Sylvia Oates

“Being yourself helps you develop much stronger relationships with colleagues, clients, and others”

I started off in the licensed sector as a glass collector aged 16 for a friend’s Dad. I was fascinated by the industry and spent time learning about how it all worked and what was required to run a bar, then was delighted at age 18 when on Sundays he invited me to run the bar for him… and so started a lifelong obsession. I have been incredibly lucky to work across the broader leisure and hospitality industry ever since, and have had some wonderfully inspiring colleagues, many of which were female. For example, I watched firsthand what a positive difference it made to the atmosphere — and incident numbers — when we decided to change our door staff to an all-female team at the bar. This was back in 1998 and the other premises on our street thought we were crazy! I have also witnessed and experienced gender-based injustices as well as triumphs in delivering opportunities for women, plus first-hand examples of both excellent and very poor female leadership. These have been amazingly useful experiences in shaping me as a people manager and business owner. My career eventually took me from behind a bar to behind a desk, but thankfully still working with the licensed trade. My career has evolved into encouraging partnership working between the licensed trade, the police, council, and other partners, and supporting these partnerships to create vibrant places to eat, drink and let your hair down. I am lucky that I now spend each day working to further that understanding, having set up my own business in 2014 to do just that. I feel incredibly privileged to be part of such a warm, innovative and progressive industry.

The past 12 months have been a strange time. I have had some personal and professional challenges that have shaped the year. My Dad is terminally ill and while that’s hard at the best of times, Covid adds an extra layer of pain and constant obstacles to the situation. In addition, watching the industry that gifted me the career that I love suffer so badly has been heartbreaking. One of my projects involved the owners of struggling nighttime businesses sharing their detailed financial situation with me. It put faces to the industry’s debt problem, and that was painful to see, but it gave me even more respect for everyone in the same position. But this year has taught me so much. One of the things I am most grateful for is the perspective it has given me, helping me to realise what’s important — family, friends, and mental health being top of my list. 

I am cautiously optimistic about the future. The past year has been an incredible challenge of course, and there is widespread recognition that many businesses in the industry will not survive, through no fault of their own, which is desperately sad. Like everyone, I hope that we are able to stick to the published roadmap dates and we can get back to something resembling normal in the summer. I miss live music, hugging, celebrating, socialising, dancing — properly living. Ultimately, I am an optimist, so I always look for a golden lining. The one that I like to assign to the past 12 months is that I think it has fostered a greater understanding of the industry — the social value it brings, the talented and dedicated individuals that are behind every night out, and the struggles it faces and hoops it has to jump through, not just through Covid but even in “normal” times.

My advice for women reading this is to be authentically you. I think too many women think they have to put on a different persona at work, but I don’t think that is necessary and, in many cases, can be a drawback. Being yourself helps you develop much stronger relationships with colleagues, clients, and others. It also helps connect you with opportunities and people that suit you as a person which, in the end, brings much greater job satisfaction.