Covid may be a crisis unique to our age, but its effects and outcomes do have the slight advantage of bringing about some lasting good for the hospitality industry, says Peter Hancock.
I make no claim to be The Caterer's oldest reader, heaven forbid, although I have been a subscriber to the magazine since 1977. And so, with my retirement from Pride of Britain Hotels now looming, I feel compelled to try to offer a crumb of comfort, with the benefit of hindsight, to those grappling with what may look like a uniquely demanding set of circumstances that currently bedevil our industry.
The problems include, but are by no means restricted to: a critical shortage of job applicants, uncertainty surrounding any future restrictions or lockdowns, staff being obliged to self-isolate, debt accrued since March 2020 and the lack of inbound tourists from abroad. All of these are serious challenges, and, as reported in these pages, many businesses have sadly closed for good because of them.
Operators with long memories will know that different problems wrought just as much havoc in their time. My employers in the late 1970s were faced with an interest rate of 15%, so that a relatively modest bank loan of £1m was costing the business £12,500 a month in interest alone – at a time when the price of an average house in Britain was about £10,000.
Wages were seldom discussed, and it was only by chance that I discovered that my salary as head waiter was less than half of what the chef received (a problem happily solved in my case by promotion), but there was certainly more status attached to being a terrible accountant than a brilliant barman. Low pay was the norm. Working unsociable hours was unavoidable.
More challenges followed: inflation, recession, foot and mouth disease, the breathalyser, the smoking ban, strikes, another recession, the Gulf Wars, skill shortages, terrorism, another recession, mad cow disease, etc.
The difference this time is that our gruelling pandemic experience has actually brought about some positive changes. First, our politicians at last recognise hospitality as an important industry. Much of the credit for this goes to UKHospitality and the other organisations lobbying government throughout the pandemic. I believe this greater recognition of the sector will last.
Second, entirely as a result of the forces of supply and demand, wages are shooting up. Employment expert Reed published a report this summer that revealed salaries for hospitality and catering workers were already up 18% year on year.
While this is obviously painful for employers in the short term, it could finally propel catering and hospitality careers to the top of the list of options, where they belong, instead of the bottom. No matter what we say about opportunities and being a valued team member, nothing quite says ‘you matter' more than a decent salary.
Nothing quite says ‘you matter' more than a decent salary
How can this be sustained after the current emergency is over? I believe it is very simple. Prices for good hotels and restaurants must remain high. With all businesses affected in the same way, competitiveness is preserved. Hey presto, our decades-old difficulty in attracting bright employees is gone.
It is only at the budget end of the market that higher pay can't so easily be passed on to customers. Here, as we are already seeing, the trick is to operate with fewer people, introducing more self-service.
Of the next crisis I can only say this with any certainty: it will take us completely by surprise, just like all the others.
Peter Hancock is chief executive of Pride of Britain
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