UKinbound held a roundtable discussion in London with bosses from major inbound tour operators, tourism boards and key government representatives. George Clode chaired the discussion about the challenges faced by the trade.
The travel industry is experiencing its toughest ever recruitment challenge, say bosses at leading firms and trade bodies.
The UKinbound roundtable heard that European Union workers are already leaving UK jobs with some companies losing as many as 45% of their staff already.
Bodies such as the British Hospitality Association and Etoa, the European tourism association, have long predicted that EU staff would leave after Brexit – but it is apparent that many workers are heading home now, 18 months before the UK leaves the EU.
Bosses at the roundtable said many departures were because of the uncertainty surrounding the workers’ status, but several noted that staff were now seeing brighter prospects in their country of origin, especially Spain and Portugal.
High house prices in London are also pushing young people away.
The consensus among the CEOs was that government is not prepared for the impact of Brexit on the workforce.
The debate heard EU employees are vital for tourism roles because of their language skills, cultural understanding and level of customer service.
One boss said UK tourism degrees are too few and far between, and often do not incorporate language teaching – but they should.
Also, it was felt that the courses which are available are not of a high enough standard.
If the UK is to improve the language skills of its workforce, then that would be take a generation.
In Germany, by contrast, learning three languages is compulsory and people want to work around the world in hospitality roles.
The increasing demand for specialist staff will push up salaries, which will make prices rise – while service levels could fall.
The solution is to develop workers with the right talent but it takes a long time to recruit and train high quality staff.
A recent campaign run by Shakespeare’s England in schools and colleges, called ‘Hospitality means Business’, aimed to tackle the skills shortage in Stratford-upon-Avon – but two or three colleges did not want to participate.
Bosses felt that the industry did not do enough to promote itself to potential recruits, and hospitality and tourism are not seen as “proper careers”.
Another hurdle is the ‘right to remain’ paperwork, which makes the UK seem less welcoming.
The bosses urged government to cut red tape and make the UK appear more welcoming.
One participant said the fear of a labour shortage is resulting in an actual labour shortage and blamed the media in part for this.
Another key challenge debated by the roundtable was the problem of overcrowding in cities such as Oxford, Cambridge and London.
One boss said the industry has worked incredibly hard to increase visitor numbers and “pulling up the drawbridge” is not a solution.
A 10% drop in visitor numbers would result in job losses, warned another.
A study with members of the public and the industry is needed to investigate the reasons for overcrowding and ways to tackle it.
Other solutions include encouraging visitors to visit different areas of the UK, and improving infrastructure and connectivity.
However, it was pointed out that some parts of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall simply do not have enough accommodation for large tour groups and more investment in transport is needed to encourage groups to visit these areas.
Another boss said the UK does have experience of managing large crowds effectively, as was shown during the 2012 Olympics – but planning is key.
Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) must have tourism strategies and to be provided with examples of what a good tourism strategy looks like, added another.
Level playing field
One contributing factor to overcrowding in cities – both in the UK and overseas – was the rise of peer-to-peer accommodation services such as Airbnb.
The industry is calling for a level playing field and there is “an appetite” in government for regulating this emerging sector, especially with taxation issues.
The government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also committed to introducing 10mb internet speeds across the UK by 2020.
This will particularly help smaller and rural tourism businesses, which need more support with basic digital training to market their businesses online.
The debate heard that the industry Sector Deal is being finalised in Whitehall, but tourism bodies are concerned that the ‘usual’ issues will be presented to government without one, new ‘big idea’.
However, they pointed out that the £40 million Discover England funding has really helped to improve regional tourism products since it was introduced in 2016.
• The debate was held under the Chatham House Rule so the identity of speakers is kept confidential.