Lancashire has a “once in a generation” opportunity to keep visitor numbers growing, but only if more people can be persuaded to pursue a career in hospitality.
That was the verdict of attendees at a summit of influential business owners and tourism leaders held in the county to look at opportunities and challenges for the sector.
The annual Leisure and Tourism Roundtable, organised by regional accountancy and business advisory firm Moore and Smalley, heard that a range of factors were contributing to growing domestic visitor numbers.
However, many tourism businesses are facing skills shortages, which may get worse when Britain exits the EU if restrictions are placed on the free movement of people.
Making a career in hospitality more appealing to UK workers, a strong focus on improving customer service, and getting regional tourism bodies working more closely together were key to keeping the sector growing, according to the panel.
Speaking at the event, Maria Moriarty Eames, from Marketing Lancashire, said: “Many people are put off a career in tourism because of the working hours. The industry needs to be better in helping manage the work-life balance to make it more attractive. We are seeing changes to working hours, for example giving workers two-days off together and reducing split shifts.”
Andrew Haworth, of Bartle Hall, added: “We’ve been doing a lot more on better working hours, but it’s still hard to find key people. There seems to be a flaw in the British mentality that hospitality is somehow a lesser career, but hospitality teaches you some great life skills and the opportunities to work your way up quickly are perhaps greater than any other sector.”
As well as staffing issues, the panel discussed how working together with other providers and investing in customer service training could boost visitor numbers.
Heidi Kettle, of James’s Places, the group behind Ribble Valley venues such as Eaves Hall, the Shireburn Arms, and the Emporium, said: “When you get one wedding you attract 100 new guests and you potentially get them as return visitors. One of our businesses is Mitton Hall, it only has 18 bedrooms. If a wedding has 200 guests, then lots of other accommodation providers benefit, so working together is key.
“There are good examples of working together in the Ribble Valley, organised by tourism officers. We attend trade fairs together; we have a brochure promoting 23 wedding venues, so although we compete it’s good to get people into the area as a whole.”
Roger Carter, of Bay Tourism, added: “The first customer contact is the most important. So many people in our industry are part-time, often young and not trained. We need to have great trained staff for repeat business. People go to Lancashire because they know they are going to get a great welcome, they’ve also got to get great service.”
Other issues discussed included the pressure being put on tourism businesses by the National Living Wage and the commissions being paid to online travel agents.
However, speaking about the outlook for the rest of the 2017 season and next year, tourism businesses remained optimistic. The weak pound and fears about security abroad were helping to boost tourism in the UK from both domestic and international visitors.
Colin Johnson, partner at Moore and Smalley, said: “Our roundtable provides an opportunity to hear direct from hospitality leaders about the achievements, challenges and growth opportunities. This year, there was a clear sense that current market conditions and other external factors have created a once in a generation opportunity to attract significant numbers of new visitors.
“All of the businesses around the table were investing in one way or another and that shows that the sector is optimistic about growth, regardless of the challenges. The key to keeping those visitor numbers growing will be in consistently providing a high-quality product and great service levels. That is all down to businesses having a strong emphasis on people and improving their recruitment and training.”
Maria Moriarty Eames, from Marketing Lancashire, added: “We’ve seen the continuing popularity of the staycation, extending traditional holiday periods and short break opportunities, so we need to make sure we’re in a position to attract those additional visitors to Lancashire.”
In 2015, Lancashire attracted just over 64 million visitors who contributed £3.81 billion to the local economy and helped support 56,551 jobs, according to Marketing Lancashire. By 2020 the aim is to attract an additional addition 6.3 million visitors to support an additional 5000 full-time equivalent jobs.
Attendees at this year’s Moore and Smalley Leisure and Tourism Roundtable were: Andrew Haworth, of Bartle Hall; Daniel Rich, of Barton Grange Hotel; Helen Kay, of Stirk House Hotel; Heidi Kettle of James’ Places; Roger Carter and Mark Prada, of Bay Tourism; Paul Bury of BF Hotels; Richard Simkin, of Preston Guild Hall & The Villa at North End; Maria Moriarty Eames, of Marketing Lancashire, Isabel Marshall, of Wenningdale Leisure; Colin Johnson and Jenny McCabe of Moore and Smalley.