Inside track by Mark Wingett Nervy out there is isn’t it? Without trying to add to the numerous headlines and stories about the wider economic woes facing global markets, the prevailing feeling across the leisure industry, especially for those not in central London, is very much one of “sit tight and hope for the best” for the coming couple of months. So while we all hope the uncontrollable aspects that are impacting trading will become more stable, it is the controllable parts of the eating and drinking out sectors that are being brought more sharply into focus – quality of people and offer. It was a point underlined in the majority of slides, presentations and networking sessions at the 12th European Foodservice Summit in Zurich last month, where in particular people – both employees and customers – were the main focus for the leading operators. Many saw an investment in staff as their main competitive advantage during the downturn. Starbucks founder and chief executive Howard Schultz said: “Long-term value for your shareholders is directly linked to creating long term value for your people. There should be transparent, honest and frequent communication with your people, there needs to be a common vision and your people need to see themselves as part of that vision – you need to bring them along.” There is not a brand in the sector at this point in time that has created a culture based around people and food more widely admired or successful than Jamie’s Italian, an ethos that the company’s then international development director Ellie Frost described as focusing on “human quality”. Frost said: “Food belongs to everyone, food can make a difference and it can bring people together. What we try to do is get great people and create a culture where they can learn, share and enjoy.” Jamie’s like a few other operators is understood to send “talent scouts” into targeted expansion locations to view and try and recruit the best staff in that area. Not surprisingly staff turnover at Jamie’s, which has its own in-house “talent agency”, is low. However even the pull of working in the fast-expanding Oliver empire cannot stop making staff recruitment the biggest challenge for the group. A perennial issue, recruiting the right staff and the costs it entails are the bane of many operators' lives. While basic skills can be taught, sadly the one thing that can elevate a customer experience and maybe generate a repeat visit, passion, cannot be trained. Although in some cases incentives may work to nurture a closer link between employee and brand. For example’s Pret’s mystery shopping scheme, the results of which affect employee bonuses, includes a reward for personality shining through. The rebirth of the La Tasca chain is also placing people at the core of the business, with “medal” loyalty cards and customer feedback recognition. A new online system for gathering feedback will link customers’ responses with the name of the staff member who served them, and the top performer at the end of each month will be given a certificate, gift vouchers and company-wide recognition for their achievement. With unemployment figures and especially youth unemployment numbers at high levels there should be a lot of untapped potential out there, which makes it sadder to hear operators such as Keith Knowles, Beds and Bars managing director, say they are turning away more than 75% of job applicants because they don’t have the requisite skills or passion to work in the sector. And to demonstrate the career opportunities in the industry, Knowles has taken the situation into his own hands by setting up residential courses in four of the company’s sites — Newquay, London, Edinburgh and Paris — where the job seekers will undertake four-day training slots. The courses will encompass skills used every day by those in the hospitality trade that may not be apparent to the outside world such as marketing, PR, accounting and writing business plans. Red Hot World Buffet, the fast-growing buffet restaurant operator, has also recently announced an apprenticeship scheme to recruit 200 young people that have missed out on employment, training or further education and to give them “a work ethic that will allow them to flourish in the hospitality industry”. Consumer’s expectation, or should that be demands, have never been higher when it comes to interaction with staff and product. The excellent work carried out by the majority of the sector on in-store experience has fuelled this demand. Faced with a disinterested generation of school leavers brought up in a culture where “money/fame for nothing” really is the new mantra, the industry could be facing its greatest challenge. We are entering a period where human resources alongside marketing and IT will play the most important role in driving the sector out of the downturn and moulding its future.