The fight for talent with Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality

In this Skip the Queue episode I speak with Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality and Co-Chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board.

Kate Nicholls is CEO of UKHospitality, the powerful voice representing the broad hospitality sector, having previously worked as CEO and Strategic Affairs Director of the ALMR.

In July 2019, Kate was appointed Chair of the Tourism Alliance, the membership organisation for the tourism industry comprising of leading trade associations/trade bodies within the sector. Kate is also Chair of Mayor of London’s Night Time Commission and is also a member of the Events Industry Board, London Food Board, Tourism Industry Council, Cultural Cities Enquiry, London & Partners Members Group and the Advisory Board for the Institute for Industrial Strategy.

After gaining a degree in English and a post-graduate diploma in competition law, Kate worked as a researcher in the House of Commons and European Parliament before joining Whitbread as Government Relations Manager, starting her career in hospitality in 1993. Kate was Director at one of the largest independent public affairs companies, working with a number of hospitality, retail and leisure accounts before establishing her own strategic communications consultancy in 2000. She is a graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and Kings College London.

A highly motivated Board-level adviser with a proven track record in devising and delivering strategic public policy and communication campaigns. Over 25 years experience working in a variety of government, corporate, agency and freelance roles.


“What we need to do is to use COVID as a reset moment and look again at our ways of working, style of working, what we’re expecting of people. This gives us an opportunity to revise terms and conditions and to look again at hours of work in the sector to make sure that we are being as flexible as we possibly can and we are being as responsive as we possibly can to what new recruits are telling us.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Kate answers your burning questions
  • How to attract and maintain talent in the current challenging climate


To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

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The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Kate Nicholls


Kelly Molson: Kate, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I know how incredibly busy you are, so I’m very grateful.

Kate Nicholls: Thank you. It’s great to be with you. I don’t think I’ve had any time in the last two years really where it hasn’t been incredibly busy, so it’s good to take some time out and have a chance to have a chat. So thank you for having me.

Kelly Molson: You are very welcome. You are very welcome. I’m glad I could give you that time. Right, Kate, icebreaker questions, because this is where we start all of our podcast interviews. I want to know what is at the top of your bucket list?

Kate Nicholls: Ooh, well, for the last two summers we’d been planning … My eldest was just about to go to University when COVID hit, and for the last two summers, we’d been planning to go to Costa Rica as a sort of last big family holiday. And of course, that’s been cancelled for the last two years. So top of my bucket list at the moment is to go on holiday with my two daughters, ideally Costa Rica, but actually, I’d settle for anywhere at the moment. I haven’t really had a proper break. But yeah, Costa Rica.

Kelly Molson: Costa Rica, definitely. Yeah. I hear you. I feel like anywhere with some sun right now would probably do you the world a good, Kate.

Kate Nicholls: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: Okay. If you could bring back any fashion trend, what would it be?

Kate Nicholls: Well, to be fair, they’ve never gone away from my wardrobe, but I would really like to bring back the wrap dress. They were such a good staple for anybody who worked in the ’80s and ’90s and the early ’00s. Quite like to bring them back as a major fashion trend.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, good. Can’t go wrong with a wrap dress, can you? Boots, wrap dress, cardie, done.

Kate Nicholls: You can’t. Very forgiving, pair with boots or heels or flats or trainers, and you can just adjust it according to how you’re feeling during the week.

Kelly Molson: It’s the perfect work-to-evening outfit. They’re perfect.

Kate Nicholls: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: Okay, Kate, and this might be a little bit like asking you what your favourite child is, but I want to know what your favourite restaurant is?

Kate Nicholls: Oh, that’s the difficult one because it changes so much depending on how I’m feeling and the time of day and what I’m doing. But during the lockdown, my local Korean cafe has been my go-to place for getting a quick fix, some comfort food, and they’ve kept me going throughout lockdown. I’m a big fan of street food.

Kelly Molson: Oh yeah, love street food. We have a really big street food community in Cambridge, actually, and it’s just amazing, isn’t it? Like being able to try all those different cuisines in one place? Fantastic.

Kate Nicholls: It is. It is. And I think I’ve got kind of a butterfly brain, so being able to go try lots of little things, lots of little samples and eat that kind of stuff is great. But the other thing we did do over the summer, my daughter and I, we went and celebrated the new three Michelin star female chefs that we had in London that were awarded. So again, I go from street food to high-end.

Kelly Molson: Love it. Absolutely love it. Okay, Kate, it’s unpopular opinion time. I ask everybody that comes on the podcast to share an unpopular opinion with us. It can be humorous, can be serious, whatever it needs to have to be your unpopular opinion.

Kate Nicholls: Well, I did think long and hard about this one because there are so many unpopular opinions I think I could have. But if I’m sort of talking about the biggest one that would sort of divide a lot of people, cats are better than dogs. I’m really not a dog person.

Kelly Molson: Oh, okay.

Kate Nicholls: That’s going to be controversial and split.

Kelly Molson: It’s very controversial. And I’m not going to lie, I’ve got two dogs, so I am a dog person. But Kate, my dogs are a nightmare at the moment. We’ve had a flea situation this year. I’ve got a very noisy little dachshund who is absolutely filthy. The weather is disgusting. You have to go out with them all the time. Cats are sounding more and more appealing to me by the day.

Kate Nicholls: Cats are sort of neat, clean, undemanding. They’re not as problematic as dogs. I always think dogs, you feel as though you’ve got another kid in the house. I mean, my unpopular opinion is based on the fact that I did have a nasty encounter with a dog when I was little, so I am quite scared of them. But yeah, dogs are not as good as cats.

Kelly Molson: All right. Well, let’s see what our listeners think. I’m not going to lie because it’s the time of year I’m swaying towards a cat, Kate. Yeah. You might have changed my opinion there. Nice. Listen, thank you again for coming on the podcast. I really do appreciate it. I mean, I’d be super gobsmacked if anybody that’s listening to this podcast episode doesn’t know who you are, but just give us a little brief overview of what your role is at the moment, just to explain how critical it has been over the past couple of years.

Kate Nicholls: Yeah. So I’m currently Chief Executive at UKHospitality. That’s the national trade body that represents hospitality operators and businesses and employers. And so we have 700 member companies. Between them, they operate just over 100,000 outlets across the UK, from a single-site pub, coffee shop, cafe, restaurant, park bar, hotel, holiday accommodation, right the way through to the national chains.

Our role as the trade body is to be the voice and face of the industry to promote the sector as a great place to grow, work, and invest, to engage with the government, to make sure we’ve got the most supportive regulatory and tax environment within which businesses can thrive and survive. And then to provide insight, advice, and guidance to our members on the way in which they can operate to be compliant and to help their businesses grow.

And so normally that’s quite a broad-based role, but it was really front and centre as soon as COVID hit because clearly, we’ve got inbound tourism. We’ve got hotels that were hit first. City centre restaurants, pubs, and bars started to feel the effects of COVID back in February. And really since February … I mean my first meeting on COVID with the government was the 28th of January last year.

And since then, it’s been pretty full-on making sure that in real-time we can present the views, concerns, impact of COVID on our business sector and try and make sure that we get the support needed to sustain those businesses, to maintain the employment, to protect jobs within the industry when we’ve been so hard hit by COVID.

So really a big role with government, meeting government ministers and officials two, three, four times a week at the height of the crisis, and also being on the media to try and explain what the impact is of what appeared to be relatively small scale changes, what big impact that can have on business viability and really spelling it out to make sure that people understand what that means potentially longer term in terms of viable businesses, the economy, employment in the UK.

Kelly Molson: And, as I said, you have been the spokesperson for the sector throughout the pandemic. And I have to say, Kate, you were in my top five Twitter accounts that I followed continuously throughout. So I had Kate’s, I had Bernard Donoghue, I had ALVA, ASVA and Blooloop. And that was my top five to find out what the hell was going on in the sectors that we worked in. So thank you so much for sharing and for doing that role.

So what I want to talk about today is about attracting and retaining talent within the attractions and hospitality sectors. But I guess, from a … I don’t run an attraction. I work with them. I’m an associate in that sector. So I guess I want to ask a couple of questions about the general public and what we can do right now.

So we have a situation in our local town. I live in a town called Saffron Walden just outside Cambridge, a beautiful town, a market town, lots of lovely pubs. One of my favourite pubs, which is one of a chain, has had to close for a good couple of months now. And essentially, it closed because some of its other restaurants were so overwhelmed and so busy but so short-staffed that they had to redistribute staff from our pub to their pubs.

And I guess that’s happening in a lot of different places as well. So if we’re unable to book a table because a venue is short-staffed, what can we, as the general public, do right now to support the sector?

Kate Nicholls: Well, I think it does highlight a challenge that the industry has got. It’s more acute in certain parts of the country, but up until Omicron hit and we were all going back eating and drinking out more regularly, the industry as a whole just did not have sufficient labour to be able to operate at full strength. So a quarter of our businesses in the same situation as the one you just describe saying that they were having to restrict hours, cut covers, not open for certain days of the week, turn away bookings simply because they didn’t have the staff.

So I think as the general public, what we can do with those businesses is try and be a bit more creative in supporting them. Is there a different time that we can book? Because everybody tries to book dinner or lunch at the same time. Can we spread it out a little bit throughout the day? Can we look at going for early suppers or late suppers or brunches or afternoons?

If we can’t, then can we help them in other ways if they’re still doing takeaway, if they’re still doing delivery, we can support our businesses in that way. Or booking ahead in advance and making sure that we take out gift cards and those kinds of creative solutions some of our businesses have done where you can get cash through the tills and book two or three meals in advance.

So that’s a main bit of support. The second thing is that if you do have a booking and your plans change and you can’t make it, let them know, and let them know in sufficient time. Because we still are getting quite a lot of no-shows that people make these bookings, something changes. Plans always change, we do know that, but people aren’t letting them know.

And particularly at the moment when you’ve got larger scale bookings for Christmas, people will have bought that food in well in advance and will start cooking it well in advance, so you do need to let them know the day before or at least a good couple of hours before if you can’t make your booking, and then they can pass it onto somebody on a waiting list.

Kelly Molson: That actually leads to another question is how is the sector feeling right now? So with Omicron, with the Christmas rush, what’s the general mood like in the hospitality sector at the moment? Are we seeing a lot of people booking, cancelling reservations that they have for large groups of people? Is it quieter than it should be?

Kate Nicholls: Quieter than it would be at a normal Christmas. So even before we had Omicron, we knew that we weren’t having the same level of bookings as we were seeing Christmas 2019 and previously, so trade is down. We have seen cancellations. They’re running at about 10% at the moment, and we have seen a downturn in footfall over the last week. Not just for those bookings and corporate events, Christmas parties, Christmas socials, but just a more general decline in walk-in bookings and walk-in activity. So we are seeing revenues down over the course of the last week, 15, 20%, and that’s as a result of the uncertainty.

There’s a high degree of nervousness within the industry and a great degree of fear at the moment because we’ve all been in this situation before. Sadly, this time last year, people will have invested heavily to be able to open and operate at Christmas, and unless you get that Christmas trade-in, it can be very damaging to the businesses. They rely on having a good December in order to get them through the quieter months of January to March. And without that good December, there are many businesses that will undoubtedly go to the wall. What should be a very optimistic and hopeful time has, in the space of a week, turned to be very uncertain and very concerning.

Kelly Molson: Okay. So look, some great advice there from Kate. If we can look at when you’re booking, changing times, if you can look at supporting your local restaurants by booking gift vouchers, for example, or if they are doing takeaway, please do do that and let’s try and get them through this really difficult period that we’re seeing.

Now Kate, as I said, I want to talk about attracting and retaining talent in the visitor attraction sector. I don’t run an attraction. So what I did, and what I thought was a good idea, is to ask some of the past guests that have been on to ask me to ask you questions. And I’ve had some fantastic questions in from many of the different guests that we’ve had on.

So let me just ask you a few of the things that have come in. Gordon Morrison, the CEO of ASVA, and Adam Goymour, park director at ROARR! Dinosaur Adventure, actually had really, really similar questions. So let me read out what Gordon wrote over because he puts it far more eloquently than I ever could.

So Gordon said, “Staff are the beating heart of every tourism business and can undoubtedly make the visitor experience memorable both positively and negatively. As we face up to what is quite possibly the most difficult recruitment and retention environment in the tourism industry has ever seen, is it right that we should continue to rely on our people so heavily to deliver outstanding experiences? And if so, how do we ensure that our businesses are attractive, and how do we keep that top talent in the industry?”

Kate Nicholls: I think this is the number one issue that all operators are grappling with at the moment as we come out and we’ve got a very tight labour market and we’ve got a real battle just to get staff in, nevermind the battle for talent that we had going into COVID. So we were already facing those challenges. I do think what we need to do is to use COVID as a reset moment and look again at our ways of working, style of working, what we’re expecting of people.

This gives us an opportunity to revise terms and conditions and to look again at hours of work in the sector to make sure that we are being as flexible as we possibly can and we are being as responsive as we possibly can to what new recruits are telling us.

Because we’ve got lots of new, younger people coming into the industry, many have had no experience before and are questioning, quite rightly, some of the ways that we do things. So particularly in food and beverages and things like that, less so in attractions, but you do get some antisocial hours. You do get double shifts. And people have different ways of paying people. And I think the labour scheduling and the flexibility that we can provide should be a positive rather than it being something that holds us back.

So I do think we can look again at making sure that we are as attractive as we possibly can be and that we’ve got our best foot forward. I think secondly, what we need to be doing as an industry is to look after the sector’s employer brand. Individual business is very good at doing this, promoting themselves as a career of choice, but we want to get across the fact that we’re a career and we have a great plethora of opportunities available to people if they come and work within our businesses.

Kate Nicholls: Because we’re an industry largely of small and independent businesses, we don’t have the size and scale, but I think we can look again at the sector branding to be able to make sure we put the best foot forward, that we describe how important it is as a career, how meritocratic it is. Because there’s no sector likes ours that provides young people with such opportunity where you can come in with limited experience, limited qualifications and skills.

We will upskill you very rapidly and you can move into management within about two years. There’s no other sector that will give you that level of responsibility and authority at such a young age and at such a low level within the business, and the pay and salary that goes alongside it.

So I think there’s more we can do around that in terms of communicating career of choice. And also communicating that even if you only want to come with us for a short time, we will equip you with common transferrable skills that other employers will find valuable; business, finance, people management, leadership, conflict management. You get that by working in hospitality businesses and visitor economy businesses, again, at a very low entry-level, and these are soft skills, people skills that are valuable at all levels.

And then the final element is about making sure that we do invest in our people, that we do train them to provide continuing professional development and we invest in leadership and management as people go through. We’re very good at taking people at entry-level and doing the immediate skills and training they need to be able to function. We need to look at how we can continue to invest in those people. That’s what young people particularly are looking for from careers and employers now.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting what you said about the soft skills as well, because I think that one of the best starts that I ever had to my working career was working in hospitality and in retail because it gave me so much experience of understanding how to talk to people, how to communicate with people.

And from that customer service perspective as well. I think it gave me such a good grounding in my career, and all of those skills I learnt then, I’ve taken through into what I do now in terms of sales and an account management role.

Kate Nicholls: Absolutely. And if you think about some of the young people who’ve been most affected by COVID and had their schooling disrupted, their social lives disrupted for a couple of years, those are the skills that they are lacking. When teachers are talking about young people coming back into school, it’s time management. It’s personnel skills. It’s social skills. It’s communication. That’s what they get from us.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Completely, completely agree. Mark Ellis, who’s the interim lead at the National Memorial Arboretum, actually has asked a question that picks up on some of your earlier points there. He says that, “One of the outcomes of the industry-wide staffing shortage is that staff are able to negotiate a better work-life balance, which is a really good thing. Ultimately that is going to lead to better conditions throughout the industry, hopefully, more job satisfaction, higher standards and a better customer experience.”

Mark asks, “Do you think that we will see the appearance of some widely-accepted examples of best practice?” So things like how businesses will manage seasonal contracts or flexible hours or unsociable hours like you mentioned?

Kate Nicholls: Yes. I think we will start to see that evolving as we go further forward and as we come out of this. I think that’s what I mean by a COVID reset moment, that we can look again at the ways that we’ve done things to be able to offer that kind of attractive proposition to people.

So moving away from some of the zero-hours contracts, moving away from some of the seasonal changes where people don’t have that much certainty, and towards one that is focused on what the applicant is looking for and wanting and the flexibility that they’re needing, and presenting it in a way which is appealing to them.

I think we will, if we work carefully at it, I think there’s a great opportunity for us across the entire sector to pick up some of those really good case studies and examples and promote them and push them out around the sector so that we have a positive employability story to tell.

Kelly Molson: That is great. Now, I’m going to pick up on that a little bit later on because we’ve had a really good question about that very topic. Let me ask you about the supply chain, though, and again, this is another question from Mark at the National Memorial Arboretum.

So the supply chain at the moment is disrupted. Food costs are increasing. We all need to find a more sustainable way to feed humanity. What can we do as an industry, and this is the attractions industry, to help the public recognise that hospitality outlets that source locally, use seasonal ingredients, increase their plant-based options, that they are the best place to respond to these pressures? But at the same time, costs are going to rise through dual pressure of food and wage increases.

Kate Nicholls: Well, I think this is going to be a collective challenge for all of us because it’s inevitable that with the cost pressures that we’ve got that are building across the sector, and not just our sector but across the economy, prices are going to have to go up to consumers irrespective of what we’re talking about in terms of local sourcing, et cetera, and the positive efforts we’ve got.

So I think as an industry we’re going to have to work to be able to communicate to consumers clearly why we are having to put prices up post-pandemic, and it is going to be a struggle and a challenge and there’s going to be that juggling act which there always is around pricing decisions about how far you can push prices onto consumers before you turn off demand.

But with VAT alone going up, there is going to have to be a price increase that we are going to have to pass on. So I think that’s one challenge that we need to look at separately. I think the advantage is it’s going to be across the economy as a whole and we’re not going to be doing it in isolation. So I think customers are going to get more used to hearing about prices and hearing about costs coming through.

And then I think, you’re right, there is a real opportunity there for turning that conversation around and explaining about how local sourcing is more beneficial, meets the broader sustainability issues that consumers are increasingly concerned about. Not just consumers, potential employees. So sustainability and environmental and social governance issues are coming higher up the agenda when we’re talking about recruitment and putting ourselves out as an attractive proposition.

People are looking for authentic stories about local sourcing, local supply chain, carbon net zero, limiting waste, all of those kinds of positive issues that we can turn to our advantage. But I do think customers understand it doesn’t come cost-free. So I think they are two sides of the same coin. I don’t think we should be apologetic about the fact that we need to be able to invest in good quality produce in order to deliver a more sustainable food supply chain.

Kelly Molson: Do you think those conversations are slightly easier to have now as well, since the pandemic? Because I think what we did see when attractions were able to open up and hospitality were able to open up is that we saw a huge increase in demand for things that were local. We wanted to understand more about our local environment. We wanted to be able to support our local independents. So do you think that’s going to be an easier conversation to have now that we’re in that mindset already?

Kate Nicholls: I think so. I think COVID provides us with that opportunity. Certainly one of the strong trends, and it sees no sign of abating as we come out of COVID, localism and hyper localism was a trend we saw during lockdown when, inevitably if you can’t travel, you explore in your neighbourhood. But even as we reopened, people were exploring in their locality before they’ve got confident enough to go further across the country or into city centres. And clearly, you’re moving away from global travel for two years. Again, those are trends that become sticky with consumers and consumers are interested in hearing and exploring it more.

So I think the neighbourhood is going to stick with us for a lot longer. Certainly as well in terms of the different ways in which we work, I don’t think it’s going to be as polarised as in the office or at home, but I do think you’re going to be working remotely and people are going to be looking at the neighbourhood and local options to be able to facilitate that. So I do think that that frees up the conversation to be had more generally about how we are making a more sustainable, more robust, more resilient supply chain by looking locally. But equally, that doesn’t come cost-free.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. Let’s talk about opening hours. So Mark had a really good question around that. So he says, “Over the last few months, as venues have reopened, we’ve seen many places change their opening hours, and that’s to enable them to offer fair shifts for their staff in response to business needs.” He actually says some are open fewer days each week, and some are closing earlier.

The micropub and brewpub and taphouse that he tends to frequent, he does put in brackets here, “On an all too infrequent basis though. Nights out are a rare treat. But they’re all offering a brilliant experience with great staff during their opening hours. Does Kate think that the public will learn to understand that not opening all hours is a new thing to be embraced, or do you think that pressure to increase the venues to go back to 11:00 to 11:00 will be the norm?”

Kate Nicholls: I think it’s probably too early to say yet with consumers and consumer habits and trends because I don’t think people are going out in the same way that they were yet. What we have seen after this reopening, post the 19th of July, that there is an expectation from consumers to go back to normal and they’re not very forgiving of those who aren’t. So I think consumers during COVID have got used to having things when they want it, at the time that they want it, and rapidly, and they don’t take kindly to things not being available for them.

So I suspect it will be more challenging to have that on a longer-term basis if that’s a longer way of working. What we do know, however, is that what consumers really don’t like is uncertainty. So if they can guarantee that you are always open for these particular days, these particular hours, they will understand that more readily than they turn up at your door and you’re not open today because you can’t get the staff. That’s the bit that seems to create the disconnect.

And what we don’t have yet is a loyal customer base back. So if they can’t get it from you, they will go and find it somewhere else is what we’re seeing very rapidly. So I don’t think it means that everybody has to go back to 11:00 to 11:00, seven days a week and full service, but you do need to get back to some consistency and some standardisation for customers. And certainly what we’re finding in the restaurant side, for example, are quite a lot of businesses in city centres are closing Monday and Tuesday, and that causes a degree of confusion for consumers when they’re back out.

Now, having said that, our customer habits are going to change a little bit again over Christmas if we do have restrictions brought back in due to Omicron and therefore customers again will be adapting to changes and the ways that they’re doing things and changes in the ways of working. But I do think that will depend on where you are located.

If you are located in a city centre and people are not visiting the city centre as regularly, you need to have that certainty about when you are available and open that matches and meets with them. If you are in a local neighbourhood and a local area and you’re part of the community, I think there will be increasing pressure back being available when the customers want you.

Kelly Molson: Earlier in this question you mentioned that it’s too early to tell because we’re not seeing the demand, we’re not seeing people going out as frequently as they were. It’s a difficult question, but how long do you think that we need to leave it until we do start to see some data around that?

Kate Nicholls: Again, I think that’s difficult to be able to work out because of the uncertainties of new variants and changes in restrictions. We haven’t had a clear consistent period where we’ve been able to trade normally. Had we not had Omicron coming along, I think we would have got a better feel for it.

After Christmas, we would have been able to look back at five, six months where we could see what customers were doing, how confident they were, and could try and see trading was doing without the blips that were caused by supply chain shortages, delivery shortages, pingdemics, labour shortages across our industry. I suspect that it’s going to be until the middle of next year before you can really start to plan with any certainty around what’s stuck, what’s a long-term trend and what’s something that you’re nudging consumer behaviour around.

Kelly Molson: Thank you. You mentioned earlier about sharing best practices and we’ve had a great question from Hannah Monteverde who’s the Park Manager at BeWILDerwood in Cheshire. So Hannah says, “It’s not always feasible to be able to offer an increased salary or market-leading benefits.” She’d be really interested to know of any examples of curveball ideas that have attracted staff recently. Do you have any case studies or examples of attractions that you feel have really bucked the trend for recruitment particularly well?

Kate Nicholls: I think the ones that are doing interesting stuff around flexible hours, hours when you want it, more frequent pay. One of the things that we found across our sector was that people were getting paid after four weeks, six weeks in some cases when they were a new starter, compared to some of the newer startup companies and labour scheduling companies and temporary recruitment from Amazon where they were getting paid within the week. So as soon as they did a shift, they were getting paid.

And actually that was something that people found was really attractive, that as soon as they’d done their job, they were getting their pay almost immediately, so a return almost back to weekly pay packets was quite an interesting one. It’s not necessarily creative or curveball, but it’s just listening to what people were saying that was a frustration for them that they wanted to be able to have.

Food, uniforms, selling those kinds of benefits, the walking to work for anybody who’s in a local attraction or provision of transport for those people who were off the beaten track and people relying upon cars, et cetera. Those are things that have been used quite creatively.

And then flexible labour scheduling, giving people the ability to tell the employer when they were available to work and how many hours they had rather than getting that rota coming down on a fixed basis saying, “This is when we rota-ed you and you have to go away and work out somebody else to swap with if it coincides with your yoga class or your student lesson or a GP’s appointment.”

So I think putting more power in the hands of the employees and giving them the ability to be able to ask for what they want, when they want, hours and pay, those are the two creative ones I’ve seen most frequently.

Kelly Molson: That’s fascinating. I mean, the crux of it is flexibility, ultimate flexibility as the employee. That is such a simple change to be paid weekly, so that instant gratification, “I’ve done a really good job. I’ve been paid for it.” What a simple change to be able to make that could make such a big difference.

Kate Nicholls: Yeah. And there’s technology that enables you to do it now. So on the labour scheduling front in terms of, “I’m available for these hours and I’d like some work.” Stint provides the opportunity and there’s labour scheduling that provides the opportunity to do that, to just log on and say, “I can do four hours,” rather than, “I can do a full day.”

And that sometimes is better. And equally, there’s technology that allows you to drawdown. So if the business still wants to keep a monthly salary payroll, you can draw down earlier ahead of your salary, so you just get it a bit more when you’ve been doing your work. Particularly relevant for young people coming into the sector.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. And hopefully retaining them for a little bit longer, because that is the challenge with the sector is that it has always been seen as a bit of a stopgap, hasn’t it? And ideally, we want to-

Kate Nicholls: It has, and in some respects, we shouldn’t be apologetic for that because it is a good first job. It’s a good first base. Transferrable skills that we talked about before. We obviously want to keep and capture those people who want to use it as a career. But equally, given the labour shortages we’re facing, if we can keep those people with us for longer who are just looking at it as a stopgap, that’s all to the good as well. And that’s about making sure we invest in them and make sure that they’re supported as they come into the company.

Because at the moment, churn is so high across the sector as a whole. People come in, find that the work’s too busy, too demanding, not for them, and they go away again. So let’s just support them, nurture them and try and help to make sure that they have as good an experience as they can while they’re with us.

Kelly Molson: Definitely. Final question for you from our attractions audience. And again, this is from Hannah. So Hannah asks, “Do we have any realistic idea of timescales in terms of the forecast for recovery?” And this is specifically around the recruitment challenges that we’re having at the moment. She asks, “Is this something that we have to adapt and change to live within the long term, or is it something that we could potentially predict will slowly improve and recover back to a pre-Brexit and pre-COVID-19 scenario?”

Kate Nicholls: Gosh. There are two factors to that, particularly if we’re talking about labour markets. So the government-commissioned independent research to look at when domestic tourism for fallen revenues would recover to pre-pandemic levels, and I suppose that’s the best indicator of when do you think demand is going to get up there? When do you think your money is going to come back? And the independent forecast suggested that domestic tourism revenues would recover by the end of 2023 and international, that’s not until 2024.

Now the government has said it will work with the industry to try and bring that forward a year, but that still looks as though you’re going to have most of 2022 where you are operating suboptimally, that you’re not operating at full demand. And I think in terms of labour shortages and challenges, again, likely to be temporary but let’s not forget that pre-COVID, we had a 5% vacancy rate. Post-COVID, it’s 10%. So it was a tight labour market before we went into the COVID crisis.

How temporary is temporary? I think you’re going to be living with cost price inflation and the disruption to the supply chain for at least six months of 2022 and I think the labour issues are going to be with us probably for a year or two. If nothing else changes, our biggest challenge for getting people back into work is twofold.

One is we’ve got a hiatus in the talent pipeline where we haven’t been able to train our own. Our apprentices haven’t been able to go through people and vocational training, haven’t been able to go through catering colleges, et cetera. Haven’t been able to go through because people have been disrupted in education.

And the same goes at the higher levels for hospitality degrees, but also curator jobs and those kinds of occupational training skilled jobs in the sector. So you’ve got a two-year talent hiatus, talent pipeline hiatus, and you’ve got COVID travel restrictions that are preventing people from moving globally. And you can only see what’s happened with Omicron to see that that’s going to be with us probably for at least another year. So you are going to have a global disrupted labour market and you’re going to have global disrupted supply chains for at least another year.

Kelly Molson: Gosh. Another year of this.

Kate Nicholls: Sorry.

Kelly Molson: Weren’t we saying this last year? We were nearly-

Kate Nicholls: I don’t mean that we’re going to be having another year of COVID restrictions or the challenges that we’ve got, but I think the global supply chain, the global economy is still going to be in quite an uncertain state for the whole of 2022. And people certainly won’t be moving around the globe as freely as they have been pre-pandemic.

We’re not going to get back to that sort of free movement. It’s nothing to do with Brexit, but just that movement of people isn’t going to be happening to the same degree, hence you’ve got a delay in domestic and international recovery. You’ve got a delay in international recovery.

The people who’ve moved abroad during COVID or people who would normally be coming into the UK to look for work or those with settled status who might be returning, they’re not moving around because of COVID and they’re not moving around because of the problems of international travel.

Kelly Molson: Kate, thank you. Thank you so much for answering the questions today. It’s been incredible to have you on. I’d like to end the podcast the way that I always end the podcast which is to ask you about a book that you could recommend to our listeners. It might be something that you love. It might be something that’s helped your career in some way or helped shape your career in some way. What would you recommend for us today?

Kate Nicholls: I am a voracious reader, so I usually have three or four books on the go at any one time. But I’m definitely a fiction reader. I’ve got two books. One that was really … is a business book that I found really quite useful when I first was made chief executive about six, seven years ago.

And that was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I would definitely recommend for any female leaders in the industry to look at. It talks about some of the different ways that people experience things at work and certainly helped me to think about how I wanted to support the next generation of women coming up and making sure that we had more female representation on boards.

And then my absolute favourite book, which is my go-to book at any time that I just want a little bit of escapism and a really good story is Wuthering Heights. However bad you’re feeling, there’s always something entertaining and enjoyable in getting lost in somebody else’s story and that’s my recommended read.

Kelly Molson: Fantastic recommendations. I actually do remember on Twitter you tweeting photos of your book pile, your COVID book pile. They were huge.

Kate Nicholls: Yeah. Because everybody knows I’m a reader and I read an awful lot, at Christmas I get big … And that’s what everybody buys me as a gift. So I always get quite a lot of books at Christmas, and last Christmas I got 20. And as we went into lockdown, of January, I thought, “Right, can I complete my reading pile before we come out of lockdown?” Actually, I had to go and buy another 30 books. By the time we came out of lockdown on the 19th of July, I had read 56 books.

Kelly Molson: Oh my goodness, 56 … Well, I guess books are a much better option than getting socks for Christmas, right?

Kate Nicholls: Absolutely. Absolutely. So yes, I do have big piles. I still have piles of books all over the house that I’m still reading. But yeah, I usually have … I finish three books a week.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that. Well, listen, so if you want to win a copy of Kate’s books, you know what to do. Go over to this podcast announcement on Twitter, retweet the announcement with the words I want Kate’s books, and you might well be in with a chance of winning them. Kate, thank you once again for coming on the podcast today. Very, very grateful that you’ve been able to spare us some time to come on and chat, and I very much hope that you get that well-deserved rest and holiday to Costa Rica sometime very soon.

Kate Nicholls: Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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