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New Forest pubs and hotels cut opening hours and reduce menus amid 'perfect storm' of staff shortages and supply problems

HOSPITALITY businesses across the New Forest are facing a “perfect storm” as they battle supply chain issues, wedding backlogs and the loss of European workers from Brexit and the pandemic.

Pubs, hotels and restaurants around the area are having to cut opening hours and reduce menus amid a struggle to deliver their services as they try to fill scores of positions which have been empty for months.

The New Forest Hotels group, for example, currently has 31 vacancies across its sites at Bartley Lodge, Burley Manor, Moorhill House, Beaulieu Inn and Forest Lodge Hotel.

Debbie Lewis (second left) and staff from the New Forest Inn
Debbie Lewis (second left) and staff from the New Forest Inn

Joanna Llewellyn, its head of people and developments, said that filling the roles has been tough, partly due to many young staff lacking the practical experience and resilience needed to step into the demanding roles.

She said: “Hospitality is a wonderful industry, and there are many rewards of being part of an amazing team – but part of that is everyone gets stuck in. In times of crisis, we have had our managers waiting tables.”

The New Forest Hotels group, which also runs the Drift Inn pub and restaurant, has recently been forced to reduce service hours and close evening dining to hotel guests while weddings are taking place.

Ms Llewellyn added: “A lot of things are exacerbating the problem. We are facing ongoing supply chain issues, and every hospitality business in the New Forest is recruiting. After two extended periods of furlough, many really good people decided not to come back to the industry.”

Hospitality bosses have also urged guests to understand the difficulties faced by venues and to treat staff with respect.

Ms Llewellyn said: “My message would be: try to be kind and understand the person serving you is doing their best.”

Venues across the area have reported the same issue, with senior managers having to step in and make beds in some places. But many were too nervous about the impact on their reputations to talk on the record.

One hotel has been forced to cancel external dining events to focus on its core business, and that not a single application had been made for seven vacancies for chefs, kitchen porters, housekeepers and waiting staff.

Michael Clitheroe, general manager of the Balmer Lawn Hotel in Brockenhurst, also blamed the inability of hotels to recruit staff from Europe in the post-Brexit era.

Revealing he regularly receives applications from overseas staff who cannot legally work in the UK now, he said: “Brexit and the pandemic have created a perfect storm and despite lobbying there is no open-mindedness from the government to allow a six-month working visa for the hospitality industry.”

The Lodge's Michael Clitheroe says the businesses has been unable to maximise its investment due to staffing shortages
The Lodge's Michael Clitheroe says the businesses has been unable to maximise its investment due to staffing shortages

During the pandemic Balmer Lawn invested in a new outdoor Covid-secure dining venue, The Lodge, which served 13,000 customers during the eight weeks when only outdoor dining was permitted.

However, Mr Clitheroe said despite a very good summer fuelled by the staycation boom, the hotel was unable to capitalise on its investment and could not operate at capacity because it has around 15 full-time vacancies.

James Hiley-Jones, of Greenclose Hotels which runs Careys Manor at Brockenhurst and the Montagu Arms at Beaulieu, said: “The government have been lobbied heavily by national trade bodies but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

“There is no short-term support package to get us through and the simple truth is we aren’t coping. Wage rates are probably quite rightly lifting, but this doesn’t expand the available labour pool.”

Debbie Lewis, who runs New Forest Country Inns, revealed that at one point earlier this year more than 50% of her former staff had left the business.

She said: “The situation is improving for us – we have realigned our shift patterns to give our staff a better quality of home life. We have always paid well and hospitality is an industry with excellent carer progression. You can come in as a waitress and within five years be a general manager.”

However, the group’s pubs in Lyndhurst, Ower, Beaulieu, Minstead, Downton and Marchwood have still been forced to regularly close on a Monday and Tuesday so under-pressure staff can have time off.

Ms Lewis said: “It’s disappointing because we don’t want to let our customers down but our staff need to have a break – it is not sustainable for anyone to work seven days a week.”

The six pubs have eight vacancies for front-of-house and kitchen staff, but recently several new recruits have joined from other industries. “Many people coming into the job discover they really love it. So we are trying to be positive about the future,” said Debbie.

Anthony Climpson, chief executive of tourism group Go New Forest, said it was working with businesses on a comprehensive strategy to address the crisis.

He said: “Like everywhere else we have a massive recruitment crisis on our hands. Things are so bad here in the New Forest, senior managers are making beds and restaurants are regularly closing one or two days a week.

“Apart from forming alliances between schools, colleges and the industry, the most important thing to do is to significantly improve tourism’s tarnished career profile among younger people.”

Andrew Cook, general manager of the Chewton Glen Hotel in New Milton, said hospitality was being forced to re-write the rule book as Covid had caused many people to focus on their work/life balance.

He said: “Traditionally in hospitality the shifts are long, but we have to think about how we can adapt the workplace for those people who can only work a four-hour shift. We constantly engage with our team and ask questions about how we can be a better employer.

“We are also looking outwards to our local community and local schools more than we ever have done before and engaging with them.”“I’m not going to pretend we have struggled because it has been hard but we are very with our core team who have been with us to ride this storm. We have all hard to adapt and do things outside our normal role.”

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