Europe’s hotels and restaurants are eager to welcome tourists — if they can find enough staff
By Rick Noack,
Johanna Geron Reuters
CANNES, France — The Hôtel Martinez is famous for a strict access policy to protect its famous guests.
People hoping to catch a glimpse of celebrities attending the film festival here this month had to wait outside, sitting on their suitcases, in the sweltering sun. Only those with reservations or on a list are allowed inside the art deco entrance.
Or those who might be able to prepare Mediterranean bluefin tuna.
“Cooks or room maids are not easy to find these days,” said Yann Gillet, the hotel’s manager, as he took a short break between welcoming stars during the festival. “It was a bit of a challenge.”
Whereas the Martinez has often been inundated with applications in the past, it now faces a post-pandemic staff shortage that has hit the entire industry and could threaten the speed of the continent’s economic recovery.
As Europeans embark on their annual summer vacations, they are finding that some restaurants and hotels are still shuttered or operating at reduced hours, with many citing staff shortages, a lack of customers in some regions, and uncertainty over pandemic restrictions.
Starting in August, anyone who wants to eat at a restaurant in France is expected to need a vaccination certificate, proof of immunity or a negative coronavirus test, which could keep more customers away. But in many of the restaurants that have reopened in domestic tourism destinations, overworked staffers are struggling to keep up with orders.
Waiters serve patrons on a restaurant terrace in Versailles, west of Paris.
American hospitality businesses report similar problems, which put pressure on employers to raise wages and offer better benefits. Europe, though, wasn’t expecting this. Expansive wage subsidy and furlough programs were supposed to help workers get through the pandemic and ensure they would still be in place when businesses were able to reopen.
Those programs appear to have worked for the people they covered. A study in the International Journal of Hospitality Management found businesses that put employees on paid furlough instead of laying them off were more likely to retain them beyond lockdowns.
But seasonal workers, of the sort that staff resort hotels, had to apply for normal unemployment benefits instead. And, after 16 months of on-and-off lockdowns, it is increasingly clear that many of them sought out new, and, in some cases, more stable jobs in the retail industry and other sectors. Many may not return to hotel reception desks and restaurant kitchens anytime soon, if ever.
France’s hospitality sector estimates that 150,000 workers have left the industry. In Germany, union experts estimate that every sixth worker — almost 300,000 people — left the sector last year. There are about 200,000 vacancies in the sector in Britain, where the effects of the pandemic have been compounded by Brexit.
As in the United States, labor unions in Europe are seizing the moment to demand better pay and benefits.
In France, unemployment agencies are setting up “speed meeting” programs to allow desperate employers to introduce themselves to potential workers. A number of companies have begun to offer recommend-a-friend bonuses for waiters and other positions.
But some experts say the crisis could prompt a deeper shift in how businesses and governments approach staffing in the hospitality industry.
“I don’t think that the salary is the main issue,” said Andreas Kallmuenzer, a professor at France’s Excelia Business School.
The European industry’s biggest challenges are rooted in the nature of work, Kallmuenzer said: long hours that make it hard for employees to juggle family and job responsibilities, seasonal work that forces staffers to relocate, and limited opportunities for long-term careers.
A crucial lesson from the pandemic, he said, should be that hospitality businesses need to provide employees with options that advance their careers and “allow them to plan their lives.”
At the Martinez in Cannes and its parent company Hyatt, executives said the pandemic has intensified efforts to experiment with recruitment and retention.
Movie director Spike Lee conducts staff members of the Hôtel Martinez as they sing the French national anthem.
Hospitality businesses need to be able to provide a “dynamic career and experiences,” said Michel Morauw, who is in charge of Hyatt’s operations in France.
During the Cannes Film Festival, the Martinez’s staffing levels were bolstered by 18 workers from other Hyatt hotels, including three participants from programs for high school dropouts, disadvantaged youths and refugees, launched before the pandemic.
While the primary aim of the program for disadvantaged youths has been to find new ways of recruitment, Morauw said it may also help with the retention of older employees who come from similar backgrounds.
The program’s message to them, said Morauw, is: “We value them for who they are.”
Similar approaches of moving staffers to high-demand sites or expanding the pool of potential workers through dedicated training programs may be more difficult to implement in smaller hospitality businesses, however.
In Austria, where more than two-thirds of hotels are small businesses that are often family-run, industry representatives say the pandemic exodus of workers has been unprecedented in magnitude and impact.
Stefan Koeb, the manager of several hospitality businesses in the mountainous Vorarlberg region of Austria, said the sector was used to an annual staff fluctuation of about 15 to 20 percent. But during the pandemic, about 30 percent left the sector in Austria, he said.
Whereas departures were most pronounced among lower-level workers in the past, “this time, we’ve lost a lot of senior staff, too,” he said, adding that their absence risked leaving serious gaps.
Director Spike Lee speaks with staff members of the Hôtel Martinez on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival.
Researcher Kallmuenzer said he hoped the pandemic would prompt Europe’s family-run hospitality businesses to provide employees with “a regular career that assures them that they can live a regular family life.”
Before becoming a researcher, Kallmuenzer worked as a ski instructor in Austria, where he met other young employees who enjoyed working in the region’s hospitality industry — but only “as long as they were single.”
“As soon as family comes in, as soon as future planning comes in, you’re like: Okay, is that something that I want to do forever?” he recalled.
One solution, he said, is for family businesses to treat employees as part of their extended family and to “integrate outsiders to become key players.”
At the Martinez in Cannes, where good workers have become as sought-after as the guests who tend to pay at least $1,000 a night to stay here in summer, staffers are often referred to as part of an extended “family,” too.
One of the first graduates of Hyatt’s training program for disadvantaged youths in France, 20-year-old Garaba Traoré, said his path from leaving school in a Parisian suburb without a diploma to helping out with housekeeping at a luxury hotel on the Côte d’Azur has puzzled some of his friends and family members.
“Everyone is proud of me,” he said, before pausing for a moment as director Spike Lee passed the table. “Frankly, this is an opportunity not everyone gets.”