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Mark Lewis on the response to Hospitality Action's coronavirus appeal

15 April 2020 by

The chief executive of industry charity Hospitality Action has seen an unprecedented response to the coronavirus emergency appeal it launched just four weeks ago. He talks to Katherine Price

Tell us about Hospitality Action's Covid-19 emergency appeal

The bread and butter of our work is giving grants to people who are in difficulty or crisis across the industry, and that tends to be most typically for physical or mental health issues or around poverty. Then, a few weeks ago, as this outbreak began to take hold, it became clear that, even though the government hadn't issued a dictat that hotels and restaurants and pubs and bars should close, nevertheless they were encouraging people to stay at home and therefore footfall was dropping. It was becoming very clear that hospitality employees in particular were going to have a tough time of it.

We're mindful of the fact that we're a modestly sized industry benevolent charity, so we can't be the answer to everybody's issues around this time. The government needs to provide the answers and the finances to help people, but we thought, ‘let's help some people rather than none at all'. So that was the context to the fund.

The idea was always that we would give people emergency grants of £250. It's not long-term support, just a crisis grant to help people put food on the table, pay their utility bills, pay the rent until the end of this month when, hopefully, Universal Credit will kick in and the government's funding for furloughing will also reach employers.

We've been absolutely blown away by the response. We thought, ‘wouldn't £100,000 be wonderful?' We quickly surpassed that and we're now on more than £350,000.

Didn't you get 20,000 applications to the fund in one day?

Yes, we did. We started to raise money and it took a bit of time to figure out the basis upon which we were going to means test and award grants. Obviously it's important that we do means test – we don't want to give money to millionaires and we need to make sure people are from the industry before we help them.

Once we got all that sorted, about four weeks ago, we told people that on Monday morning at nine o'clock we would open an email inbox for applications. That weekend we had crazy numbers on our website and something like two million people engaging with us on Facebook. That told us that the need was there, that there were a lot of desperate people looking for information on this grant.

On the Monday, by the end of the day, I think we had 21,000 emails in the inbox. I think now we've reached about 36,000 emails. We're working our way slowly but surely through paying as many of those as possible.

How many people will you award the grant to?

We'll keep on spending as long as the money lasts. We had a wonderful gift last week. I had a call with the chief executive of the Antonio Carluccio Foundation, Simon Kossoff, and the foundation gave us £25,000, which was absolutely fabulous. And it keeps on coming. It's unprecedented from HA's perspective. We've never raised this sort of money before for a single appeal.

Even though the government has introduced schemes to help, are you concerned that some businesses will still fail and even more people will be coming to you?

Indeed, we saw Carluccio's close recently, Mark Hix's restaurants were put into administration, and that leaves people without work. There will be more people looking for fewer jobs because a lot of restaurants, hotels, pubs and bars sadly won't be reopening, and so this is going to be a problem for the next year or two.

How far through processing the applications are you?

I think we've paid a good half of them. It takes a while, as obviously we need to make sure somebody's bona fide. Sadly, as in all walks of life, there are scammers out there and we have to be careful, so there needs to be a certain amount of information received before we can make a grant.

We've tried to streamline the process as much as possible, because we know people are distressed and we didn't want to create all sorts of unnecessary hoops to jump through. We've seconded some members of the team onto grant awarding so that we can do this as quickly as possible.

Any money that's given to us in good faith for the Covid-19 appeal will be spent on grants, so as more funding comes in, that's more people we can help.

Haven't you also had some very positive messages from people outside the industry?

I think Joe Public is realising how keenly they miss their pints in the pub with their mates, meals in their favourite restaurants and trips away at the weekend. When it's not there you realise how big a part of your life it is. Hospitality is where we live our lives – we get married and go to hotels for our receptions, and we lose loved ones and have wakes at restaurants and pubs and hotels.

I think one of the positives of this outbreak is that the public will have a far greater respect, empathy and affection for the people who provide great hospitality.

I think one of the positives of this outbreak is that the public will have a far greater respect, empathy and affection for the people who provide great hospitality

You also put out a call for volunteers to help with your Golden Friends scheme – how did that go?

The Golden Friends scheme predates this crisis. It's an outreach programme for us to keep in touch with people who have worked in the industry but are now elderly and retired. We've got about 1,600-1,700 people on the scheme, but we include their partners as well, so altogether we reach out to 3,000 industry retirees.

When this all blew up we were very conscious that many of these people would be self-isolating, and we thought there was a job of work to be done to reach out to them and make sure they were safe and well.

We put calls out on social media for volunteers to take on some duties telephoning our golden friends, and people got in touch in their hundreds. It was the most amazing, humbling response. People have been phoning them to say ‘hello, we're from the industry, we're phoning on behalf of the industry's charity and we just want to make sure you're OK'. And 90% of the time the answer has been ‘that's fantastic, it's lovely to be remembered. I'm OK, but thanks for asking'.

There have been a few red flags raised by callers about people who are struggling and don't have any support. But we've then either been able to reach out to local volunteers or the local AgeUK office and say, ‘we've got a man who's in difficulty and needs a prescription picked up, or needs some groceries, or needs his dog walked', so we've been able to solve some of the issues they're anxious about.

Hats off to the people who put their hands up. I think a lot of them have realised that it's very much a two-way process and both parties get a lot from it.

You've also set up a jobs board in partnership with Caterer.com

We spoke to Caterer.com a couple of weeks ago and they told us they were going to re-nose their jobs board on the basis that there are very few jobs around at the moment for obvious reasons. They thought, ‘wouldn't it be great to curate a jobs board which has non-hospitality jobs that would be appropriate for hospitality people?' So it's jobs in logistics, warehousing, retail, pharmaceuticals and agriculture. Their thinking was that while people are furloughed or unemployed, let's try and make jobs available to them that they might consider in the short-term.

I thought it was a really good idea. We're partnering shoulder-to-shoulder with them, because it feels complementary to our short-term emergency grant. If somebody is unemployed, we give them £250 to just make sure they can pay the bills and put food on the table, and then Caterer.com are doing that slightly longer-term job of saying, ‘while we don't know what's going on with the industry, here's a job that you might want to do for the next three or four months'.

Mark Lewis
Mark Lewis

Is mental health also a focus?

Hospitality is such a wonderful and all- consuming industry and people work very hard. It's full-throttle; it takes over your life. Suddenly, that sense of purpose and defining oneself by one's job has been taken away and that's really difficult.

Being at home also has its own issues. Tensions can grow from a relationship perspective, and if you add in anxieties about whether you're going to work again, whether you'll be able to open your independent restaurant again, as well as feeling guilty about people you've furloughed, there's such a cocktail of emotions in peoples' minds that it can only create mental health issues.

Sadly, another issue will be bereavement, as the number of people losing their lives to the virus grows.

We want to make sure that we offer as much guidance as we can and we're working hard to create some fact sheets that speak specifically to these issues. There should be some videos in the next couple of months as well.

Will that be through the Employee Assistance Programme [EAP]?

The EAP continues as before, but we think it's important that the advice isn't hived off for clients of the EAP alone, so this will be free-to-view content promoted through social media.

The phones are ringing off the hook from people who need advice. The EAP offers support, whether it's relationship or marital problems, issues with childcare or elderly care, physical or mental health issues, debt issues or legal problems, so people will be getting in touch for all of those issues and more, and we're certainly seeing an upturn in usage of the EAP.

How else are you working to support people in the industry?

All of our services are still accessible, so if you're an EAP client and one of your employees needs counselling, that will still be available. We've obviously had to migrate counselling onto telephones and Skype calls and the like, but everything we've offered we continue to offer. It's important to say, EAP aside, we're here for allcomers, anyone who wants to speak to somebody, anyone who wants advice or guidance can come to us.

And it's important to say we're still doing the normal bread and butter work of the charity, which is awarding grants to people in difficulty or crisis, notwithstanding the coronavirus crisis. There are still people with access issues because of life-changing illness, victims of domestic abuse who need help, there are still people who need counselling for dependency. All that work continues as well as all this more timely work.

What is your call to action to the industry?

First, I want everybody to know that we're here for them, and that's the most important point. Give us a call and we'll do our very best.

Beyond that, we'll need to rebuild when we're past these next few months. Obviously coronavirus has thrown the whole world into turmoil, us included, so we'll need to take stock of our fundraising options. All the events we had planned from April until the end of July have either been postponed or cancelled, so we'll need to crack on when the world begins to open up again and start raising funds so that we can continue to help more people.

I think what we'll do then is try and ride on the wave of this outpouring of love and affection for the industry that we've seen from the general public. If we can work with employers to somehow tap into that empathy, whether it's through £1 on the bill or putting £1 on a pizza, as Jason Atherton does at Hai Cenato, we'll need to start fundraising so that we can continue to help people in future.

Covid-19 Emergency Appeal

Covid-19 Emergency Appeal
Covid-19 Emergency Appeal

Last month, Hospitality Action launched a Covid-19 Emergency Appeal to raise money for a one-off award to industry workers suddenly facing hardship as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Leaders from across the industry jumped to voice their support and urge followers to donate through social media videos, including Tom Kerridge, Lisa Goodwin-Allen, Tom Brown, Ryan Giggs, Raymond Blanc and Andi Oliver. The fund has so far raised more than £350,000.

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