‘People expect cheap food, drink and accommodation – that horse has bolted’: a hotelier on life without EU workers

The Headland hotel in Cornwall has been in Veryan Palmer’s family all her life. Her parents bought the imposing Victorian pile overlooking Fistral Beach, Newquay, 43 years ago. Now Palmer, 37, is director. They have always had staff from Europe. “My parents would talk about when European countries joined the EU they would suddenly get an influx of staff from a new country,” she says. “They remember the summer that Poland joined and the sudden influx of Polish housekeeping staff who are just phenomenal.”

In 2019, about half the staff were non-British. Palmer attributes the identity and the success of the hotel – one of just two in the county with five stars – to them. “There is no chance we would be where we are now without the skills of people coming from other countries.”

It used not to be hard to recruit. “Cornwall is a lovely place to come and work; we’re pretty hot on the work-life balance, and the life part is pretty fun, with beaches and surfing. So it’s always been attractive for hospitality team members from across Europe.”

Workers came from all over: Spain, Italy, France, Poland, Romania, Estonia, sometimes whole families. Some came for just a summer, to practise their English; others came over and settled. They brought experience with them, says Palmer. “They have a greater understanding of what our European guests want, and a skill level you don’t always see in UK hospitality workers. In Europe, a lot of young people have part-time jobs from around the age of 16, so when they come over at 18 or 20 they have already got quite a bit of work experience. They understand that if work starts at nine, you turn up at five to nine. We end up doing quite a lot of life-skills training for people who have been brought up in the UK.”

Hospitality has been hit hard recently. Palmer says it’s difficult to distinguish what is Brexit and what is the pandemic: “It’s just all come together in one mighty swirl of a disaster zone.”

What’s certain is that many workers went home during the pandemic and didn’t come back, either because they weren’t allowed to or didn’t want to. If they don’t already have settled status in the UK, applicants from both EU and non-EU countries have to be paid a salary of at least £25,600 under the new skilled worker visa scheme. More than 90,000 workers left the country’s hospitality sector during the past year. London, where up to 75% of hospitality workers were from the EU pre-Covid, has been hardest hit. Job vacancies across the industry are at the highest levels on record.

She thinks her business will survive, by looking hard at costs, but that some hotels won’t and that it’s going to be incredibly tough for the industry. “Hospitality works on such tight margins. With the rising cost of food, most of us have used the drop in VAT to suck that up, instead of putting up our prices.”

But that VAT reduction for hospitality is tapering off: it’s up from 5% to 12.5% and in April will return to its pre-pandemic 20%. On top of that, hospitality wages are up 23%, Palmer says. “Someone’s got to pay for that. Your food and drink is going to cost a huge amount more and a lot of places won’t survive. The expectation of cheap food, drink and accommodation – that horse has bolted.”

Palmer says that the percentage of British staff at the Headland has risen to about 80%, and that in Cornwall some businesses have been able to put wages up because they’ve had such a busy year. But that’s had a detrimental knock-on effect on other sectors – such as care, for example. “If you can get maybe two, three, four pounds an hour more in hospitality, where you’re not doing night shifts, what are you going to do?”

For now, Palmer has 11 international placement students at the Headland hotel. They are attached to UK universities, so have student visas and are permitted to work. But still she could do with another 30 or 40 staff, especially as Cornwall is such a hot destination. “We’ve got a crazy October and, in theory, this November will be the best November we’ve ever had. However, we have had to shut off 20 out of 91 bedrooms to make sure all our staff can have two days off a week.”

On Brexit, Palmer says a lot of promises were made by both sides, “when actually no one truly knew what the outcome would be. It was a bonkers thing to go to a referendum on, there was never going to be accurate and truthful information.”

So which way did she vote? She laughs – she’s not telling. “Whichever way I say, people would tear me apart.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.