Ufi Ibrahim tells Mel Flaherty how her passion for the hospitality industry led to her campaigning on its behalf.
As Chief Executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), one of Ufi Ibrahim’s key aims is to change perceptions of careers in the industry. She can tackle this with the benefit of first-hand experience, having been on the receiving end of negative reaction to her own choice of profession.
Ibrahim’s parents wanted her to study law, which she did for a while, and she also started reading economics and politics. When she told them that her heart wasn’t in it and that her real love was travel and tourism, they were not best pleased. She had to fund her own way through a BA in Leisure and Tourism Management at London Metropolitan University.
Ironically, it was Ibrahim’s upbringing that engendered that passion for the business she has worked in and represented throughout the whole of her working life to date. From a very young age, family holidays involved her father driving the whole family – herself, her mother and her two older sisters – from London to her parents’ native Turkey in a huge Ford Zodiac. Tunnels through the various mountains en route were few and far between back then, so in the early days the journey took an arduous eight days. It’s hard to imagine the number of games of ‘I Spy’ and choruses of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ that must have involved.
Ibrahim absolutely loved the whole adventure, though, and vividly recalls the seminal moment when she was bitten by the travel bug:
“We had stopped in Austria and my mum sent my sister and I to go and fill up our water bottles. We found a home and the old man and lady who lived there took us round to an old-fashioned water pump to fill up. I was fascinated by this and the man gestured behind me to show that the water came from the mountain. I remember turning round and seeing this mountain and being in complete awe of it and of the hospitality of that couple and feeling this incredible sense of discovery. That was when I fell in love with travel.”
Ibrahim’s home life also played a big part in shaping her destiny. Her mother had seen a nine-bedroom Victorian house in London which she wanted so much that she was determined to find a way to afford it. She hatched a plan to rent out rooms and went to the Turkish Embassy and offered accommodation to let for the officials who worked there and their families. As a result, Ibrahim grew up surrounded by diplomats and political discussions.
All of this was the perfect recipe to give her the skills and drive to succeed within the various roles she has had over the years and that have brought her to where she is today.
Despite a brief post-graduate blip when a lack of graduate-level jobs in the business she studied led her to work in an investment bank (and to think her parents may have been right after all) Ibrahim’s career path almost seems like it was always meant to lead to this point.
The first real step was a role with American Express (Amex) focusing on passports and visas for corporate travellers. This involved building relationships with heads of consulates and diplomats – the kinds of people she grew up around. Within two years she was leading the department.
While in that job, Ibrahim was spotted making her way easily through the difficult arrivals procedures in China, past the queues of people having issues with visas, by a man who had been commissioned by the United Nations to look into ways to facilitate travel across the Silk Route countries. Amex agreed to let her help him in her free time. That man was Graham Wason who went on to become strategy advisor to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
Ibrahim ended up staying there for ten years and became second in command – Chief Operations Officer. Ibrahim counts her biggest achievements in her time at the WTTC as getting the governments of India to understand the value of the industry, of China to attract international tourism investors, and supporting the United States Travel Association to develop a travel and tourism competitiveness strategy that was signed by Barrack Obama.
Ibrahim modestly attributes her career moves to what she calls “the hinge effect, where you meet someone and they open the next door for you” and cites the opportunity to take the BHA job as a good example.
The then head of VisitBritain, Christopher Rodrigues, InterContinental Hotels Group CEO Andy Cosslett and Whitbread CEO Alan Parker, were working together on a British tourism campaign and suggested to Ibrahim that it might be time to step into a role where she was head honcho, and to develop skills working in a vertical rather than global market. She says the timing couldn’t have been better:
“I liked the idea of being the number one and of focusing in a different way. Also, this was 2010 so we had the Olympics coming up, a new government had been in place for about six months and it all looked very exciting.”
She admits that, given her experience of working with less developed tourism industries and governments in less financially stable countries, she naively thought the role may be easier than she soon found it to be, especially in terms of getting the UK government to work collaboratively with the industry. Before she tackled any of that, however, she quickly learned she had to go right back to basics to focus on the fundamentals of trust, reputation, credibility and financial stability within the BHA itself. Every time the organisation now talks on behalf of the industry, she is confident it is not contrary to the views and interests of any of its members as all policies and campaigns are very much evidence-based and developed after much consultation.
Upon talking to Ibrahim, it soon becomes apparent she is not daunted by seemingly Herculean tasks. She always looks ahead to the “big prizes” as she sees the association’s key policies, but breaks them down into manageable chunks that can accumulate small wins along the way; keeping her team and the industry motivated and moving closer to their ultimate target.
For instance, while she is happy that since joining the BHA, the organisation has succeeded in getting effects on the industry higher up the agenda within various government departments and getting them to liaise together and with the industry, significantly through the establishment of the Tourism Industry Council, she recognises there is still a long way to go.
“We still have to change the culture of the value of our industry – that it is at least as important as engineering, manufacturing and so on. That is a challenge as the service sector is still seen to be the poorer cousin,” she says.
Likewise with the long-running campaign to try and get a reduction in the VAT rate for UK tourism businesses, as is the case in many competitor destinations (in fact according to the World Economic Forum, the UK is just one from the bottom of the list of global destinations in terms of tourism competitiveness). Ibrahim recognises it is a long-term play and refuses to be put off by obstacles along the way.
The association’s strategy is to get a majority of MPs – 321 – to sign up to champion the VAT campaign, so that it can be taken to parliament. For the past four years, the BHA has invited MPs to an event at Parliament showcasing the industry – it is a great opportunity to get more of them backing the movement.
Prior to the last election, 200 MPs had signed up to support the VAT push, a figure which went back down 110 after the election, but is now back up to 130.
Brexit, too, has thrown a rather large curveball at the BHA agenda, with the potential outcome on immigration negotiations presenting either a massive problem or a huge opportunity for the industry, depending which way they go. The BHA co-ordinated the industry so that it was the first business sector in the UK to come out with a solutions-based policy for immigration post-Brexit – as a result, hospitality is often cited in newspaper articles on the subject and other industry associations have been asking the BHA for advice on co-ordinating their own response.
Ibrahim attributes many of the BHA’s successes since she took the top post to the team of experts that have joined the organisation – many of her colleagues are leaders in their field and getting them on board was part of her drive to deliver the best return on investment for the association’s membership fees. BHA membership figures have grown from 30,000 to 46,500-plus since she became head, which speaks volumes.
She set out her stall early on. Looking back, Ibrahim says the most challenging moment in her career to date was soon after she joined. Retrospectively, she says she was very green about how to work with the UK government, but it certainly didn’t do her any harm. She went in to confront ministers directly about a crazy plan to get all hospitality businesses to slash prices by 20.12% during the London Olympics year.
“I think they expected me to come in and agree to sell this idea to the industry, but I pointed out we had already given 40,000 rooms away to help London win the bid to host the Olympics and that other countries gave their tourism businesses a VAT holiday when they hosted the Olympics. I wasn’t nervous because if you believe in the cause, it is more important than your personal reputation and since then our relationships with government have been more serious, focused and healthier.”
There is a sense of frustration when she discusses the number of industry associations for the different sub-sectors of hospitality, leisure and tourism. One of her dear wishes would be for all of these to come together to speak in voice to government, the value of which has been recognised by the banking industry where a number of associations have consolidated.
Given Ibrahim’s accumulation of experience and achievements so far, if anyone is in a good position to climb that particular mountain, it is her.