Hospitality begins at work

Last week we talked about how bonuses were linked to performance, not suffering, which was very much how shareholders at Whitbread saw it and this week the pay of those in the sector is playing on our minds and the minds of those who want people to work in their properties. Away from the boardroom, this week Flex reported that average hourly pay for a weekend shift in the UK was now up 9% on 2019. Is the tide turning?

For those of us who managed to make it through A-level economics despite a tutor whose flatmates offered kitchen-table smear tests, this is supply and demand in the big lights and, as The Economist pointed out last week, finally those on the front line in the sector have some bargaining power.

Before we go any further, this isn’t going to be one of those comments which ends with ‘we need to present the sector as offering valid careers’. We know that. You know that. All responsible employers know that. Accor almost renamed itself after its Heartist programme, for crying out loud. Keith Barr started on the floor. The sector is full of stories about how meritocratic it is, how entry-level jobs can take you to CEO.

Yet not enough people want to work in it, particularly in the UK. For one thing, not everyone wants a career in it, they just want a job while they think of other things. But hospitality is so FUN, they say. And it is, for the consumer. And often it’s fun if you’re behind the bar. But not always. And the age of the typical bar worker is such that, unless it’s a calling, you’re going to want to be on the other side of the bar from time to time as well. It’s a sociable job at unsociable hours without the people you want to socialise with. 

And as for those opening up, sitting behind reception, cleaning rooms, expect to be doing strenuous labour while everyone else is in the beds you make. There is an element who would say that to progress you need to suffer, but this is the argument made at investment banks, where the rewards are more visible in your bank account.  

The reality of work in the hospitality sector, certainly in the areas where the shortages are most felt, is that it’s not something you would leap at unless you’re one of those calling people. And you can’t base a business on finding people for whom slicing lemons is a calling. You may as well limit parenting to people who “can’t get enough of those nighttime cuddles”. 

So, bearing in mind that the cheap, overseas labour isn’t coming back and other jobs are available, what to do?

The higher pay will help, because people need money to buy stuff and if you pay them more then that is a motivator. There have also been noises around more staff accommodation, which is pressing in both city centre and fancy rural locations and used to be written in before spare space was sold off due to attractive property prices. 

Technology, which has been proving its worth during the pandemic as a saver and not coster of money and which can handily do the jobs of many, can also be used to clear out the tedious drudgery of many hotel tasks, as well as coming up with more imaginative ways to timetable staffing, so that people can see their friends and family and not just other people’s from time to time.

For too long, the sector has looked at those who work in it as combination of people who can be forced to do things the rest of us don’t fancy because the surroundings are pleasant, or because it’s a calling, or because there are others who could fill their shoes. The pandemic has forced many bosses of office workers to reassess – although for how long – and it could only help the chances of the sector if it was a bit more hospitable for everyone, not just the guests. 

image: a nice IHG hotel you could work in before taking Keith Barr’s job.

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