05 May 2023

Employers recognize people are most important asset in tourism and hospitality

One of the few benefits that came from the Covid pandemic and lockdowns of 2020 was the increased focus it put on the issues of wellbeing, mental health and work-life balance. More and more of us are making job and career choices based not just on salary but also on the basis of how flexible roles are, how meaningful we find the work and whether an employer’s values align with our own.

Una Burns, manager of Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen

The tourism and hospitality industry generates an estimated £1bn in visitor spend for the NI economy each year and accounts for one in every 12 jobs here, with 65,000 employees across Northern Ireland.

But the sectors were facing skills shortages and challenges with recruitment and retention even before the pandemic, with a lot of negative perceptions out there about tourism and hospitality not offering the status, conditions, job security, training and career progression opportunities that workers value.

Tourism NI’s Make it Here campaign is currently helping employers in the sector shine a light on the positive aspects of careers in the field, and tackling some of the outdated misperceptions that working in tourism and hospitality means long hours for low pay.

"Staff need to know they are actually appreciated and cared about if they are going to pursue a career in this industry,” says Una Burns, manager of Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen.

“Sometimes the perception in hospitality is that they’re just a number, but we want our people to feel genuinely looked after.”

Una says this means actually listening to their employees and taking their feedback on board,  sending out rotas as far in advance as possible or listening to any issues staff have to ensure they feel appreciated. She’s also passionate about allowing staff time off when they need it, and says Charlie’s Bar doesn’t refuse holiday requests even at peak times because she believes encouraging staff to take time off to recharge and maintaining a good work life balance is ultimately good for the business.

Mental health and wellbeing hasn’t traditionally been seen as a priority in hospitality but Una has also completed mental health and first aid training to help enhance the culture of the business beyond purely social activities.

“It helped me to understand mental health and recognise the signs and symptoms in people, as well as be able to signpost them to get the help they need,” she says. “Our business can be busy so it is easy to get stressed out and anxious. Following the training we’ve introduced “take 5” breaks for when team members need a few minutes to themselves.”

Jobs in the hospitality and tourism industry have a reputation for requiring long, often unsociable hours and research has cited this as a reason people don’t go into the sector.

It’s something that more and more of our tourism businesses are addressing, says Heather Graham, Head of HR at Titanic Belfast.

“After Covid, everyone was going into the accelerating phase of recovery and trying to recruit at the same time. Everyone was trying to get new talent which was a struggle. This time last year, we were advertising some of our roles four or five times and they still couldn’t be filled. So the skills gap that was identified pre-covid really came to the forefront,” she says.

"We believe Titanic Belfast is an attractive place to work, but we’ve really looked at our offer to staff, for example maximizing the use of annualized hours contracts, so staff have a pot of hours to work during an entire year. This means if you work 45 hours one week, you will only have to do 35 hours the next week. You’re only expected to work what you are paid to work.”

Heather notes that Titanic Belfast has revamped its benefits package to help it stand out in a competitive jobs market, with pay rates benchmarked more regularly, improved holiday and sick pay schemes and a bigger emphasis on staff wellbeing.

“Staff have told us they really value having the safety and security of the enhanced sick pay scheme and our benefits package now includes counselling access for all, a fitness and discount scheme and access to a private GP service too,” she explains.

“As part of our wellbeing initiatives, we ran a summer bootcamp on the Titanic slipways with a local fitness instructor and yoga classes during the winter months. It all adds to the appeal of working here.”

Post-covid, one of the main challenges for tourism and hospitality businesses has been recruiting people with relevant experience.

Stephen Magorrian, Managing Director of Horatio Group has worked in the sector for many years and says he has noticed that in the past few years far more young people who have no experience in hospitality are applying for jobs.

“We see this as an opportunity rather than an issue,” he says. “We see a real benefit in hiring people for their potential and we are putting a huge emphasis on fast track training for those who we think have the right qualities to work with the public and who will thrive in what is a busy but fun environment.”

The award-winning pub company, which runs three bars, two in Belfast and one in Downpatrick, have a scheme called ‘Get paid for the job not your age’, which allows staff to take part in online training to learn about the industry. With every 5 modules completed, they can receive a pay increase, meaning they are getting paid for the job and skills they have rather than their age. Staff at Horatios have regular informal check ins with managers in addition to formal performance reviews.

“Investing in staff and showing them there are opportunities to progress is important,” says Stephen. “We have quite a flat structure, we see everybody as part of the organisation and share all information with everybody. They all know the financial figures and know what the targets are, we’re very open that way and treat each other with respect.”

While many tourism and hospitality businesses continue to recruit people at the start of their careers, others are finding the skills they need by opening up their recruitment processes to different parts of the talent pool.

Brona Moffett, Head of Experience and Enterprise at National Museums NI, says bringing in older workers, often on a part-time basis, has been hugely beneficial to their attractions.

“National Museums NI has staff and volunteers in their 70s and 80s working at different sites and they really add to the experience visitors get. We are always keen to employ people from all age groups, from very young members of staff, right through to those who bring lots of life experience. We are a very inclusive organisation,” she says.

“We look for people who can provide a great welcome, who are eager to be good at the job, to learn and to progress. The nature of our work, bringing stories of the past into the present, is so interesting and attracts people to work here, but it’s still competitive.”

At NMNI, which manages the Ulster Museum, Ulster Folk Museum, Ulster Transport Museum and Ulster American Folk Park, staff have the opportunity to work across a number of sites, which is known as portfolio working offering variety and flexibility. They also receive coaching, training on accredited programmes, invitations to social events and have regular opportunities to be promoted.

“Variety and flexibility are important, but many of our team work for NMNI because the work is meaningful. Museums enrich people’s lives and have a social impact on their audiences. We are a charity and our staff are attached to the cause, which means people tend to stay with us for a long time.”

What’s clear from speaking to hospitality and tourism businesses is that they are prepared to hire people with right skills and attitude even when they don’t have experience in the industry, with training on offer across the board.

Employers understand this training must now be accompanied by good benefits and working conditions if they are to attract people who can help them thrive. Those who can demonstrate they genuinely care about their staff have much to gain.

Find out more

Make it Here! Careers in Tourism & Hospitality

The toolkit for employers can be accessed here along with a range of other supports such as a free People Health Check for employers.

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