‘Covid has been a reset button’

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READY TO SERVE Fr John Regan from Carrowholly, Westport pictured on the weekend of his ordination to the priesthood at his former workplace, the Clew Bay Hotel, with proprietors Maria Ruddy and Darren Madden. It is not just to the priesthood the hotels like the Clew Bay have lost staff in recent years as the hospitality industry faces a staffing crisis. Pic: Conor McKeown

Shortage of staffing – and housing – a big problem for hotels, says Westport hotelier

Westport
Edwin McGreal

The staffing crisis in Westport’s hospitality sector is directly linked to the housing crisis. That’s according to Darren Madden, the Westport-based Chairperson of the Mayo Branch of the Irish Hotels Federation.
Madden, who is the proprietor of the Clew Bay Hotel with his wife Maria Ruddy, says a shortage of affordable housing in Westport is having a significant knock-on impact on the ability of hotels in the town to get enough staff.
“In places like Westport, tourism is high intensity. In Westport there’s 800 tourist beds for a town of 5,000 people. The rule of thumb is that if you’ve a 50-bedroom hotel, you will need 50 staff, if you’ve a 100 bedroom hotel, you’ll need 100 staff so you’re talking about close to 1,000 employees – you can’t produce all of them from a town of 5,000 people so you will go further afield,” Madden told The Mayo News.
“The biggest problem we’re finding is that we can get the staff from Europe because our wages are good by international standards, but the housing crisis means people cannot find somewhere to stay.
“More and more people are coming to Westport to work and more pressure is coming on housing. I have a couple starting with me coming from Galway, and I have been able to provide them with a place to rent – that’s what secured them. They couldn’t get accommodation close to Galway.
“If we’d more affordable housing in Westport, we’d have less of these problems – but then you see housing developments getting shot down and you have to wonder,” he added, referring to a report in last week’s Mayo News whereby An Bord Pleanála refused planning for a proposed 38-property estate.
Rethink
According to Madden, a lot of hotels have lost staff since the pandemic first arrived.
“We’re coming out of two years of partial closure. Some people have moved on – some have retired, some have emigrated and some people have got other jobs in more secure industries.
“Hospitality was hit hardest in the pandemic. It is a highly labour-intensive market. You cannot get by with other means,” he said.
He said the high volume of Westport rental properties that are now Airbnb properties is adding to the issue. He doesn’t blame the landlords, acknowledging says it makes business sense to go after ‘more lucrative short-term rents’, but he says adds it makes it harder for those working in hospitality to find affordable rent. He once had two Airbnb properties himself, but he has now removed them from Airbnb and is renting them to employees. He believes that peoples’ outlooks have changed considerably due to the pandemic, which is causing a certain period of flux.  
“I’m lucky to retain my own staff, but seasonal staff will be the problem. We’re a smaller hotel and we’re lucky to retain a lot of our [year-round] staff. People might be looking for less hours though, perhaps not working split shifts. Then there’s wage demands because of the cost of living, and then you’ve to keep your prices competitive compared to other industries.
“The labour market is tight. There will be a major rethink in how places operate. I think you’ll see a lot of restaurants only opening for five days a week whereas previously they were open for seven. The businesses will be less labour intensive.
“It’s tough right now. The cost of everything has gone up. Covid has been a reset button for how people want to live their lives. But if you stay at my hotel, you want a certain level of service, you want staff with personalities instead of having reception being automated or food in a buffet,” he said.
‘Pulled the plug’
Staffing challenges elsewhere in the sector are impacting on hotels too, Madden reveals.
“I had a very good tour operator in the US who I dealt with for 10, 12 years. They would come here with tours for one night on Sundays and another tour for one night on Tuesday, every week from April to October. They would stay full board, 28 people,” he explained.
They pulled the plug though, because they could not get guides in Ireland for those tours.  
“I contacted Fáilte Ireland about it. We can market Ireland like hell but if we haven’t the staff to cope with the numbers, we’re in bother.
“These tours would go around the country for 14 days, taking in places like Dingle, the Aran Islands, Westport, Derry, Belfast, Meath. That’s a lot of places that have lost out.”
What Madden think the summer will hold for hotels?
“The level of business this summer will be okay. Forecasting is difficult, but I think that we’ll have enough business to be okay if we can provide the level of staffing we need for it.”