OPINION: Staff are vital to hospitality revival in Harrogate - Simon Cotton, MD of the HRH Group

Harrogate, we have a problem... business is too good! That’s a line that I never thought I’d say especially when our businesses have been shut for more than eight of the last 14 months.

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 2:18 pm
21st March 2020 Harrogate Coronavirus images Pictured Simon Cotton Group Managing Director of HRH Group Harrogate Pictured Gerard Binks

However, that is sadly the reality we are facing across the hospitality industry on a national level, but it is being particularly felt here in Harrogate with the large percentage of businesses that we have in the hospitality and tourism sector that make up our local economy.

Recruiting in Harrogate within the sector has always been tough when times are good, but there’s so many factors compounding the situation right now that we are seeing a knock-on effect to both customer service levels and in turn to tackle that, the amount of business we can in fact turnover. The estimate from UK Hospitality, one of the leading industry bodies, is that approximately 400,000 people have left the industry over the last year, reported never to return. So, where have those people all gone? Well, looking to our own teams, we know that some have found work in the last year in supermarkets in particular, but also as delivery drivers, working for the NHS and a host of other workplaces that have possibly bucked the trend during Coronavirus by actually growing their workforces. Some have told me that they never intended on making a permanent move, but whether it has been better pay, different working hours and patterns, or simply a fresh start in life, they have found themselves turning their back on hospitality. To add to this of course, we must remember that word that was trending as the number one used word before Covid and that’s Brexit. That has stopped the steady but regular trickle of workers coming in from the EU and we know that many foreign workers have in fact returned to their homeland during the last year.

For clarity, should anyone think I am just talking about our businesses, no. I speak almost daily with industry colleagues around the town and district and indeed across our Yorkshire region and I have yet to speak with anyone at all, whether they run hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes or whatever; who isn’t facing a major staffing problem right now.

So, the plus sides to this problem? (For anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I like to see opportunities and not problems). Well firstly, a chance to re-evaluate the working conditions within our industry, seeing what can be done to offer more flexible working, added benefits, incentive schemes, and even the dreaded word ‘pay’. Like any business there is ultimately a balance to how far salaries can reach before you put the whole business at risk, but whilst demand is high, it’s a great chance to share some of those extra revenues with the people who put in the hard work on the front line. I know like we are doing in HRH Group, many Harrogate businesses are having to do that right now and it’s possibly overdue. One thing I’m having to recognise is that the current generation entering the workplace are far more fluid in their approach to work and wanting a far greater level of work life balance from an early age, so this is forcing change in the industry; again, a good thing as change is good.

With all of this extra demand for Staycations though, the other major opportunity is to introduce Harrogate to a whole new audience, a whole new generation even; one that may keep coming back for years to come. I feel that with the Harrogate Convention Centre weeks away from welcoming back its first event since before the pandemic began, as well as conducting a study into a multi million pound development, things are starting to change. Add this to the plans being discussed to redevelop Station Parade to make a better welcome to the town from the train and bus stations, the possible pedestrianisation of James Street, the launch of a new DMO for the town and district and the many other changes that are happening, including welcoming a new BID Manager to the town, and I don’t know about anyone else, but it feels that we have an awful lot of exciting times ahead of us in Harrogate as we emerge out of this pandemic and our town can fare very well indeed... Provided of course, that we can fill all those jobs to look after the good times ahead!