Imagine. At last, you’re on your long-awaited summer holiday in the Peak District. After a gruelling 17-mile tramp across Bleaklow, you arrive at your destination in a quaint village. But it’s Tuesday evening and everything is closed. No pint. No pie.
Or perhaps you’ve driven all day from Kent to Scotland with the family, and finally made it to your dreamed-of island. But, woe is you, and woe are the children, because the only pub in town that serves kid-friendly food is closed.
This is not dystopian doom-mongering. It’s happening already, and the main summer season hasn’t begun. Trade body UKHospitality says its members are experiencing a job vacancy rate of 11 per cent. According to the ONS, there are 132,000 unfilled roles in the sector – 48 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.
Across the UK, restaurants and pubs are struggling to offer their usual service, especially where demand is patchy – but even towns are seeing once thriving businesses being wound up.
“We’re seeing a third of businesses closing early, closing on certain days or adjusting rotas and services to retain staff and protect their wellbeing,” says Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality.
“In rural and coastal areas, the problem is particularly acute. The very nature of being seasonal means it’s harder to prepare and staff up for the summer.”
The hardest hit areas, she says, are the Yorkshire Dales and Moors, South West England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Stuart Jackson has run The Lower Deck seafood restaurant in Portree on the Isle of Skye since 2007. He says he currently has six full-time staff instead of the usual 11 or 12 and relies on family and friends for part-time shifts.
“The effect on the business is to limit our opening hours. We were used to providing a service seven days a week and we are lucky to reach four or five.
“We often have to close at short notice. This causes problems for staff who rely on regular, consistent wages. As a seafood restaurant, the uncertainty has also caused substantial problems when ordering fresh produce.”
He says everyone he speaks to in hospitality is having the same problems and all feel the Government is ignoring the problem.
“Hospitality has been treated dreadfully in recent years, both during and post-pandemic. During Covid we were asked to implement the relevant regulations but there were those amongst the general public who took their frustrations out on restaurant staff. There has been a loss of staff who no longer wish to work in hospitality because of this.
“Brexit, with the removal of the free movement of EU citizens and their right to work, has [also] been a big factor.”
He adds: “The long-term effect on tourism in Skye could be very serious if every business has to curtail their hours during the peak season. This is the biggest threat to our future since we opened the doors. Coming after the catastrophe of the pandemic has heightened the severity.”
Cumbria Tourism reports that soaring wage costs are a major issue for 91 per cent of businesses while 70 per cent say they are struggling to keep the staff they already have.
Jamie Shail is the managing director of the luxurious Rothay Manor country house retreat in Ambleside, which provides accommodation for its employees. Nonetheless, he says, he is woefully understaffed.
“In the north of England it’s really hard to get chefs. We need 10 to 12 chefs and we’re down to five or six this year. We’re having to employ agency staff who are exceedingly expensive and not committed. They will do the bare minimum for £25 an hour.
“We are having to fundamentally change our business. We’re not changing opening and closing times, but we are changing the menu and our offering. We want to remain a hotel. We don’t want to be a restaurant with rooms.”
It’s not only in the kitchen that he faces staff shortages.
“We have had a serious problem with staff across the board. Housekeeping is a particular problem.
“After the second lockdown a lot of our housekeepers, kitchen porters and other staff who were from Eastern Europe went home and decided home wasn’t so bad after all.
“In the past 18 months we have had a 25 per cent increase in our wage costs. Some places have had to pay their staff even more, but we can’t put up prices for rooms or food because of the cost of living crisis.
“It’s a particular problem in the north of England. If you look at the prices for a hotel like this in the Cotswolds, you’d pay perhaps 20 per cent more. There’s still a north-south divide. Our market is the north of England – people who live within two hours’ drive.”
There is no solution, he says, but to absorb the extra costs. “We would normally spend money on the hotel at the beginning of the year. But we can’t invest anything, we can’t buy any new furniture or spend on redecoration.”
Last weekend, Julia Faulkes completed the 190-mile Coast to Coast walk, which became a National Trail in 2022. She says dining was a logistical challenge from the start.
“The beginning and end were a contrast. St Bees in Cumbria was very organised and proactive. When we arrived in Robins Hood’s Bay at the end, everything was closed on a Friday evening. Souvenir shops, sweet shops, cafés and cake shops were all shut. It looked like a thriving little place but everything was closed. We asked a local and he said no one could get staff.”
Along the way, she met many hoteliers and innkeepers working hard to survive.
“We saw a lot of businesses just about hanging in. Staff were doubling up on jobs and working long hours. In some towns there was no food available, especially from Monday to Wednesday. In one smart hotel there was no food at all, and no one on duty after dark.
“Lots of places were managing by working really hard and everyone mucking in. Owners and managers told us they were cutting costs on laundry, heating and staff. Some owners were cleaning rooms.”
Julia said the Coast to Coast is especially popular with Australians and Americans. “We can’t take the income from tourism for granted. Our trails are competing with staggeringly beautiful ones in the Alps and Balkans.”
Hospitality was the last sector to open after the pandemic. But the issues around finding staff go back much further.
“Covid disrupted apprenticeships and university courses in hospitality and staffing,” says Kate Nicholls. “Foreign students, who used to take on seasonal work, haven’t come back.
“But there are simply not enough people in the job market. The UK fell off a demographic cliff at the turn of the millennium. There are smaller numbers of young people coming into the workforce.”
Fixing such fundamental problems is going to take more than a single summer season.