The hidden heart of the city: behind the scenes in hospitality and leisure
Opinion | Chris Douglas, who combines his role as general manager of Graduate Cambridge hotel with a seat on the Cambridge BID board, considers the future of hospitality and leisure in the city.
A portrait of poet Lord Byron with a bear hangs in our first-floor lift lobby. Reportedly, when he was a student at the University of Cambridge, Byron discovered that the rules did not permit him to keep a dog in his rooms, but there was nothing to stop him having a bear as a pet - at least temporarily until the rules were changed!
The portrait is there as a talking point, because my hotel is part of Graduate Hotels, a brand that uses storytelling to enhance the guest experience. We want our team members to enjoy sharing this story, among others, with hotel visitors. To do this, they themselves need to feel valued and invested in the hotel.
It’s well known that Cambridge attracts visitors from across the globe due to its reputation as a seat of learning and innovation; the skillsets associated with these characteristics are highly prized. Less visible, but arguably no less critical for the city’s ongoing success, are the softer skills found in the hospitality and leisure industries. Excellent people skills is just one example. In order for businesses like mine to underpin the academic and corporate heart of the city, we need to recruit and retain staff who are highly skilled in their own areas of expertise.
Making team members feel valued isn’t always straight-forward when hospitality and leisure jobs tend to be less well rewarded, financially, than other sectors and therefore staff can be more transient. Most hospitality businesses in the city are struggling to manage staff shortages in the wake of Brexit and Covid, even though occupancy rates are moving back towards 2019 levels. I’ve been in the industry for a very long time, and this is the most challenging period that I have seen.
As part of the solution, rates of pay have increased across the board - above the minimum wage, plus tips, that was the norm for decades. We work hard to create a culture that recognises our employees and we’re fortunate that we can use our facilities to host events such as a cinema night for team members - with popcorn - or a pizza lunch in the riverside garden. Most hotels in the city plan ways in which they can recognise staff, celebrating an HR day, chefs’ week, a food and beverage servers’ day and housekeeping week among others. Some reward team members with a 50p or £1 bonus each time their name is mentioned favourably in a guest review. We also use the new Workplace app from Meta to communicate news to team members, helping them to feel included.
Despite current challenges, it is possible to create a sense of value that leads to team members enjoying long-term careers in our industry. Indeed, we have three employees who have been with the hotel for more than 15 years, one of whom has been working here for more than 25 years.
Hybrid working in the hospitality industry
With ‘hybrid working’ very much a phrase of our time, it’s interesting to observe that the hospitality and leisure industries have their own version of hybrid working. Obviously, it isn’t possible to work from home, but it is increasingly possible to create a flexible working day that’s tailored to fit a lifestyle. People used to be employed on rigid eight-hour shifts but it’s now common for team members to cover just the breakfast shift, or to start at 4pm, or to work three days a week, for instance. For those wanting a more settled routine we have 9-5 positions, for example in the sales office, with occasional evening events, or opportunities on the reception desk. Team members are more able to structure their day to fit family life, while also being vital cogs who keep the hotel running smoothly.
The hospitality and leisure industries also offer great flexibility for those at the beginning of their careers. We enable people to join at an entry level position, perhaps because they lack confidence or their spoken English is not that strong, and then gain the skills they need to move up to more advanced roles. Kitchen porters, for example, can become commis chefs or part of the banqueting team in the food and beverage department. The current recruitment challenges mean that, as an industry, we are keener than ever to promote from within and give someone we already know an opportunity to excel in a new role.
In Cambridge we are fortunate enough to have a great variety of hotels, restaurants, venues and 31 colleges, offering a diverse selection of opportunities and experiences for employees looking to specialise and develop their skills, often via formal apprenticeship schemes.
Transporting team members, towels and tomatoes
As an industry, we must add our voice to the call for a transport system that’s fit for purpose. We seem to be stuck in a permanent round of consultations that, sadly, deliver few improvements for the city. More than 60 per cent of our own employees live within Cambridge; they walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work – and the latter becomes challenging when the Park & Ride shuts in the early evening. Others live in the surrounding villages, and they get caught up in traffic when they commute in by car. As a hotel, we can’t provide a fantastic guest experience without receiving a number of daily deliveries, such as food and laundry, on which we depend.
We would like to see a balanced transport solution that benefits our workforce. It’s no use wielding a stick if there isn’t a carrot at the end of it – otherwise we risk pushing workers out of the city centre to the outskirts and potentially out of the city altogether. I would like decision-makers to consider consolidating all the consultations so there is clarity around the whole transport picture. I would also like them to consider, for example, that the benefit of wage increases for our staff would be negated by the introduction of a congestion charge and parking levy, never mind the well-documented cost-of-living challenges.
Discussions around delivery hubs on the outskirts of the city are sensible, providing that the last-mile functionality is properly thought through in terms of business impact. For example: how would this affect frozen and chilled foods? And our laundry provider, for instance, is already a perfect supplier in this respect, servicing four or five hotels on a single route. They shouldn’t be penalised for doing a great job.
As a city, we do need to reduce emissions and, as a hotel, we do want to play our part. Our recent renovations included many improvements, such as the installation of two covered bike sheds for example and we are happy for these to be used by shoppers as well as our guests and employees. As an industry, we would encourage those making decisions about transport to find ways to work together more effectively, and to make sure that the outcomes benefit local people and businesses as well as the environment.
We need to look after the hospitality and leisure industries, because they play a vital role in supporting the higher-profile sectors within our city. After all, if there’s no one available to pour a pint or cook diners a fabulous meal, would the city still be an attractive place to live and work?
Cambridge BID board members are committed to viewing the city as a whole and creating a world-class experience for all who visit, live and work here.