As operators continue to struggle with staff shortages, MCA examines how regional groups in tourist hotspots are tackling the unique challenge of attracting and retaining talent 

Many years ago, Philip Turner cottoned on to the fact that developing a strong internal brand and values-led workplace culture would be a vital tool in attracting and retaining staff in a competitive industry.

The founder and managing director of The Chestnut Group, a collection of 14 pubs, inns and restaurants in East Anglia, knew that operating coastal-based sites in tourist hotspots, halved the potential employee catchment area by 50% “as people don’t live at sea”.

Throw in other hospitality venues concentrated in small areas also vying for staff, especially during peak season, and “you’ve got this forever tension of trying to manage the demand and supply”.

So, what did Chestnut do to stand out from the crowd?

It became laser focused on promoting its core values as part of the brand, a move which continues to reap rewards today.

Frequently, the welfare of the company’s employees is put before profit.

Last year Chestnut decided against opening on Christmas Day and Boxing Day “to give those two days back to our team”.

“The cost would have been in excess of £300k worth of lost revenue, but the benefits from retaining team and recruiting people off the back of that prove [significant],” Turner tells MCA.

“Because we don’t have a private equity or a venture firm backing, we can make these sorts of decisions.”

Giving staff access to heavily discounted room rates at the group’s other sites also proved phenomenally successful in a second Covid-afflicted year which saw staycations and domestic tourism boom.

“In the last three months of last year we were receiving over 1000 visits per month from our own team,” Turner says.

“That’s a six-figure cost to us… but it gets our people out and about, they get to meet other teams who work for us and it makes them feel like they’re part of a family, part of the bigger business.”

It’s unsurprising that operators are pulling out all the stops when it comes to clinging onto their staff.

The hospitality industry has a debilitating recruitment crisis on its hands.

Job vacancies in the sector leapt by almost 700% year-on-year, according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures.

Data from November 2021 to January 2022 revealed approximately 178,000 positions were unfilled in accommodation and foodservice – an increase of 675% on the same period 12 months ago.

And vacancies per 100 employee jobs had risen to 7.9 – the highest of any industry category in the ONS data.

The situation has prompted St Austell Brewery, which owns 180 pubs, inn and hotels across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, to plough six figures into its first marketing campaign dedicated solely to recruitment after is saw a big surge in UK staycations in 2021.

“This year, our number one priority is investing in our recruitment ahead of peak season, to ensure that we’re in the strongest possible position going into the summer,” Tamsyn Allington, people & communications director, at St Austell Brewery, tells MCA.

“The South West in particular – where we own 37 managed pubs - saw unprecedented footfall. Of course, that was a huge positive but to counter that we simply couldn’t find enough people to meet the increased level of demand we faced.”

In a bid to tempt new recruits, the campaign centres on the region’s stunning scenery and backdrop of sun, sea, and surf coupled with career progression opportunities within the business.

The push also aims to dismantle the long-held belief held by some young locals that they have to move away to larger towns and cities for better career opportunities.

A dedicated recruitment site, named Your Adventure Starts here, has also been built to showcase the diverse range of roles available for people within the business which, along with running pubs and brewing beer, is also a wholesale drinks supplier.

Elsewhere in the South West, nine-strong restaurant group Rockfish is launching The Rockfish Seafood Academy in the hope of encouraging the next generation of chefs, specifically outside of London, to work in the industry.

Starting on 14 March, the four-week structured training programme will equip new recruits with the skills needed to work in any of the brand’s kitchens.

Chefs will spend two days a week in Brixham under the tuition of Rockfish chef director Kirk Gosden, learning various techniques ranging from how to make sauces, prep batter and make chips from scratch, while the remaining three days will be spent at their home site working in the kitchen under the guidance of the head chef.

The aim of the academy is to both attract and unlock the potential in young people who perhaps do not want to commit to a full-time training course at college and also appeal to say front-of-house staff who may want to switch and experiment in the kitchen, Rockfish founder Mitch Tonks, tells MCA.

“We thought we’d set up the academy so that we could give people opportunities,” he says. “It’s a nice easy way in to work with good mentors, good people and a good company. Also, there’s nowhere really specialising in seafood. All of our chefs each have really good seafood knowledge, fish identification, [know how to] cook and prepare it and we’re able to give that to our people.”

At the end of the stint, a job at Rockfish will be offered to all who pass the course which will come complete with employee benefits including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day off, reduced winter opening times, paid overtime, a continued training plan, and access to a wellness programme. 

Chestnut is equally as committed to nurturing and growing talent, working closely with West Suffolk College and taking on apprentices.

Six of its general managers and head chefs are home grown.

“We’ve developed them from within,” Turner says. “We’ve got a very visible career plan for people.”

A recent engagement survey by the company revealed that 95% of its staff wanted to return to work after lockdown, indicating how successful its employment approach has been.

“We’re just going to continue to do more of what we do,” Turner adds. “The platform, the culture, the team engagement, the opportunity for growth, the environment we create for our people ultimately is going to be the greatest advantage we have in terms of recruitment.”

Across the sector, there are encouraging signs the industry is moving in the right direction.

Hospitality Rising, a collaborative movement that aims to double the number of people considering a job in the sector by overturning negative perceptions of work in the industry, recently won official backing from the Hospitality & Tourism Sector Skills Board (HTSB) to be the strategic face of the sector’s biggest ever recruitment campaign.

As Covid restrictions ease in the UK, UKHospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls insists there needs to be a redoubling of efforts from all stakeholders to resource and support the Hospitality Rising campaign.

She is calling on the government to allow more flexible skills training to enable businesses to use unspent apprenticeship levy funds from the past two years.

In addition, she insists that closer partnerships between local businesses and job centres to match potential recruits with hospitality jobs that provide long-term career prospects must be forged.

Will these measures together with operators pulling out all the stops to attract and retain staff be enough to fix the hospitality recruitment crisis?

Only time will tell.