Britain’s booming summer of staycations has made Robin Hutson’s pig hotels “so full they squeak,” says the hotelier. He has every right to feel fragmented – The Pig’s seven boutique hotels in the south of England, 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'”
says Hutson. “Unfortunately I can’t conjure them.” Hutson — widely regarded as one of the hotel industry’s most influential businessmen after co-founding Hotel du Vin and chairman of Soho House — founded the Pig group a decade ago with the backing of billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe.
Crisis: Pig hotel owner Robin Hutson says daily tests should replace self-isolation
Parent company Home Grown Hotels, which also manage Ratcliffe’s Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, now employs around 1,000 people, up from 700 five years ago, and Hutson predicts profits will recover next year to around £40m in turnover.
Still, the 64-year-old admits that it won’t be all smooth sailing. Not only is the pandemic uncertainty lasting longer than Hutson would like, the entire hospitality industry is facing a major staffing crisis. And its Pig hotels – while attractive employers – are not immune.
In recent weeks, 85 Hutson employees have been ‘pinged’ by NHS Test and Trace, forcing him to ‘stop’ service in some of his hotels’ bars and spas. Meanwhile, a dire shortage of skilled workers – especially in the kitchens – has made it difficult to meet rising summer demand. The ONS released data two weeks ago showing an estimated 102,000 job openings in the hospitality industry between April and June – nearly five and a half times higher than the 19,000 registered 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 should be handled after Brexit ended the free movement of European workers and many turned back during the pandemic. Previously, Europeans accounted for about a quarter of its workforce – and an even larger share among the best hotels in London.
Hutson now plans to write to Boris Johnson and urge 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 about 15 percent [more staff], and that got a lot harder this year,” he says.
“Obviously there are very tight spots in certain subsectors of the industry – the kitchens are really struggling right now. That’s a longstanding problem for hospitality anyway, and it’s exaggerated because of the tightening of immigration.
“As an industry, we feel that we are being ignored. You hear that the government is interested in bringing nuclear scientists and brain surgeons to the UK. That’s fine, but agriculture, food processing, healthcare, health, hospitality, transportation – all those really substantial sectors don’t need nuclear physicists, they want troops on the ground.
‘There doesn’t seem to be much coherence through the labor strategy. You can’t just remove a whole strip of workers and hope for the best.’
Hutson has held weekly meetings with ministers during the pandemic about an industry group led by Prezzo chairman Karen Jones. He is good friends with chef Mark Hix, a fishing companion, and with Soho House founder Nick Jones. He met Ratcliffe, who owns 50 percent of Pig hotels, when their children attended the same school in Southampton.
“Over the past month, I’ve had many well-known restaurateurs phone up and ask, ‘Have you found the magic solution to all this? [the staffing crisis]’? They’re not mom and dad surgeries, these are household names,” he says. Hutson acknowledges that he has an advantage when it comes to hiring because of the cachet of the Pig brand, a magnet for celebrities such as reportedly Bryan Ferry, Daisy Lowe and Sadie Frost.
He also has the financial clout to raise wages, giving staff a 5 per cent raise across the board from 1 June and guaranteeing a minimum wage of £10 an hour.
But he says he is concerned about the future of smaller businesses that don’t have the ‘razzmatazz’ and ‘cloaking power’ of his hotels, and says the government should accelerate plans for an Australian-style visa regime that would allow Europeans to work. in British hospitality, even if they don’t score the 70 points required under the new immigration rules. “I’d like to see a little less talk and more action,” he says.
Another solution is to have more young people – and their parents – appreciate catering work.
Hutson entered the business at the age of 18 after failing his O levels, working his way up from commiserer at Claridge’s. He believes the government should do more to promote technical courses that teach school leavers a trade rather than ‘fluffy’ university degrees.
He says: ‘The problems we face as an industry are really deeply rooted, because there is a lack of respect for crafts in this country. Everyone wants to be a white-collar professional and no one wants to be a craftsman. While in European countries there is more respect for craft – be it a carpenter, a winemaker or a chef. To convince the chattering classes that this is a respectable career for their little Johnny to work in, there needs to be a national promotion exercise for craft courses instead of the rather vague courses that fill many universities. ‘
Hutson is isolated at his home in Winchester after Test and Trace contacted him after a salmon fishing trip to Iceland. He points out that he was double stabbed and tested negative before flying home from Reykjavik – and another on landing – and states that there should be “honor to be released for situations like that.” Daily workplace tests, he argues, should replace self-isolation — especially for younger workers who haven’t had both vaccinations yet.
He says: ‘The price is too high for so many industries to send people home at random. Of all our employees who have been pinged, we have had zero positive Covid cases.”
In his spare time, Hutson is a self-proclaimed ‘petrolhead’ who has taken motorcycle tours through Africa and South America, and a wine enthusiast. He owns a stake in a vineyard in Devon that makes a white wine called Devon Minnow and has planted a vineyard at the upcoming Pig in the South Downs who plans to produce his first vintage next year.
Hutson could soon toast to a sale of the business that he said he could exit once the pigsty reaches ten hotels. Last Tuesday he received a takeover offer from a private equity firm, although he rejects the offer for the time being.
“They’re always sniffing around,” he says. “We’ll sell one day, but it’s not the highest and it’s not something I’m pushing forward.”
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