“A perfect storm” and “a nightmare” is how one west of Ireland hotelier and a restaurateur have described the staffing and related accommodation crisis as the height of the summer season approaches.
Westport hotelier Darren Madden says the shortage of staff has been exacerbated by university students, normally the backbone of the seasonal service industry, leaving the country on JI visas and local staff reassessing their working lives in the wake of the pandemic.
The hospitality sector has become even more reliant on foreign workers and teenagers who have just completed the Junior Cert but are restricted by protective regulations due to their age, he says.
“I gave a lovely Spanish man a position last month as a kitchen porter. We have taken two properties we had for Airbnb off the market to use to accommodate staff. I offered him a room in an apartment with other staff but he wanted to bring his wife and small child over and live in that room. She was available to do some housekeeping work for us. However, I wasn’t comfortable with the space they would have as a family. After he failed to find anywhere suitable to stay in Co Mayo, he went to Killarney to see if he could get a job with accommodation there. He has returned to his hometown of Cómpeta,” says Madden.
Madden is the Co Mayo chairman of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) and co-owner with his wife, Maria Ruddy, of the Clew Bay Hotel. The issue of derelict buildings, even in a planned and pretty town like Westport, is an ongoing problem that should have been addressed by Government long ago, he says.
“The priority should be the redevelopment of derelict, vacant and unoccupied properties. Local authorities have said they are going to move on this; well, there are buildings that have been derelict in this town for over two decades,” he says.
In Galway city and the village of Barna long-time restaurateur Michael O’Grady says staffing issues have been “a nightmare” this year.
“We are 25 years in Kirwan’s Lane [off Quay Street] and 21 at O’Grady’s on the Pier in Barna and this is the worst year we have ever experienced,” O’Grady says. “For a time we had to stop serving lunches and only opened for five days each week,” he says.
During Covid we had to restrict the numbers eating in our bar, now we have to restrict them because the diminished level of staff is governing how many people we can cater for
“Since the pandemic some of our regular staff have a new perspective on life and don’t want to work split shifts or in the evenings. Of our 72 staff, the core were historically from the industry. During the pandemic some of them returned back home to their native countries in Europe whilst others left the industry altogether,” he says.
Ironically, O’Grady says, he has “emails a mile long from people in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and South Africa, who want to come here to work but the long-winded bureaucracy is too prohibitive”.
In Clifden his brother Shane, who runs Guys Bar and Restaurant, resorted to developing two apartments in a building he owns to accommodate staff. “One of them is still empty, even though I have advertised everywhere. During Covid we had to restrict the numbers eating in our bar, now we have to restrict them because the diminished level of staff is governing how many people we can cater for,” he says.
Back in Westport Michael Lennon, hotelier and former national president of the IHF, suggests a more radical long-term solution regarding accommodation shortages. This is as other hoteliers in the town resort to purchasing properties to accommodate staff, while there are suggestions one hotelier is in the process of buying a B&B to accommodate staff.
“There needs to be versatile and strategic planning legislation instituted around transient and seasonal accommodation. When I worked in Geneva, over 40 years ago, I stayed in this type of accommodation. It is provided for workers at ski resorts all over Europe,” Lennon says.
At a recent meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Lennon raised the urgency of better regulation of Airbnbs.
“He confirmed that Fáilte Ireland is planning to take this issue on. Short-term rentals should have some kind of tourism certification. Fire regulations and insurance coverage needs to be brought up to the same standard as other providers,” Lennon says.