too. They don’t treat their staff well or pay them anywhere near enough. There is a particular issue with keeping good chefs – they are simply not motivated or incentivised to stay in Liverpool.”
Selling the city
In common with the first two Power Panels several panel members raised the issue of the confusion of the array of different public sector agencies and how this was hampering efforts to attract both visitors and inward investment with one describing the Visit Liverpool website as “shocking”.
However, one panel member put forward the view that, on many indicators, the city was doing pretty well and we should focus more on the positives.
He said: “Look at the assets that we have – the football the Beatles, the fantastic architecture in the city. We have also had the International Business Festival – what other cities have that?
“We are also one of the top cities now in the UK for growth. I think we need to stop comparing ourselves to places such as Manchester and be positive about what we do have to offer. I can’t think of many other places that can offer what Liverpool can.”