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Hospitality - what will be the new normal?

By Tom Baum - Posted on 22 July 2021

Covid and Brexit are two factors currently impacting the hospitality sector - Professor Tom Baum looks at their effects on hospitality and its workforce and highlights some of the issues the sector will face in the future.

Walking through the centre of Glasgow during our (real) summer recently, it was heartening to see a vibrant street-café life return to the city, with crowds enjoying the diverse hospitality fare on offer. It is salutary to remember that just a few short weeks ago, Glasgow (and all other city centres in Scotland) were virtual ghost towns with the hospitality industry in total lockdown. 

Restaurants, hotels, cafes and bars have been among the businesses that were hardest hit by the global pandemic with estimates of between 60 and 100 million job losses in tourism and hospitality worldwide since March 2020. The tribulations of this workforce have been the focus of a growing research portfolio to which I (and colleagues in SBS) have been able to contribute. 

Writing during the early phases of the first lockdown in 2020, with colleagues from Australia and New Zealand, we assessed the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality workforce at three levels: macro (global, policy, government), meso (organisational) and micro (employee) and argued that, in fact, the consequences were an extreme amplification of what had long been the norm in hospitality employment - precarious, low paid and challenging working conditions endured by some of the most disadvantaged in the workforce. Evidence from the unfolding chapter of COVID-19 has only served to reinforce this assessment. The uncertainty and stop-start conditions faced by businesses left most employees stranded or in search of other working options.

 As a consequence and somewhat ironically, now that hospitality is open again, Scotland (and the wider UK) is facing an acute skills shortage which, although partly attributable to the consequences of Brexit, points to a lack of interest and confidence in, and appetite for, the work that is on offer in hospitality. 

Maybe this should not be a major surprise. A survey undertaken by a team from SBS of the hospitality workforce here in Scotland in late 2020 (when hospitality was open) highlights a significant increase in customer misbehaviour and abuse of staff charged with managing complex COVID social distancing and hygiene measures. The findings suggest that managers are reluctant to intervene on behalf of their staff, perhaps believing the myth that the customer is always right? These issues have been reinforced by the experience of members of the Unite Union Hospitality section in Glasgow, highlighting sexual violence and gender-based abuse in the industry locally and affirming other examples of workplace abuse in the sector. Customer abuse has now been recognised by some hospitality industry leaders in Scotland in launching the Be Kind to Hospitality campaign in May 2021. 

The pandemic has also changed the nature of hospitality work in both operational and contextual terms. We have seen increased use of self-service automation across the industry and reductions in personalised service (in-room cleaning in hotels, for example). We have also seen the emergence of hotels contracted to provide quarantine for international arrivals, initially in other countries but eventually in Scotland as well. Interestingly, an early study of the workforce in Australia’s quarantine facilities identified that a significant proportion of young people undertaking such work saw it as meaningful, worthwhile and contributing to the greater good of society, attributes not generally associated with ‘normal’ hospitality work. This study created a fascinating and serendipitous footnote from my perspective in that its publication led to an invitation from the chair of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), which is a subgroup of SAGE that is assessing behavioural and sociological drivers of the covid-19 epidemic, and how these impact specific sectors of the economy, in this case the hotel industry, including Managed Quarantine Facilities (Quarantine Hotels). I was able to advise on issues relating to the workforce in hotels and how infection mitigation might be managed in the future from a behavioural perspective. The report will enable SAGE to inform policy in a range of Departments of the UK Government and the devolved administrations with respect to behavioural aspects of risk and risk mitigation across a complex and diverse sector. 

What happens next in the hospitality workforce space is anybody’s guess. What is (almost) certain is that going forward, the new normal for hospitality work will be different, begging a host of questions. What will happen to the warmth of traditional Scottish hospitality if physical, technological and psychological barriers remain between guests and those serving them? Will Scottish hospitality employers be forced to recognise the true value of their staff and enhance their working conditions in line with the Fair Work agenda? Will MQFs become a permanent part of our travel landscape and what is the role for hotels in providing such services? These questions and many more will be the staple diet for us academic researchers in this area for many years to come. 


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