On the 22nd June, I travelled to Bedfordshire to attend the Whitbread AGM, which was held at the company’s head office, just outside Dunstable. The board and senior management were in attendance, together with around two dozen shareholders in the room and a further 14 attending online.
A positive trading update had been issued on the morning of the meeting, and the board repeated the details before reviewing last year’s results and the outlook for subsequent years.
The budget hotels sector has rebounded strongly following the pandemic, and the board remains confident of further opportunities to grow the business, both in the UK and in their developing operation in Germany.
The Q&A part of the meeting started with a lengthy exchange between the board and representatives of the Unite trade union, who were seeking union recognition and bargaining rights, and asking the company to seek accreditation as a real living wage employer. The board responded by outlining their approach to remuneration, highlighting the weighting of recent pay rises towards lower paid staff, and providing detailed statistics on pay rates around the country.
As the company is now predominantly a hotel operator, with no brewing interests and far fewer pubs, I asked about the company’s approach to distribution and availability of cask conditioned ales.
The question was answered by the managing director of the UK operations, who told me that the drinks range offered is customer driven, and he reported a recent increase in demand for cask ale. The product is only stocked in those outlets where there is sufficient demand to maintain quality, particularly pubs with a large outdoor area.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, there had been speculation in the media that Whitbread are exploring the sale of their pubs operation. When questioned on this, the board said they do not comment on media speculation, but their food and beverage offer is a key part of the business and is very important to customers, especially breakfast.
My overall impression was that the company remains financially secure, and management have a good understanding of cask beer.
Ian Brindley – CMIC Committee Member