Irish hospitality industry: room to improve

Appraisal of hospitality industry employment is often defined by perceptions of long, unsociable hours and low pay. Donagh Davern, a lecturer within Cork Institute of Technology’s Tourism and Hospitality Department, considers the challenges faced by the Irish hotel industry in attracting and retaining skills.

There is no doubt that it’s an exciting time to be in the hotel industry in Ireland. After the lows experienced as a result of the recession and the resulting spate of examinerships, receiverships and asset sales, the sector has been one of the first to emerge and play a significant role in both job creation and economic contribution. You can’t help but have noticed the hotel development going on in Dublin at the moment, with developments by Dalata, Press Up and Tetrarch taking centre stage and the re-emergence of internationally branded properties in the market, with names such as Aloft, Sheraton and Holiday Inn appearing on hotel signage. Outside the capital too, there are exciting developments with the newly redeveloped Adare Manor bidding for the 2026 Ryder Cup and the planned 2019 opening of a €233 million resort in Longford by Center Parcs.

In 2017, 10.65 million visitors came to Ireland, contributing €5.78 billion to the economy and helping to sustain over 225,000 jobs. And while Brexit and the implementation of GDPR are concerns for the hotel industry in Ireland, it is the area of staffing which is proving to be its most significant challenge. With tourism visitors projected to grow to 13.7 million by 2025, an extra 80,000 extra workers will be needed and this comes at a time when staff retention in the sector is already a significant issue.

The increased number of hotels emerging in the market has already led to a shortage of qualified staff, and government advisors – the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGSFN) – warn that these shortages are particularly acute with regard to chefs and specialist roles. Each year, the hospitality industry in Ireland requires over 3,000 extra staff due to natural attrition alone. At their recent annual conference, the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) warned that although the industry needs 5,000 chefs annually, training colleges only produce 1,800 graduates to meet this demand. This year, the RAI has engaged an agency to bring in 100 chefs from Italy, with another 400 planned for by the end of this year, while lobbying has recently brought about a change by government in the granting of work permits to non-EU nationals, with categories such as executive chef, head chef, sous chef and chef de partie removed from the ineligible list by Minister Heather Humphreys, subject to certain conditions.

The issue of the attraction and retention of employees for the hotel industry is not a new one. The sector has traditionally had a poor reputation as an employer, due mainly to its low entry level wage rates, an impression of long and unsociable work hours and a perceived lack of training and development opportunities. These factors are further complicated by the needs of the current generation in the workplace – the ‘millennials’ – who require more praise, greater work-life balance, more meaningful work, are prone to switching loyalty quickly, and who, by 2020, will make up 50 per cent of the workforce. In fact, adaption to the needs of this millennial generational cohort is deemed to be one of the greatest challenges that hospitality stakeholders will face in the next decade.

‘Disruption’ is a key term used by this generation, turning norms upside down with concepts such as Airbnb and Uber, and this means that organisations have to adapt to new ways of doing business to meet this generation’s needs – for example by providing more flexible work hours. Other sectors are actively responding to generational needs, with technology companies such as Google offering their ‘Bungee Program’ which allows empowered employees to change departments for a period of time and Hootsuite promoting their ‘Stretch Program’ which allows participants a full calendar quarter to try out another department. In the hotel industry, Rocco Forte Hotels, with the backing of UK Government funding, designed and launched a company career map via an app called ‘Map My Future’, which allows the technology-literate millennial employees to plan their future careers and access the training they need to support their career progression.

The issue with hotel staff attraction and retention is not confined to Ireland. In New York a lack of accommodation within commutable proximity to hotels has led to issues with the attraction of employees, while in London, restaurants are side-lining riskier concepts and opting instead for more casual offerings along with reduced opening hours, to cope with the void in suitable employment talent.

“Adaption to the needs of this millennial generational cohort is deemed to be one of the greatest challenges that hospitality stakeholders will face in the next decade.”

With unemployment in the country falling to 5.9 per cent, the Irish hotel industry has had to respond to attract and retain employees. The traditionally poor image of the sector as an employer has received some increased branding efforts with an increase in training and development opportunities, more generationally sensitive interactions and efforts to provide more support for employees. One of Ireland’s best hotels, Ashford Castle, is investing €1.5 million in a new staff accommodation facility and offers a number of bus transfers to Galway each week for staff, while the five-star Europe Hotel in Killarney is investing €3 million in accommodation facilities for staff. Benefits such as child-care, further education opportunities and pensions are being explored by employers in an effort to retain their employees at the various life-cycle stages of their careers.

Companies with a keen interest in employer branding have already come to the fore in Ireland. The Doyle Collection, with hotels in Ireland, the UK and America, have been focusing on their culture and employer branding for a number of years, and their success in these areas has seen them appear as one of the only hotel companies on the Great Place to Work list in Ireland for the last two years. A focus on their values, communication with employees, community development and trust, along with employee recognition and development, leads them to be listed as the only hotel group in the ‘Best Large Workplaces’ category.

The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) have recently introduced promotional videos filmed at Branch level to promote the hotel sector to potential candidates, while a number of branches have rolled out the Cork Branches initiative to select and celebrate an annual ‘Employee of the Year’ from the hotels and guesthouses in the region. The Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) visit schools in the city and county, using their Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Roadshow to promote the sector as a viable employment opportunity for transition year students. It is at this level – second level – that the area of employment branding needs its greatest efforts, if the hotel sector is to mitigate the hangover of a poor industry reputation and pitch itself as a worthy employer for this generation and the generations to come.

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