Scott Wright: Tourism and hospitality are facing an autumn of discontent

TRADITIONALLY, autumn can be a fruitful month for Scottish tourism and the wider hospitality and events sector.

The mid-term October school break typically brings the season to a crescendo, giving hotels and resorts a final uplift before the quieter winter months set in.

Scotland can look its best at this time of year, and those drawn to its seasonal glow can usually take their pick from a host of autumnal events, be it pumpkin harvests at locations such as Arnprior in Stirlingshire, or The Enchanted Forest audio-visual show in woodland near Pitlochry. The latter will sadly not be taking place again this year.

At the same time, autumn is a season of international conferences and when musical artists tour the country, in many cases timed to coincide with the return of students to colleges and universities. It also marks the start of the black-tie season in the business calendar, as people across a raft of industries gather in hotels in large numbers to celebrate awards nights.

Unfortunately for those connected to tourism and hospitality, it is shaping up to be another challenging autumn as the reverberations of the pandemic are felt in myriad ways.

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Of course, it should be acknowledged that the outlook is a good deal more encouraging than it was around a year ago, when the second wave of coronavirus was looming on the horizon – even though the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street seemed determined to think otherwise.

Last autumn would ultimately see the tourism and hospitality industry once more placed under strict trading restrictions to mitigate the second wave, presaging a return to a full and protracted lockdown.

Thanks in large part to the roll-out of vaccines, however, there is thankfully no immediate prospect of returning to those conditions. But the reality is that these are far from ‘normal’ times for many businesses.

As has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks, tourism and hospitality is one of a number of industries that are in the grip of a staff shortage crisis that shows no sign of easing.

Despite the seemingly strong demand from consumers eager to spend their hard-earned cash in bars and restaurants – and on hotel accommodation – operators are being severely constrained by this lack of workers. It has meant limits have been placed on trading days and hours, hotels operating at reduced capacity (closing whole floors in some cases), and businesses offering cash incentives to consumers if they are able to help them find staff.

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The root cause of this crisis is Brexit, which sparked an exodus of skilled workers such as chefs from the UK, and it is being exacerbated by the pandemic, which often requires people to self-isolate. The net effect is that many bars, restaurants and hotels simply cannot get the staff they need.

And it must be emphasised that this is not the only sector facing such constraints. The huge disruption to the supply chain brought by the shortfall in HGV drivers – estimated to be 100,000-strong – is there for all to see in decimated supermarket shelves.

Even cinemas are feeling the effects. On a visit to a cinema owned by one of the major chains at the weekend, the dearth of staff and the unavailability of large chunks of the usual food offer was striking. It was not even possible to purchase a coffee, so limited was the choice.

In such remarkable circumstances, it was little surprise when Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, told The Herald that “workforce availability [and] labour supply” is “without question” the most pressing issue facing his industry right now.

“We are seeing more and more that people are still just not able to recruit to the levels they need,” Mr Crothall said. “We have properties that are only able to open their doors at 75% capacity. Even in sites themselves, their food and beverage offerings [are] massively pegged back because they simply don’t have the staff.”

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The STA has managed to strike an understanding and conciliatory tone in its communications with government throughout the coronavirus crisis. But it has been notable how frustrated it has become with the apparent unwillingness of our elected representatives to confront this issue in recent days.

And it is a frustration that is shared by other business groups representing a raft of other sectors – including farming, retail, and food and drink production – which are feeling the effects of the staffing crisis and supply shortages.

Calls for temporary work visas for EU citizens or for certain roles to be added to the shortage occupation list have been continually rebuffed by what seems to be an increasingly tone-deaf Home Office.

“The response that has come back from the Home Office so far, including to the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), which is doing an awful lot of lobbying, is that we will wait to see when furlough ends,” Mr Crothall said. “Well there are hardly any hotels in Scotland that have even got staff on furlough.”

Noting that many people who had been on furlough will have now found other jobs, he added: “There is just not enough bodies in Scotland to be able to meet the demand.”

The STA and fellow trade body UKHospitality issued a fresh plea for the UK Government to intervene yesterday, with a letter to Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack yesterday outlining the “gravity of the crisis”. But even though it makes logical sense to offer temporary visas to EU citizens to ease the crisis – and ultimately help UK businesses recover from the pandemic and increase tax contributions to the Exchequer – the UK Government seems unlikely to budge.

The view from UK ministers seems to be that the widespread job vacancies for roles in hospitality or HGV drivers will easily be filled by people coming off furlough at the end of this month.

But this interpretation of the jobs market seems misguided and is certainly not going to address the short-term crisis. It takes months, for example, to  qualify as an HGV driver, and even longer to become a chef. Chefs have been in seriously short supply because of Brexit and the pandemic.

The current policy direction of the Scottish Government is not beyond question from a tourism and hospitality perspective either. Much anger has been stoked in recent days by the decision to deviate from UK policy on the testing rules for international travellers coming to these shores, which industry figures say will severely affect businesses in Scotland that have been starved of inbound visitors.

In addition, proposals for a vaccine passport system have set ministers on a collision course with the licensed trade. Business groups have warned that thousands of hotels, bars and other venues could be ensnared in the proposals after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out what seems to be a convoluted definition of “nightclubs” this week. The Night Time Industries Association, meanwhile, has vowed to take legal action over the plans.

For so many reasons, it is shaping up to be a most inauspicious autumn for Scotland’s wider tourism and hospitality sector.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992