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Tourism training in Wales - what people want

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales

"In our country, where the nature of the tourism business is mostly small and fragmented, where competition is high and where businesses struggle against a backdrop of rising fuel prices, increasing business and interest rates and poor transport connections, how do we provide for the training needs of those who want to develop a career within the industry and those who ceaselessly complain about a dearth of skilled and professional help?

We need to realise the importance of the following points and take them to heart. The first is encouraging internal pride and external promotion.

There needs to be a culture change so that local people are proud of their enterprises and want to share this sense of pride and place with visitors.

Secondly, quality can never be an option. Customer expectations will be ever greater and, if we are to meet them, we must continually improve. That means that key investments and projects must respond to what customers want now and in the future.

Before anyone says that I am talking up a wonderful argument for statutory registration for accommodation providers, I will continue with the following.

Partnership and sustainability is wonderful Assembly-speak. The fragmented nature of the industry means that all tourism stakeholders need to work together to deliver economic and social benefits to the wider community.

I will expand on these themes a little. There must be a sea change in attitudes towards working in the hospitality industry. In many ways, that presents the most difficult challenge of all.

For too long, we have lived in a country where 'service' has been perceived as a dirty word. It is an important word and, thankfully, that perception is, at last, going away, but how did it come about?

Working in catering has largely been associated with long, anti-social hours, split shifts and dirty and heavy work in a high-pressurised environment, which is low paid. There is no getting away from that—quite a lot of it is true.

However, we need to extol the benefits of working in this industry and providing better training opportunities is a key way of promoting the sea change that needs to happen.

When I sat my O-levels back in 1976, a career in catering was only considered if you failed your exams miserably. Sadly, many teachers and careers advisers thought the same.

Even in the mid-1980s, being a head waiter in this country was still considered to be a low-status job. By contrast, the status of a head waiter in Spain, where tourism had long been seen as vital to the economy, was viewed in much the same way as an airline pilot.

The downside of this poor image of working in the industry is that it has fostered a culture of second-rate becoming acceptable and of apathy among workers.

For example, I recall a journalist writing in the late 1980s, that no Welsh guesthouse or hotel would be complete without at least one tumbler containing a residue of toothpaste left in the bathroom.

When we accept poor standards as being normal, there can be little motivation to improve. Thank goodness times have changed.

The availability and popularity of travelling abroad has driven up our expectations. Modern society has created a very exacting consumer, and quite rightly so. The days of talking to someone over the phone and asking: 'Do you require a room with a bath?' to be answered with, 'No, I shall be taking one before coming on holiday' are, thankfully, long gone.

The point about quality is that a dirty toilet can make a difference between a sale and no sale.

How many people in our industry are properly trained? Apart from chefs, probably not many, so we need to encourage more courses.

If we consider small accommodation providers, it makes sense for these courses to be provided locally. We need more on-the-job training and mentoring, and I know of many tourism associations that have successfully managed to hire external providers to run courses for groups of accommodation providers locally and in-house.

Employers need to understand that their businesses and their staff will benefit enormously from having an organisational structure in which everyone knows exactly what is expected of them, what their responsibilities are, and who they report to—who their line managers are.

In addition, training and development activity must be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that it is meeting identified needs.

Offering training and development opportunities is obviously a significant factor in retaining staff who are keen to progress, and that can only be good, because higher expectations with regard to career progression and earning potential will clearly affect the number of people wanting to work in tourism.

We know all these things and yet, when I speak to small accommodation providers, they still complain about the dearth of trained staff available. It is by far their biggest bugbear, and it can make or break them.

Yesterday, I spoke to a hotelier who runs a place in mid Wales and he told me that he found the training course for the welcome host scheme really useful.

He wanted five members of his staff to go on the course, and had been trying to get them to go for some time, but was never given enough notice.

Four days' notice before a course is due to start is simply not enough—providers need to understand how small businesses operate.

The hotelier went on to say that the Wales Tourist Board had encouraged him to drive standards up and he had done that—they had spent shed loads of money and received grant aid to upgrade from guest house standard to four-star accommodation—but they were let down by a shortage of skilled staff who were able to do the additional jobs created by those improvements.

He and his wife were doing just about everything on their own, and that was completely unsustainable.

The Minister for Construction, Small Business and Enterprise, Nigel Griffiths, recently pointed out that job snobbery means that parents encourage their children to study for degrees rather than vocational qualifications.

While we seem to be encouraging everyone to study for a degree, we also need to take note of and be concerned about Digby Jones's recent comments that 20 per cent of the adult population is functionally illiterate.

We currently pay 3.5 million people to go to work every day who cannot read or write up to the standard of an 11-year-old. There are many things that must be put right before we start with skills training, but to go back to the argument about statutory registration for accommodation providers, skills give an employee more protection against unemployment in the twenty-first-century workplace than regulations can ever do. Let us spend the money on that instead.

Trainers and those involved in job opportunities need to help us to get the basics right, and I welcome the emergence of organisations such as Tourism Training for Wales and the work that it has managed to achieve with the regional tourism partnerships.

It is a relief that they are there now, but we need to be sure that the people who apply for tourism and catering are entirely appropriate for those courses, that they are not just doing them to make up numbers or because they think that those courses are the last options open to them.

Somebody at a hotel meeting once said to me that training is the political master's answer to job creation: disillusioned he probably was, but his words struck a chord with me.

We must have courses that are realistic, relevant and accessible, which will stand the trainee in good stead in his or her quest for employment. It is easy to say that the lot of a small accommodation provider is not a happy one.

It is tempting to say that their complaints are churlish when statistics might show that they are doing nicely, thank you. However, other factors are now coming into play that present a burden for the small hotelier or guest house owner: rising national insurance contributions, more complicated employment law, and a raft of new regulations, especially in respect of health and safety.

Couple these problems with a lack of trained staff and I am afraid that we will inevitably see a lowering of standards and job cuts.

In many cases, the owners of small tourism businesses may require help. They may need to be taught culinary and front-of-house skills, IT skills and business support. Trainers also need to bear that in mind.

IT is important. Over the last two years, web marketing and online booking have become the linchpins of tourism in Wales. Travel and accommodation are the most bought items over the internet. Small accommodation providers in Wales report that 60 to 80 per cent of all their bookings are from web customers.

The internet is a way of extending the summer season, which means that jobs are kept on throughout the whole year. However, while it is undoubtedly important, the internet is not the be all and end all.

Many customers in Wales comprise the short breaks market, mostly older people with more money to spend.

The picture presented to me is that we need more tourism information centres with longer opening hours. Not all age groups feel at home with the internet. People, after all, like to interact with other people, which brings me to my point on the importance of service.

Service is an old-fashioned sounding word today, yet it is the foundation stone of this industry. It never ceases to amaze me how much we disregard its importance.

In Wales, where we seem to struggle with so much, we can easily provide service. It is an extra that we can ask our staff to give that often makes the difference in respect of whether a customer returns or not.

Time and again we miss opportunities to offer service and, in doing so, we miss chances to give ourselves a head start over the rest of the competition and to give ourselves a unique selling point. It is through rounds of such missed opportunities that the Irish Republic is beating us hands down.

With regard to business support and skills development, I will just say that, because resources are limited, rather than spreading them widely in an attempt to raise overall standards, it would be more productive to focus them on specific initiatives.

People should not enter the industry because it is seen as an easy lifestyle option, but rather because it supports professionalism and is more prestigious as a career option.

Colleges of further education need to be allowed to develop their catering and hospitality courses into environments of excellence. In an ideal world, they would create mini hotel schools where a student could learn, not just the whole range of skills essential for a career in the industry, but a foreign language as well.

It is only when we achieve this approach that careers in tourism and leisure will be seen as of real value by those who do not own their own businesses."

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