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Our image and future rest in our own hands

The industry is in a period of great expansion – but it is also facing a huge challenge. Can it deliver the quality on which its future depends? By quality, I mean excellent, up-to-date facilities and staff who are cool, competent and considerate.

In many ways, the facilities are the easiest to provide. In London alone, 18,000 new hotel rooms are under construction or planned, and a further 14,000 are planned for the longer term. There are probably just as many being built in the provinces.

At the same time, new restaurants are opening throughout the country and new attractions, helped by Lottery money in many cases, are opening new centres of entertainment and education.

The danger is that all this expansion and activity comes at a price – and that price may be quality. With increased demand come higher prices; with higher prices come raised expectations; with raised expectations comes a need for higher quality. If this quality is not provided, there comes a potential plethora of complaints – and with complaints comes dissatisfaction.

The hospitality industry has not yet fallen into this downward spiral because supply is expanding to meet rising demand, and this tends to hold prices back. But the other key element in the quality equation is the availability of skilled staff to provide quality service. Unfortunately, staff recruitment and retention has never been more difficult.

We can hardly recruit sufficient skilled staff to run our existing businesses, never mind operate the new outlets which are opening every day of the week. Worse still, we cannot retain them. If we do recruit, we tend to lose them quickly to other industries.

This is partly because young people perceive the hospitality industry as an employer offering low pay and long, unsocial hours. If we are honest, we will admit that they have a point – at least in the early stages of their careers. So we need to consider how to tackle this problem.

Nor do young people generally recognise the hospitality industry as a satisfying career path. There, however, the perception would be totally wrong. There are many more satisfying careers to be had in the hospitality industry than in almost any other industry in the land. Fortunately, a recent survey by Springboard UK suggests that young people are beginning to agree with this, although parents need more persuasion.

Job vacancies are running at an all-time high. In the next 10 years, through expansion, the industry will create a further 200,000 new jobs. The demand for suitable qualified staff has never been greater.

To fill these vacancies, we do have some outstanding colleges. Despite some industry misgivings, they provide excellent training – yet too many young people leave the industry after their courses.

This may be a sign of the times. Young people now use vocation-based courses as a stepping stone to a career outside the vocation being studied. But often, leaving the industry is the result of unsatisfactory work experience in the industry.

The Springboard survey indicated that the greatest influence on career choice was a young person’s work experience or a part-time job while still at school or on college courses. How we handle these young people at this stage is critical, and we don’t appear to pay enough attention to this crucial introduction to the industry.

But we can do something about it. The experience we provide is entirely in our own hands. If our young people have a bad work experience, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves.

The BHA’s well-established Excellence Through People programme has recently incorporated a Charter for Courtesy to improve recruitment practices. What’s more, the principles of good employment practice which lie behind ETP and the Charter for Courtesy – good induction, good training and development, fair rewards – are now incorporated in the BHA’s code of practice.

The challenge, of course, is huge. There are more than 300,000 hospitality businesses in this country and the action, or inaction, of every one of them helps to set the image of the industry.

By contrast, we have some 1,200 establishments signed up to Excellence Through People and Investor in People programmes.

Of course, we’ve had staff shortages for years. But this is all the more reason to recognise that present consumer demands for higher quality are linked with Government pressures to rid ourselves of the “rip-off Britain” image. This makes our present staff shortages the most critical we have ever faced. The good news is that the solution is in our own hands. The bad news is that we need every employer to recognise this.

We have a long way to go yet. The sooner we recognise this, the sooner will we meet the quality challenge.

Bob Cotton is chief executive of the British Hospitality Association

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