Philip Harrison 40 Years in Hospitality – A Reflection

Creative Design Trail Blazer

10th March 2023

By Richard


As he steps down as CEO of his eponymous design agency after 34 years at the helm, Philip Harrison reflect on how the vibrant, exciting sector has evolved over the decades.

At the beginning of the 1980s, hospitality wasn’t really recognised as an industry in the same way it is now, the popular perception being it was not a business where you could forge a ‘proper’ career.

Little had changed since the early ‘60s – but the ‘80s was when change really gathered momentum.

As for hospitality design, that was still in its infancy and designers in the late ‘70s were still seen as people who picked the wallpaper and curtains – though Terence Conran had achieved much in changing perceptions of design.

Hospitality principally compromised of the big four brewers, the big hotel groups, a disparate array of small groups, one-off operator-owned venues – and of course the arrival of the likes of McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

Certainly there was not a unifying organisation like UKHospitality which has done so much to bring the industry together and ensure it is recognised as a key economic driver in the UK.

The big brewers were all developing what were primarily suburban and rural brands such as Berni Inns, later losing out to Beefeater Steakhouse from Whitbread.

In fact, Whitbread were probably the first to truly grasp where hospitality was heading and breaking new ground, their restaurant division growing Pizza Hut in the UK and introducing us all to the phenomenon known as TGI Friday’s.

Whitbread even entered the late-night market with night clubs and ill-conceived “venue bars”.

By contrast, city centres were poorly serviced in terms of eating and drinking innovation – barring some notable exceptions in London.

One reason for this was that full on-licence applications still had to be obtained through the local licencing magistrates court, and were almost always objected to by the brewers and very often refused.

The brewers had by far and away the most licenced premises and could also move licences from one property to another with relative ease, giving them a virtual monopoly.

Before the hospitality sector really started to get its act together, wine bars began to appear up and down the country, against backdrop of growing demand for something different.

Wine-only licenses were relatively easy to obtain because, by and large, the brewers didn’t object to them, as they weren’t seen as a threat to the status quo and their own market dominance.

Big mistake! It wasn’t that wine bars did any real damage to the brewery barons of the day, but they did kick-start a change in what the customers would come to crave – more food choices, more drinks choices, better environments and better service. Though there were some exceptions, the brewers were mostly looking the other way.

This is where interior design really began to be recognised as an important component in the delivery of better customer experiences. In the early days, especially with mass market multiple units, the design wasn’t terribly strategic. More like a child being let lose in a sweetshop.

We learnt quickly that consumer expectations, return on investment and budgetary constraints all needed to be considered as part of the design process, and part of what we do is to deliver maximum positional impact for the least cost.

What happened next?

Suburban and rural brands were carrying on their journey, with Beefeater continuing to grow with its fantastical, irreverent design format. It was the start of the “guest experience” – and no one realised at the time the impact that phrase would have, becoming a cornerstone for future brands’ long-term success.

Next up was Bass, which finally caught on to the changing world of hospitality and set up a special projects team. Their remit was to set up quasi-partnership agreements with successful entrepreneurs to build new businesses – combining Bass’s financial clout with individuals unshackled by the corporate machine.

All Bar One was born, which really was a real game changer. Its background and success is well documented, but while everyone talked about it being “female friendly”, I believe that was accidental. It wasn’t gender specific at all, but more about attracting guests who didn’t want to go to the pub. Ironically some of the target professions at that time were dominated by men – barristers, lawyers, accountants, stock market pros, property agents, etc.

Though predated by Slug & Lettuce and Pitcher & Piano, All Bar One captured the essence of what people were looking for, a safe environment with simple but great food, beers and wine, with engaging service. And the design? Simple and totally understated.

There was undoubtedly a period when it did become all about design – almost as a crutch to support poor standards elsewhere. There is no doubt some in the design industry milked this shamelessly – though our focus at Harrison was always on maximum impact for every pound spent.

Another big change came when big brewers split their retail businesses into separate entities. We all know what a significant change that represented for the pub sector within the wider hospitality industry.

Over the past 25 years, changes in the hospitality industry have continued to evolve at pace and today, the UK is recognised as a global player for its range of food and beverage offerings, across a vast range of propositions and occasions. Not bad going considering where we were.

The design industry has also matured and evolved at a similar pace to become a valued partner to many businesses and crucial in the process of developing new brands and evolving existing ones through insight and an intuitive understanding of what the guest is seeking.

The role of technology has impacted almost all hospitality businesses large and small, and data capture has had huge benefits to larger businesses.

But the slavish reliance on data can often crowd out the entrepreneurial spark that has been the foundation of so many great businesses. You really can’t beat a good dose of intuition.

Incrementally evolving a brand to remain relevant has become a critical part of the business cycle. Without this a brand will potentially be heading for an almighty crash, which has happened so many times to once successful businesses.

The knock-on effect is that much more capital has to be re-invested in what then becomes a process of re-invention. The danger here is all the brand values that have been invested over the years are lost amid wholesale change.

Regardless of a brand’s recognition and apparent strength in the market, if it doesn’t stay relevant in a fast-changing world of customer expectations, all those strengths will mean nothing.

Again, there are some notable exceptions, and some places gain an institutional status and do not need to visibly evolve. One pub that springs to mind is The Eagle in Farringdon. It must be nearly 40 years since it was launched and remains exactly the same: remarkable and brilliant.

Sadly, over 40 years there have been many great brands with terrific stories and values that have been diluted out of all recognition. This is either through cutbacks in investment, failing to see the need to evolve, or copying the competition so the essence of the brand is lost.

I’m really only scratching the surface here when it comes to looking at the hospitality and design industry’s evolution and growth. There are many other influences I could draw on and many more operations that have come and gone over the years – businesses that helped shape hospitality and the increasingly important role of design in helping shape some great experiential places.

Some owner operators have even designed their own bars or restaurants and created some great experiences for their guests. Mind you, there are also a lot that failed in this regard and really did need some professional input.

We’ve seen an explosion of home delivery services, and this certainly fulfils a need in the market. But thankfully we are a gregarious species and like to be out with friends, family and other kindred spirits, with great food, drink and service.

One thing is for sure – I’ve certainly met and had the privilege of working with some amazing, passionate people over the years. Going all the way back to the early days of night clubs and discotheque design where I cut my teeth, there were some real mavericks then who brought a whole new definition to the word “entrepreneur”.

It’s difficult to single out any one person, but I will because this individual was passionate, infectiously enthusiastic, universally well-liked and respected and was a lovely man who was lost far too young. Tim Bacon, God bless him.