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The catering and hospitality sector is renowned for long hours, low pay and high pressure. But since the double shock of Brexit and the pandemic, operators have had to be more flexible, not only to improve staff morale but to recruit and retain enough workers.
Research from Cairn Hotel Group found a third of hotel workers expected to leave the industry after six months. Data from CGA Insight this summer revealed 61 per cent of British hospitality businesses were experiencing staff shortages and many of those had reduced their trading hours as a result.
Hotel bosses have identified three areas of focus as they attempt to manage the challenges.
After the Devonshire Hotels group lost 90 per cent of its chefs in a single year due to Brexit and Covid, its managing director recognised an urgent need for change.
“We’d lost a lot of labour resource and I remember saying to the owners that the only way out of this situation was to grow our own talent,” recalls Richard Palmer, who oversees the group of five luxury hotels owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. “We had to really look at why people weren’t joining us or staying with the business; it became clear the world had changed and we had to accommodate that.”
Palmer, 39, has introduced a four-day week for all chefs, flexible housekeeping contracts and managerial job shares. Staff churn has dropped to below 20 per cent and his workforce has expanded to include more working parents and early retirees wanting to top up their income.
The group has also started offering paid apprenticeships that provide a detailed overview of the business, from foraging on the estate to customer conflict management, and can lead to a permanent job offer.
“We’re seeing different people considering the sector,” says Palmer, who started his career as a teenage pot washer.
He also stresses that managers need to better communicate the benefits of working in hospitality. “[It] is still not seen as meaningful career, with lots of myths and misconceptions; I started at grassroots level, so know better than most that there’s huge potential for progression.”
Pay and recruitment
Asset management firm London Rock Partners, which runs 12 hotels in the UK, has had to adapt to find staff.
“Brexit took a huge chunk of our eastern European workforce and local workers tend to be less interested in entry level roles,” says chief commercial officer Clare Anna.
Amid a wider industry push to develop the domestic workforce she is an advocate of using international staff, particularly to fill chef vacancies. About 70 per cent of chefs recruited across the LRP portfolio are from the Middle East. However, far from any cheap foreign labour stereotype, her and co-founder Naveed Khan have put higher wages at the core of their strategy, while improving other perks such as the quality free staff meals.
This can be a hard sell to hotel owners facing rapidly rising costs but the “conversations get easier”, says LRP, as benefits materialise, notably the £50,000 to £100,000 saving in recruitment and training cost per hotel due to higher retention levels.
“The minimum wage is no longer enough to get quality, committed people who are eager to prove themselves,” says Anna. “The guys we have in our kitchen have worked in four and five-star hotels in Dubai where the level of service is in a totally different league to over here and bring a fresh and diverse perspective.”
Other hotel managers are focused on training. Hotelier Ian Taylor has set up a leadership academy at Kaleidoscope Hotels, three luxury venues he owns in and around Bath. The aim is to equip the next generation of managers in his business to prioritise emotional intelligence and accommodate different personalities. Meanwhile, catering apprenticeships offered to students from nearby Bath College have resulted in four full-time junior chef roles and reduced the reliance on more expensive agency chefs.
“Historically, one of the biggest problems has been a lack of time and investment made to ensure managers are well enough trained to run a team of people,” says Taylor.
Wayne Topley, managing director of recently launched NorSpark Hotel Management, agrees that training and then empowering employees is key to delivering for guests without compromising staff wellbeing.
“There’s actually far more guest interaction than ever but the difference now is we have less operational hierarchy, instead giving those on the ground the authority, empowerment and the tools to make more decisions — decisions which are crucially backed by managers.”