Labour Pains

A lack of formal training means the burgeoning world of corporate hospitality is having trouble finding high-calibre staff. So what is the industry doing to solve the problem?

The events industry is now worth about &£3bn. It encompasses a very broad church, including conferences, outdoor events, leisure, tourism, festivals, catering – and corporate hospitality.

Given that corporate hospitality is growing in size and importance and is part of such a large industry, there is remarkably little in the way of formal training. Part of the problem appears to be that corporate hospitality is so diverse and fragmented that any training has tended to be limited to the leisure and tourism sector.

In fact, many in the corporate hospitality sector say they look to the hotel industry when searching for staff – it is the closest discipline to their own and has a reputation for high-calibre training.

But it seems strange that so few training opportunities exist. Richard Beggs, managing director of The Moving Venue Caterers and its events arm Moving Venue Management, says: “The employment that takes place in the catering and corporate hospitality sector is second only to the City of London in terms of the revenue it contributes to the country. So why is the Government not taking more notice of the education and development of this very lucrative sector?”

One of the reasons may be because the sector is so diverse – the training needs of a silver service caterer are not the same as an event manager specialising in outdoor activities.

Another reason is that the sector has a high proportion of cas-ual labour – equivalent to the number of full-time staff in many companies.

All this is not helped by the fact that the events industry is littered with trade associations all serving their particular niche interests with no real impulse to pull together for a common cause.

Henley Conference Centre (HCC) head of human resources Catherine Healy says the centre found it so difficult to find experienced staff that it set up its own training school.

“The events business is a hard sector in which to work. It is also difficult to find people with an academic background,” she says. “It may well have been that five or ten years ago you could have hired a pair of hands to be a waitress, but now it’s much more about customer service.”

Aggressive attitudes

Healy, however, says the events and corporate hospitality sector suffers from something more disturbing. “This industry has been charac- terised by managenent’s draconian and aggressive stance towards changes in attitudes of employees during the past decade. People won’t put up with long hours, inadequate working conditions and no extra benefits. Staff expect a different lifestyle – they won’t work till three in the morning.”

But at the same time, people who work in corporate hospitality have to be passionate about it. “It is like being at a big dinner party every night of the week. You have to be relentless and resilient; there are no easy ways to achieve high standards,” Healy says.

The events management sector is seen by many as the type of industry in which the only requirement is organisational skills.

Says Beggs: “Many people feel our industry is an easy entry, easy exit sector. People think if they have just finished a degree in geography, then having a good educational background enables them to pick up the reins in event management. We are approached by people from a diverse range of industries – including the City, recruitment, engineering and secretarial – regarding job opportunities, and most are under the impression that the ability to be organised is a sufficient qualification. This is not the case.”

But all is not lost. Two universities, Leeds Metropolitan and North London, have established degree courses specialising in event management. The Leeds Metropolitan degree is a four-year course and has had a lot of industry support, specifically from Motivforce.

Course director Julia Tum says the BA (Hons) Event Management degree is already popular. The variety of work placements on which the students have been sent reflects the enormous scope of event management: Jaguar cars, Rolls-Royce, racecourses, incentive travel companies, exhibition centres, and city councils.

Motivforce managing director Randle Stonier says this degree course will make a significant difference to the calibre of people being brought into the industry.

“I was finding it very difficult to get hold of well-rounded, trained individuals. I find dipping into the hotel and leisure retailing industries for staff a bit limiting in terms of career development.

“The courses offered by both these universities include subjects such as event environment, management issues, consumer behaviour, marketing, law, and health and safety. The degree offers three or four years’ worth of broad foundation.”

Stonier also admits the sector is suffering from its inability to develop and train staff during the last recession.

“All of us suffered in the mid-Nineties and no one invested in training and development because we all had our backs to the wall.

Now we are suffering from a shortage of mid to senior management people. That’s why it is crucial to get involved with those academic institutions that are offering proper training,” he says.

Stonier also believes the plethora of trade associations linked to the events industry does not help. He particularly singles out the Corporate Hospitality Association (CHA).

“The trouble with the CHA is that it has no real standing and no real clout in the industry. It is too full of small companies. We recently joined the CHA, but it has a long way to go in terms of providing any real educational guidance or structure for the industry,” says Stonier.

Taking the issue seriously

Beggs helped set up the UK arm of US association International Society of Event Suppliers (ISES) about two years ago and could be accused of adding yet another association to the band of many. But it appears that ISES is about to take the issue of training and development seriously.

Beggs says: “I am heading a committee that is looking at training and development in certain areas. The aim is to link like-minded organisations and put together a centralised budget devoted to training and education.”

Beggs concedes that the variety of organisations in the events sector complicates matters, but he insists that there are fundamental qualifications that everyone should share.

“We all need an understanding of quality, health and safety, and legislation,” he says. “We are all buying from third parties so we all need to know about due diligence. There are many areas of common utilisation.”

But the issue of casual labour and their training may not be that easy to resolve. Healy at HCC says its training school includes programmes for casual staff, but she wonders if this puts her at risk legally.

“At any given time, if I exercise my liberty and say to the casual staff I don’t want them next week in order to save on the wage bill, I believe there might be a case for taking me to an employment tribunal,” she says. “Through the training and development commitment to our casual staff, there might be a case for them saying they have been treated as full-time employees and therefore have those rights. We need to protect ourselves against something like that happening and so we tend to do the training courses for casual staff on a week-by-week basis. But it is still a worry. It also raises the bigger question of whether as an industry we should be hiring as many casual staff as we do.”

The corporate hospitality sector clearly faces more hurdles than most in trying to navigate a workable training policy. But it has also long argued that it should be seen as a serious marketing discipline, rubbing shoulders with advertising, direct marketing and sales promotion. However, the issue of training and development is taken seriously by these disciplines and corporate hospitality needs to put its weight behind a training policy that proves it, too, wants to be taken seriously.

The last word goes to Eddie Hoare, managing director of Elegant Days, who illustrates another side to life in the events business. “You only have to spend a week at an event to realise that half the time you are on the phone trying to sort out problems and the other half with your arm down the loo,” he says. “The front-end glamour of this business is limited.”


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