Britain’s booming summer of staycations has made Robin Hutson’s Pig hotels ‘so full they squeak’, the hotelier says. He has every right to feel chipper – the Pig’s seven boutique hotels across the South of England, spanning from Bath to Brockenhurst in the New Forest, are fully booked until November.
An eighth Pig, called The Pig in the South Downs, will open in Madehurst in early September. ‘Every day I get text messages from friends and contacts saying, ‘Can you find me a room?’
Hutson says. ‘I can’t magic them, unfortunately.’ Hutson – who is widely regarded as one of the hotel industry’s most influential businessmen after co-founding Hotel du Vin and chairing Soho House – founded the Pig group ten years ago with the backing of billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe.
Crisis: Pig hotels owner Robin Hutson says daily testing should replace self-isolation
Parent company Home Grown Hotels, which also manages Ratcliffe’s Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, now employs around 1,000 staff, up from 700 five years ago, and Hutson predicts profits will bounce back next year on revenues of around £40million.
Yet the 64-year-old admits it won’t all be plain sailing. Not only is pandemic uncertainty lingering longer than Hutson would like, the entire hospitality industry is battling a major staffing crisis. And his Pig hotels – while attractive employers – are not immune.
In recent weeks, 85 of Hutson’s staff have been ‘pinged’ by NHS Test and Trace, forcing him to ‘throttle back’ service in some of his hotels’ bars and spas. Meanwhile, an acute shortage of skilled workers – particularly in the kitchens – has made it hard to cater for the soaring summer demand.
The ONS two weeks ago published data showing an estimated 102,000 job vacancies in hospitality between April and June – nearly five and a half times higher than the 19,000 recorded in December to February 2021, and higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Hutson says part of the problem is a lack of focus on how hospitality is supposed to cope after Brexit ended freedom of movement for European workers and many went back during the pandemic. Previously, Europeans accounted for about a quarter of his workforce – and an even greater proportion at top London hotels.
Hutson is now planning to write to Boris Johnson, urging the Prime Minister to come up with a plan to replace this lost workforce.
‘When we came to recruit for the summer season we were looking for around 15 per cent [more staff], and that became much more difficult this year,’ he says.
‘There are clearly very tight spots in certain sub-sectors of the industry – the kitchens are very difficult at the moment. That has been a long-term issue for hospitality anyway, and it has been exaggerated because of the tightening up of immigration.
‘We do feel as an industry that we are ignored. You hear the Government is interested in bringing nuclear scientists and brain surgeons to the UK. That’s fine, but agriculture, food processing, care, health, hospitality, transport – all those really substantial sectors don’t require nuclear physicists, they want troops on the ground.
‘There doesn’t seem to be much cohesion running through the labour strategy. You can’t just remove a whole swathe of workers and hope for the best.’
Hutson has held weekly meetings with Ministers during the pandemic on an industry group led by Prezzo executive chairwoman Karen Jones. He is close friends with chef Mark Hix, a fishing companion, as well as Soho House founder Nick Jones. He met Ratcliffe, who owns 50 per cent of the Pig hotels, when their children went to the same school in Southampton.
‘In the past month I have had a lot of well-known restaurateurs ring me up, asking, ‘Have you found the magic solution to all this [the staffing crisis]’? They are not mom and pop operations, these are household names,’ he says. Hutson recognises he has an advantage when it comes to hiring because of the cachet of the Pig brand, a magnet for celebrities that reportedly include Bryan Ferry, Daisy Lowe and Sadie Frost.
He also has the financial firepower to be able to increase wages, giving staff a 5 per cent raise across the board from June 1, and guaranteeing minimum pay of £10 an hour.
But he says he is concerned for the future of smaller businesses that don’t have the ‘razzmatazz’ and ‘clout’ of his hotels, and says the Government must speed up the plans for an Australian-style visa scheme that would allow Europeans to work in UK hospitality even if they don’t score the 70 points needed under new immigration rules. ‘I’d like to see a little less talk and more action,’ he says.
Another solution is getting more young people – and their parents – to appreciate hospitality work.
Hutson started in the trade aged 18 after failing his O-levels, working his way up from commis waiter at Claridge’s. He thinks the Government should do more to promote technical courses that teach school-leavers a trade over ‘fluffy’ university degrees.
He says: ‘The problems we face as an industry are really very deep-rooted in so far as there is a lack of respect for craft in this country. Everyone wants to be a white-collar professional and no one wants to be a craft-person. Whereas in European countries there is greater respect for craft – whether it’s a carpenter, a wine-maker, a chef.
‘In order to convince the chattering classes that these are respectable careers for their little Johnny to go and work in, there needs to be a national promotional exercise for craft-based courses instead of rather nebulous degree courses that fill quite a lot of the universities.’
Hutson is isolating at his home in Winchester after being contacted by Test and Trace following a salmon fishing trip to Iceland. He points out he is double-jabbed and had taken a negative test before flying home from Reykjavik – and another on landing – and argues there should be ‘credit towards being released for that sort of situation’. Daily workplace testing, he suggests, should replace self-isolation – particularly for younger staff who have not yet had both vaccinations.
He says: ‘The price is too great for so many industries to randomly send people home. Of all our staff who have been pinged, we have had zero positive Covid cases.’
In his downtime, Hutson is a self-confessed ‘petrolhead’ who has done motorbike tours around Africa and South America, and a wine enthusiast. He owns a share of a Devon vineyard that makes a white wine called Devon Minnow, and has planted a vineyard at the upcoming Pig in the South Downs that aims to produce its first vintage next year.
Hutson could soon toast a sale of the business he has said he could exit once the Pig stable hits ten hotels. Last Tuesday, he received a takeover offer from a private equity firm, although for now he dismisses the offer.
‘They’re always sniffing around,’ he says. ‘One day we’ll sell, but it’s not uppermost and it’s not something I’m pushing forward.’
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