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Let’s hold on to what we’ve got

Business | Published:

IT was a long hot summer, and while visitor numbers saw a very slight decrease of just 1% between January and August, that needs to be seen in the light of 2017, which saw the highest number of holidaymakers coming to Jersey since 2001, up 16% on 2016.

Simon Soar, chief executive officer of the Jersey Hospitality Association, at the Ommaroo Hotel Picture: ROB CURRIE (22977267)

Over this summer, occupancy ran at a 90% rate – a busy season for the hospitality industry.

Tourism and the hospitality trade saw a tough time after 2008. People did not eat out as much and holidays, for many, became a luxury that they could not afford.

‘We faced a difficult time for a number of years’, says Simon Soar, the newly promoted chief executive officer of the Hospitality Association.

‘People’s drinking and eating habits changed. Gone are the days when businessmen went out for lunch on Friday and then that was it, they were out the office and in the restaurant.

‘Gone is a lot of the midweek drinking we used to know. You just need to walk through town on a Wednesday night and see how few people are out and about.

‘We dealt with that decline for years and now we are starting to see an uplift in trade, visitors numbers increase, people are spending money again, and suddenly we are finding we can’t staff it.’

It is well known that hospitality is struggling with staff. Just a quick glance at the job ads shows that there are more vacancies in this sector than any other.

‘I’ll be honest, I think Brexit is a terrifying proposition for us at the moment. The fact is we don’t know what is going to happen and that uncertainty is causing us to have people stop coming to the Island.

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‘I’ve got businesses where they’ve got staff going into the office constantly saying, “Am I going to be able to get back here next season?”

‘It’s a very scary prospect when we’re struggling for staff anyway to suddenly be told we may lose most of the workforce that comes in seasonally.’

They are working with States Members, who are considering a ten-month visa, but nothing has been confirmed and it is hitting businesses hard. The JEP has already reported that kitchens have had to close because of staff shortages, particularly chefs, and Mr Soar thinks that more businesses could close.

‘Having had conversations with my members, I know just how close some of them have come this year. You’re talking one more member of staff goes and they shut the business, and that’s a scary, scary prospect.

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‘These aren’t your small businesses that aren’t doing well; these aren’t the ones that people aren’t going to miss. These are some of Jersey’s iconic businesses, and we are so close to losing them.

‘It’s a scary point to be at, especially given the rich history Jersey has with hospitality and tourism. The idea of losing the heart and soul of that is not nice.’

Despite many hotels being sold for development sites, the industry is not giving in.

‘We’ve got some who have had the hotels in their family for generations and they are all passionate about it. They will keep fighting for as long as they can because they don’t want to lose that. I think we are going to see more close over the next couple of years. We don’t need to lose beds at the moment – it’s the last thing we need to be losing and it’s just about trying to find ways of encouraging people to keep going.’

While losing restaurants and hotels will have an impact on every one of us by reducing choice, Mr Soar says that the shortage of staff in hospitality also has a knock-on effect for other industries.

‘You have to understand where our workforce has always come from. We are now starting to see finance do a lot of recruiting. Personally I think that’s because of the restrictions that have been placed on hospitality, meaning fewer people have hit the five-year mark and fewer people have transitioned into finance.

‘It’s been a natural progression of them going through. You come in and do your five-years-plus in hospitality and then look to moving into an office-based job. If you stop people coming in for hospitality it doesn’t just stop that sector, it stops the feed-through happening.’

The industry is working hard to encourage local people to consider hospitality as a career, and Mr Soar is clear that just paying higher wages is not the answer.

‘When you look at some of the beach cafés around the Island, people don’t want to go there and have a 12- or 15-pound sandwich. I can’t see them hitting living wage and managing to keep their margins in place, bearing in mind most of them have to stay seasonal, as they don’t have the seating options.

‘I think it would be great to get everyone up to a wage which is decent, but one thing the living wage doesn’t take into consideration is the other perks of working in the trade.’ Many staff are provided with food, uniforms, laundry, and even accommodation and bus passes.

One of the things that Mr Soar would like to see change is local attitudes. Recently a chef was attacked on social media after a customer said he had been using his mobile phone while working. Nowadays stock ordering and rota systems are on mobiles, says Mr Soar.

‘People were saying he should be fired for what he did. Imagine being that chef, having put yourself through the summer, having possibly worked 70-hour weeks and having worked tirelessly to build your career up.

‘Do you know what? He might have been texting someone, but he might also have been working, but nobody bothered to check. They just put him up on a social-media platform and slated him.

‘We are an industry of hospitality. We need to feel that people are being hospitable to us, not hostile to us, for us to want to return that.’

Having been brought up in Jersey, Mr Soar thinks attitudes have got worse. ‘I think people need to remember what this industry has given them and what it continues to give them.

‘There are people who work in not necessarily the highest-paid jobs in the world but a lot of them do it for the passion and love for what they do, and to not get the respect doesn’t make it easy.

‘People need to look at what they are getting from these places, understand the individuality we enjoy in Jersey. We are an island with very few international brands. We have some incredible independents in Jersey, each of them trying to bring something unique to the table.

‘I think it’s about opening people’s eyes again. We’ve got some incredible chefs – name one place in the world where you can get a set lunch, Michelin-starred menu, for £19. The Saturday lunch menu at Bohemia is one of the cheapest Michelin-starred meals you can get anywhere and we’ve got that on our doorstep.’

The question is, how does he hope to encourage attitudes to change? ‘I think we’ve just got to look at what we do have. People talk about falling back in love with Jersey because there can be a lot of negativity about it.

‘We had those sunsets and sunrises the other week and – I don’t know about your (social-media) newsfeed, but mine was covered in them – people were commenting, “Aren’t we lucky?” Yes, we are and don’t forget it. Remember it. Hold on to it. Things are tough out there; the cost of living isn’t cheap. Don’t look at what is an issue – look at what we have.’

Gwyn Garfield-Bennett

By Gwyn Garfield-Bennett
Business Editor

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