Over three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the consequences of this massive shift in international relations are still not entirely clear. While it was evident from the start that Brexit would impact the global travel market, it was hard to say how damaging the effects would be, and which sectors of the industry would be hit the hardest.
Even though it has not formally happened yet, the UK’s departure from the EU is already generating undesirable outcomes for several areas of the travel industry, causing headaches for travelers and industry professionals alike. From staffing to air travel regulations, Brexit’s impression on travel has been widespread, leaving the United Kingdom with concerns that its impact will only grow larger.
The uncertainty that is currently hovering over British travel follows a very successful decade for the UK’s inbound tourism market. Over two-thirds of the country’s tourism flow comes from EU countries, and the complications caused by Brexit are expected to discourage many of these travelers from visiting the United Kingdom once the country’s departure is finalized.
The “Brexit Bump”
However, the immediate effects of Brexit provided a boost to the British travel industry. After the vote, vacationing to the UK became a much more urgent matter for travelers who were concerned about the post-Brexit price increases and travel complications that experts had forecasted.
The changes to aviation and security arrangements that could come into effect in March 2019 have been a big reason for this urgency. There were fears that these complications could even require EU citizens to present visas when entering and exiting the UK. While the draft deal presented to Parliament in November promised that this would not be the case, the ever-changing nature of the situation and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit have not calmed these concerns.
Brexit has also put the future of no-frills airlines in jeopardy. The EU’s removal of bi-lateral restrictions on air travel agreements made it possible for low-fare airlines to freely fly around the EU and into the UK. However, with these regulations once again up for debate, traveling from the United Kingdom to other European countries, and vice versa, could become much more expensive. While Irish airline Ryanair has secured an operating certificate that will keep them flying to the UK, other airlines may not be so fortunate.
The pound suffered record losses immediately after the UK voted to leave the EU, leading travelers from other countries to take advantage of this affordable time to experience what is typically an expensive vacation destination. In 2017, the first full year after the Brexit vote, the UK saw 39.2 million visits from global travelers. As usual, the majority of these travelers came from other EU countries, with 25.6 million Europeans visiting the United Kingdom in 2017.
The urgent desire to travel was not just common among people visiting the UK, but also among Britons themselves. Worries that traveling around Europe would soon become more difficult caused some UK residents to avoid putting off their next trip across the continent. Brexit may also erase some of the benefits UK residents have enjoyed when traveling to Europe, like the ability to capitalize on low duties in other European countries. Travelers who have used trips to France to stock up on wine may soon be out of luck, as Brexit could result in the return of a duty-free system that imposes limits on how much alcohol someone can bring back to the UK.
Due to all the uncertainty surrounding inbound and outbound travel, the first full year after the vote set records for both visits to the UK and visits abroad by UK residents.
Staffing Concerns on the Rise
While the “Brexit Bump” has an expiration date, travel complications and price increases are unlikely to decimate the country’s tourism industry. If tourists continue to frequent the UK’s top tourist destinations, British hotels will need to stay well-staffed, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure.
The number of EU citizens who are coming to the UK looking for work has fallen dramatically since the 2016 vote, and while it may seem like this would leave more jobs for people who already live in the UK, many jobs are simply not being filled. A growing number of hotels are having trouble filling housekeeping, restaurant and front desk jobs due to a slowdown in immigration from EU countries.
The UK is not just having trouble attracting Europeans to come work in their country, but EU citizens residing in the UK are also starting to head home. A survey conducted by YouGov with Planday says that one in ten hospitality workers plan on leaving the UK because of Brexit. This number stands in contrast with the fact that only 4% of hospitality managers expected staff to leave.
The uneasy atmosphere of Brexit, along with the fall in the pound and high cost of living in tourist hubs like London have all contributed to this dropoff.
This change in the labour market has made it harder for hotels to deliver the consistent quality of service that is expected of large hotel chains. In fact, Scotland’s Inverness Hotels Association has even described this drop in immigration as a crisis, and Scotland’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing has echoed their concerns.
HOSPA, an association of British hospitality professionals, has also warned about how Brexit is changing the industry. HOSPA president Harry Murray says that while roughly 15% of the industry’s workforce are migrants from Europe, the number of EU workers employed at British hotels can be as high as 35-40% at some properties.
Guest Satisfaction Will Suffer
Ending freedom of movement between the UK and Europe was a major part of the original proposed Brexit deal, a change that would limit immigration to skilled workers who make over £30,000. While two-year work visas for EU citizens have been brought up as a possibility, it is far from certain that the post-Brexit United Kingdom will be an easy place for Europeans to work.
If EU citizens have trouble keeping their jobs in the UK, many of the country’s hotels will struggle to find new team members to take their place. In April 2018, nearly 1 in 5 managers in the hospitality industry reported that they were having a harder time recruiting than they had the previous year, and 16% said they did not think domestic workers would be able to sufficiently fill their staffing needs over the next five years.
The United Kingdom’s most-visited city has been particularly affected. Jonathan Raggett of Red Carnation Hotels told Skift that job applications for London properties are not pouring in like they used to, and more than 60 of their employees have already left the country.
A shortage of experienced hospitality workers will be an expensive problem for hotels. Not only will managers have to put in the time and effort to recruit new employees, but during their training period, new hires are more likely to deliver service that is not up to standard.
With fewer employees available to handle guest complaints, UK hotels that depend on migrant employees are at risk of seeing their guest satisfaction scores drop significantly. While every hotel has to go through the process of training new employees, a larger-than-usual pool of new staff makes the team more vulnerable to mistakes, possibly endangering a hotel’s good name.
As hospitality professionals know, it only takes a few service failures for negative reviews to appear, generating bad word of mouth that can do long-term damage to a hotel’s reputation. Even when it comes to matters out of the hotel’s control, guests are unlikely to be sympathetic if they do not get the quality service they came for.
This puts many UK hotels in a tough spot. Whether or not inbound tourism flattens, hotels will have a difficult time keeping satisfaction levels high if dependable, trained employees continue to be in short supply.
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