Why hospitality must take care of its greatest asset

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Industry representatives at EP Insights' The Ripple Effect Conference heard how looking after people is the key to combating high staff turnover, reports Frances Ball

“The whole issue of people and culture is ever more important. Young people want to work with companies that have strong values,” said Chris Sheppardson, the founder of EP Business Hospitality, as he welcomed delegates to EP Insights’ The Ripple Effect Conference at Nomura International, a giant glass building tucked between the City and the Thames in London. He introduced the theme that would guide the day – a discussion of the least tangible but vital part of a business – its culture.

It’s no secret that turnover in hospitality is high, at 300%. Relative even to other industries, which also contend with new starters moving on roughly every two years, hospitality faces a fierce battle for talent.

Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality, threw the significance of the hospitality sector into sharp relief as she outlined just how much it gives back to the economy. Yet, as Nicholls pointed out, “we are largely a hidden sector.”

With efforts by trade bodies such as UK Hospitality, the British government is starting to take notice of the sector’s crucial role. As Nicholls said, “the economy marches on its stomach.”

Inherent problems

The political situation must nonetheless be handled delicately. Brexit has made the industry focus on some inherent problems, including how to look after the one in eight hospitality employees in the UK that are from the European Union. Fortunately, Nicholls (right) pointed out, staff will have the right to remain until at least 2021.

Staff from overseas, who are key to the sector, and young people from this country alike must all be reassured and drawn to roles in hospitality, she said.

But how to retain the hard-won staff you value most? In hotels, that’s simple, said Michael Gray of the European Hotel Managers Association (EHMA). Get general managers back in the lobby. Leaders on the frontlines of service should be in tune with the atmosphere of the workplace as much as they are to the needs of guests: empathy is key, and no manager should be too big for their boots.

That was a message firmly carried through by Crista Cullen, the Team GB hockey player whose team took home the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “If you’re a team player, it doesn’t matter what’s required of you,” said Cullen. “If tea needs to be made for a meeting, and you’re the director, get on with it and do it.”

Investing in company culture

For much of the conference, the conversation returned to the same central point: breaking down barriers. Stuart Sunderland founded City Pantry, a marketplace for B2B catering, when he realised how fast food was turning into a point of social cohesion at work. Sharing food at work, he said, “helps companies to share the culture that they actually want to happen.”

Many UK companies are following a model that used to be the preserve of US-based tech companies. Provide food that is free or subsidised, well-balanced and nutritious, and with transparent provenance and staff will thank you for it.

Sunderland drew on a word of wisdom from Uber’s CFO, who worked out that offering lunch and snacks for a year would cost roughly the same as a post-tax salary raise of £2,500. Offering food, though, was a far higher-value investment toward building a supportive and engaging culture at work.

Employees want, and need, to feel engaged with their work. Robert Darling, CCO at Eko, a communications app for teams,  pointed out that 87% of staff in hospitality do not feel engaged because they’re not equipped with the right tools, many even without a company email address. He sees the solution in better mobile-based communications, so that teams can all be reached and can all connect with each other.

Replacing an employee has implications for the bottom line, but also for morale.

As The Ripple Effect conference came to a close, it was clear to everyone that for all the challenges the industry will face in the next few years, its people will be the vital element to keep in mind.

Frances Ball


Main picture: Crista Cullen at EP Insights’ The Ripple Effect Conference at Nomura International