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Viewpoint: Government needs to wake up to the size and value of the hospitality sector

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Viewpoint: Government needs to wake up to the size and value of the hospitality sector

As the Brexit negotiations creep painfully on, we need a quick and effective solution to keep hold of our EU staff, says George Westwell

There are 3.9 million Europeans in this country that our economy depends on to a high degree, and the government needs to come to a solution quickly with the EU to protect the rights and interests of these citizens if our industry is to survive.

There is a huge amount of uncertainty in the hospitality industry at the moment, stopping investment and discouraging EU citizens from coming to the UK for work. In addition, the exchange rate, which used to be a major benefit for EU staff in the UK, is now no longer so valuable. While the weakening of the pound is working really well in terms of more tourism for London – at Cheval Residences, guests have been extending their stay because they realise they can stay for five weeks for virtually the same price as four – in time, pay in London is not going to be able to attract workers to sustain the boom in inbound tourism.

The hospitality industry is already encountering difficulties in recruitment. Many 
restaurant managers are 40% short on their staff, and 49 out of every 50 employees at Pret A Manger are non-British. Even before we leave the UK, there are fewer people in the employment pool, and that will only get worse.

Applicants used to have to win the employer over, but now the employer needs to convince applicants to take the job. 
A major London hotel chain recently had an open day for housekeepers and only three prospective candidates turned up. There will be much more competition for businesses to become the employer of choice, providing a high level of support and training for staff.

There are certain measures we can take to help deal with the staff shortage, such as automated check-in and check-out, and robot butlers are being developed in the US. Ultimately, though, in a service industry, you need people.
London depends heavily on EU staff. KPMG’s recent report revealed that the hospitality industry accounts for 24% of unskilled workers UK-wide but 48% in London. At Cheval Residences we employ 33 nationalities in a head count of 280, and 50% of our staff are EU citizens. Nearly a quarter of our EU employees have been with the brand for more than five years, and 59% are frontline staff, who are the primary interface with guests. So far, we’ve not knowingly had anybody leave us because of the impact of Brexit, but that situation could change and is a major concern.

The British Hospitality Association has come up with a plan, and I applaud the organisation for doing so, but it’s not a plan I can see working unless the culture of British people completely changes and they want to do the job at the rates of pay that are available. Similarly, the government’s solution of offering a two-year fixed visa for young Europeans is simply too short. It’s better than nothing, but it needs to be longer. Why can’t they make it five years?

Politicians need to start recognising the importance of our sector to the UK economy and GDP, and give assurance to the industry, investors and operators that they are going to do something positive. Otherwise, operators will have to drastically change the way they function – or go to the wall.

George Westwell is director of Cheval Residences

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