This summer, many hotels, restaurants and hospitality businesses across the country are faced with cutting back opening hours and bookings due to a dire shortage of staff. However, industry leaders are vowing to soldier on with passion, teamwork and resilience
Máire and Paul Flynn, of The Tannery in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, tweeted recently: “In our 25 years in business we’ve never gone through such a staffing crisis. Thank goodness for TY students (paid) who kept us afloat this spring. Absolutely no waiting staff available.”
Riba, the popular restaurant in the Dublin suburb of Stillorgan, posted that they, being in the industry, had always made Mondays their own “going out” night for dinner, a glass of wine and so on. However, “it’s been difficult to find somewhere to go on a Monday of late. So, we’ve decided it’s time to help fill that gap and we’re now open on Mondays for dinner.” With so many restaurants struggling for staff, they’ve found a gap in the market to fill their restaurant, on what would previously have been the quietest night of the week.
These are just two social media postings reflecting what is going on all around the country — a dire shortage of staff in the hospitality industry.
When I was writing the Foodies Fight Back column in this newspaper — which gave people in the industry a platform to air their uncensored views, hopes, fears and frustrations throughout the worst period of the Covid-19 crisis lockdowns in 2020/21 — many hoteliers expressed their concerns about the number of people leaving the industry altogether. Highly trained staff were changing careers to what they saw as safer jobs in the civil service, health service, tech industries, etc. Well, as it turns out, they were right to be concerned, because this exodus has come home to roost big time.
The height of the summer season is almost upon us, and as people head off around the country for their holidays, they’re already finding it difficult to get restaurant bookings early in the week — and, indeed, later in the week also — so be sure to secure your table before you go anywhere.
The biggest problem seems to be waiting staff, though I’m told it’s no picnic finding sous chefs, commis chefs or chefs de partie, or kitchen porters either. For hotels, good housekeeping and bar staff across the board
are worth their weight in gold right now.
Working in the hospitality industry is undoubtedly something of a vocation. Some find the hours unsociable, but others love the buzz and meeting people. I started out my career working in hospitality, with a company involved in hotels and car hire. I was based both in their Ireland House London, selling Irish holidays to the Great British public, and at Dublin Airport. Even then, the hours were trying — we worked 19 days on the trot and then got two days off. That also involved waiting for delayed flights until 2am or 3am, and being back next morning at 8am.
I was young, loved the job, and the excitement of meeting celebrities and film stars made it worth the odd hours.
Dr Donagh Davern, tourism and hospitality lecturer at Munster Technological University in Cork, points out that America, which is having exactly the same issues, is calling it The Great Resignation or The Big Quit. Over four million Americans voluntarily left their jobs last August alone — a month in which one person in 12 working in hospitality there, quit.
“It’s a post-pandemic worldwide phenomenon and Ireland’s hospitality sector is now feeling the very real effects of it, with some businesses having to restrict hours or services as a result of being unable to hire staff,” Dr Davern says. “However, hospitality businesses are responding with greater flexibility. Opportunities for hybrid working, improved work-life balance and even a share of the company’s success are the order of the day. The sector knows it has suffered from a poor employer brand image in the past and is working hard to remedy this going forward. Split shifts are largely a thing of the past, unless it suits the employee, and there are huge opportunities for training, development and advancement.
“Hospitality is not just about minimum-wage-paying jobs any more — there are fantastic opportunities across areas such as operations, HR, revenue management, digital marketing and finance.”
Patricia Roberts, of the beautiful boutique-style hotel, No 1 Pery Square, in Limerick, says, “Smaller properties like ourselves can work closely with our teams to fulfil their needs better and faster. We employers have all had to think outside the box, whether it’s offering full-time staff four days rather than five, or giving holidays as a bonus. If you engage well and proactively, it works for staff and, in turn, will produce for the business. Consistency in rosters is key — it enables them to plan their lives for the better. Many employers forget our staff have lives, whether they’re at management level or junior level.”
On the other side of the country, the stunningly located Ashford Castle in Cong, Co Mayo — the only hotel in Ireland to achieve exclusive Five-Star Forbes Travel Guide ranking — is the regular destination of many international celebrities who return time and time again. This is because, apart from the world-class cuisine and attractions, the hotel has a longstanding team across the board, who make everyone who crosses their doorstep feel so welcome and at home, without any pretensions. In fact, they established their 25 Club to celebrate staff with over 25 years of service at Ashford Castle. It now has 20 members. However, they need people to join them — and maybe, in time, add to this club — and they recently issued a “dream job alert” seeking additional staff in many interesting capacities, from chefs to accommodation supervisors, a restaurant director, a food-and-beverage trainer, a retail assistant, a reception manager and a fishery manager.
Ashford’s general manager, Niall Rochford, says, “We were very lucky to hold on to the staff who wanted to work here during the pandemic, thanks to the government supports and our wonderful owners, the Tollman family. But, like everyone else, when we reopened, we faced shortfalls in our staffing levels. Even trying to meet this challenge, there is another challenge, that of staff accommodation. Airbnb has added to the lack of available options, and we are struggling to find accommodations in Cong or the surrounding areas for up to 45 staff due to join both the Castle and the Lodge.”
In East Cork, Stephen Belton is managing director of the Garryvoe and Bayview hotels, as well as being chairman of the Original Irish Hotels group, which counts some 60-plus hotels countrywide in its membership. “It’s been bad before, but never this bad,” he tells me of the shortages. To secure staff for his two hotels, he’s bringing in people from South Africa, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
“Along with re-examining the way we work and what we can offer, I feel we should also celebrate the people who have been part of our team throughout the last number of years and are still part of our hotels. They’ve been fantastic. Yes, it’s hard at the moment, but we have great people working for us and it’s our job to look after them and create healthy, positive working environments for all involved.
“Let’s also take best practice from other industries and learn from them in relation to attracting and retaining motivated people. Being part of the hospitality industry has always been a fantastic part of my life. It motivates and challenges you every day; every day is different, and it sometimes makes you laugh or cry, like any job, but it always gives you the opportunity to meet fantastic, like-minded people and make great friendships that endure over the years.”
In Sligo, Anthony Gray, former president of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, chair of Sligo Tourism and owner of restaurants Hooked and Eala Bhán, says he’s been finding it very difficult. In fact, out of necessity, he has been rattling the pots and pans himself. “It’s a complete nightmare. I’ve never seen it like this in all my years within the hospitality industry. You simply can’t get staff to cover any fronts, especially chefs. I now find myself cooking, covering for staff. Never did I think this would be the case — going from the kitchen to front of house, while trying to run everything else — but you just have to roll with it.
“The whole world is short-staffed, I get that, but I think the uncertainty we’ve had in our industry over the last two years didn’t help things. With all the opening and closing of the hospitality industry, a lot of people gave up on it, and you can’t blame them. The Government needs to come up with a plan for us to combat this. The tourism industry, along with all our visitors to this country, deserves better and need our amazing céad míle fáilte. It’s what we are renowned for, but I’m afraid this is fading very fast on all fronts. It’s going to be very hard to keep this up. I know we are heading into uncharted waters and I fully believe lots of businesses will go under next year. You can’t sustain the unsustainable.”
In Dublin, Paul Cartwright, chef de cuisine and director of the legendary Roly’s Bistro in Ballsbridge, says that while they are very lucky to have a core team with them for 20 years, it is almost impossible to find a new chef with experience. “You have to go outside the country to get an experienced chef, and accommodation is a major problem. Due to staff shortages, a lot of the time we have to restrict our capacity in order to provide our expected top-level service. It’s frustrating to have to turn people down when the business is there.” He laughs as he adds, “I have to put in even more hours in the kitchen than I did pre-pandemic — but it’s all part of the fun!”
Ciaran Fitzgerald, of the Blue Haven Collection — which includes hotels, bars and restaurants throughout Co Cork — is conscious of the wider impact of staffing problems. “The knock-on impact of the shortage in staffing means that businesses are focusing on opening at peak times. This will impact the tourist experience. At the moment, a lot of places are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and tourism at this point is a seven-day business. Guests not being able to get their favourite restaurants, or experience the full array of choice and quality in a place like Kinsale, may hamper the experience in the short term.
“That said, in the coming weeks, I would imagine a lot of places will flex up if staffing eases with college students coming back and as people make their way back to the industry. For a while in March and April, we had to sit down each week and see what hours and areas we could open, scale back bookings and not take large groups so we could maintain a quality service level and not overload the team. That’s heartbreaking when the demand is there and we were closed for so long. As an industry, we’re not used to saying no!”
Despite the scale of these challenges, Fitzgerald remains thoroughly optimistic. “We’ve proven to be a very resilient industry through global recessions, a pandemic, a war, and whatever challenges are thrown at us — we always find a way. The industry is full of innovative, passionate people who love what they do.”
He recognises that change is necessary to keep those passionate people working in the industry. For the past three years at his Blue Haven Collection, he’s been focused on improving hours, conditions and pay, developing staff training and progression, and implementing a mental health and wellness programme in conjunction with the I Am Here organisation. “The old attitude of, ‘If you’re not doing 60-plus hours, you’re not making the effort,’ has to go. It’s a mindset and culture in this industry that goes way back.”
The Blue Haven Collection has also been successful in recruiting in India and elsewhere through the international visa programme, with a large percentage of their kitchen team arriving this way.
While sometimes the daily moment-to-moment challenges feel like trying to swim up Niagara Falls, Fitzgerald says that hospitality is an industry where, once you have the taste for the buzz, excitement and fulfilment on offer, nothing else will do. “We would get bored!”