Leadership through the pandemic: How the tourism and hospitality sector adapted


Over the past month, we have seen the welcomed reopening of our tourism and hospitality sector. Following a tough year for this industry, Programme Leader at Learna, Dr Clare Holt, reflects on leadership during this period of uncertainty, and where future opportunities may lie.

Few would argue that the hospitality and tourism sector was among those most significantly affected by the pandemic. There’s no doubt that the immeasurable impact of the past year has forced a complete transformation of the way the sector operates – both now and in the future.

This unprecedented challenge has drawn new attention to the industry, bringing into public awareness the sheer scale and impact of the sector on our economy. Not only in the number of people it employs, and the revenue it generates, but how central hospitality and tourism is for our own sense of ‘normal’.

During the countless conversations over the past year about what we’re most looking forward to ‘when this is all over’, answers have often revolved around our much-loved hospitality sector. Not only for the venues themselves, but for the opportunities they provide to reconnect with family and friends, or even strangers.

While it’s undoubtedly been a struggle, hospitality businesses have firmly demonstrated their determination to survive – often turning business models on their heads to serve customers and communities in new and innovative ways. They have served to play an important role in community resilience and response to the pandemic.

So, as the industry reopens, are there opportunities to build on the success, innovations, and resilience of the past year and redefine the role of the sector post-pandemic?

Industry Collaboration

As such a varied sector, compromising large global corporations, UK-wide companies, small and hyper – local businesses and venues, it faced a substantial challenge in getting its voice heard throughout the pandemic. But as employers of more than 3 million people across the UK, generating £130bn in economic activity, representation was crucial.

Existing bodies like UK Hospitality have been instrumental, advocating on behalf of the sector. Particularly in regards to financial support, such as recent calls for action on rent debt – and for highlighting the importance of the sector to economic recovery.

But on a more local scale, we’ve seen independent businesses, restaurants, hotels, and cafes group together to create a shared voice to advocate for themselves.

The Wales Independent restaurant collective (WIRC) was set up at the beginning of the pandemic, and now represents 400 independent restaurants, cafes, pubs and street food outlets. When combined, they employ a significant proportion of the Welsh population.

They were determined to have their say on the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic and lockdown regulations, highlighting their crucial contribution to wales’ economy; as employers, and in supporting a network of food producers and suppliers across Wales.

Restaurant and pub owner, and WIRC member Cerys Furlong said : “ We wanted to make sure our voice was heard within Government, the press, and public, and we think the action we took last year contributed to a change in approach from Welsh Government, which is now actively engaging with us as independent businesses in a way they haven’t before.”

“We want to go further, and we think there is a long-term future for WIRC, enabling us to grow a more vibrant, independent food and drink industry in Wales.”

Careers within tourism and hospitality

As one of the UK’s biggest employers pre-pandemic, the largest number of job losses throughout has come from the sector, with many staff remaining on furlough until hospitality is fully re-opened. A substantial proportion of hospitality employees are young people, with 28% of the workforce in 2019 estimated to be aged between 25-34, and 16% aged 16-24.

This group has been adversely affected by the pandemic – according to the ONS, more than half of job losses since March 2020 were lost by those under 25 – and they will be urgently seeking job and training opportunities.

With the right support, the sector will be instrumental in providing the jobs needed. Many employers are already preparing to welcome back staff as soon as possible; this is an important opportunity for businesses to attract and retain the right talent to support future innovation.

Industry leading qualifications like support hospitality professionals with strategic planning and contemporary hospitality management. Enabling them to step up and be confident in adapting to the evolving industry and equipping them to respond as we establish what the new normal will look like.

Employees will be the future of the industry, therefore investment in people will play an important role in growth and success.

Supporting community resilience

With empty buildings and furloughed staff, many hospitality businesses turned their resources and expertise to supporting communities throughout the pandemic. An extraordinary effort that included collaboration with charities and government agencies, while harnessing the support of the public.

Renowned global chains like Hilton, IHG and Marriott transformed vacant hotel rooms across the world into spaces for healthcare staff, as additional treatment facilities where capacity was needed, or to provide a safe space for staff who needed to quarantine.

Hotels and numerous holiday parks were also used to house the homeless across the UK as the pandemic put those living on the streets at greater risk.

Employers also linked up furloughed staff with other essential services, lending their skills to support food banks or essential deliveries.

Campaigns like #FeedTheHeath in Cardiff saw restaurants who couldn’t service the public, pivot to feeding key workers, with local businesses raising thousands to support the effort.

Organisations like London-based Hospitality Against Homelessness, linked up hospitality employer partners with charities looking to supply meals to the homeless, in addition to setting up an emergency pay gap fund to bridge the 20% furlough gap at the onset of the pandemic.

The website Hospitality Delivers was set up to showcase initiatives of restaurants, hotels, and individuals that support frontline workers, documenting the ‘remarkable acts of generosity’ enacted by a sector in crisis.

The industry still has a long way to go to recover from the hardships of the past 16 months. Invaluable lessons have been learned, and new insights gained into ways of doing business, collaborating, and engaging with communities. These lessons will enable the sector to take forward new skills, new ideas, endure future challenges and capitalise on opportunities that arise amid recovery.

By Dr Clare Holt, Programme Leader at Learna.