A Life in Hospitality & Conflicting Emotions in a Pandemic

By Group General Manager Wayne Neilon 

I have worked in the hospitality industry since 1990, I was hooked from the start and knew I did not want to do anything else. For 30 years, it has always been fast paced, frenetic and at times chaotic even. I saw it as an industry that would always provide opportunities to those that worked hard, and even in the downtimes there would be work available. Unfortunately, this is not true for many Hospitality employees today, the young stars of today are the Industry leaders of tomorrow. It is imperative that everything possible is done to keep people connected to the Industry, that necessary supports are put in place, to protect business so that employees can see that there is still a career path in Hospitality for them. It is vital that a well thought out support package considers the mental wellbeing of the people most impacted by the restrictions, not just their financial wellbeing. Ireland is a fantastic destination, the land of “céad mile fáilte”, and its’ appeal will shine brighter in a post COVID-19 world, this will be down to the people that work in our Hospitality Industry, let us work together to keep them connected. 

The Hospitality Industry has been hit particularly hard by the restrictions introduced since March. As an Industry, we responded brilliantly to the challenges of reopening our businesses. We modified our procedures, we retrained our staff, we installed safety measures and we signed up for the Failte Ireland Safety Charter. The Industry was very compliant in following the guidelines provided for the safe reopening of our Industry. In July & August, we provided a safe haven for our customers the length & breadth of the country, an environment for people to enjoy a break with their loved ones from anxieties and concerns that have heightened during the pandemic, yet there was not an escalation in cases at that time. 

We can continue to provide that safe environment for our customers and employees when the time is right to do so again. The reality is that more damage was potentially done from the consumption of Alcohol in uncontrolled environments, the increasing stories of Gardai raiding shebeens, is particularly galling, given that many of our peers in “Wet Pubs” have not opened since 16th March 2020.

It is a natural reaction to look for someone to blame. The reality is, there is nobody specific to blame, we were all sucker punched by this in different ways. It is easy to be critical of others, but when I assess my own performance over the last 9 months, I can identify mistakes I made and though I cannot fix some of them, I will learn from them. 

For the Health Professionals, their role is to make recommendations based on Public Health, and these must be made based on their analysis of health data without consideration for other factors. For those working in the frontline in our Health Services, I am very respectful and grateful for the work that they do, and after 9 months, their greatest challenge is ahead of them. They need our support and for us to follow the guidelines more than ever.

For the politicians, they entered 2020 and Brexit was the highest priority and the biggest concern from an Economic & Political viewpoint, then Covid-19 came hot on the heels of a General Election. I believe their initial response was admirable and they have been reacting since, as we all have been. It is an unenviable position for the Government, to balance the need to protect the Economy with the need to protect the nation’s health, they are never going to be easy bedfellows. 

While I am cognisant of the difficulties facing our Government and Health Professionals, I grew increasingly frustrated at the kite flying or leaking of potential restrictions through media outlets to assess public opinion, sometimes days in advance of announcement, Christmas week was a great example of this. This showed scant regard for the wellbeing of those that would be most affected by their decisions. The pandemic will take its’ toll in many ways, none more costly than the loss of life, but the mental health of the nation will come a close second.

The supports that have been put in place have provided a lifeline for businesses and many would be in a much more precarious position if it were not for these supports. Unfortunately, the supports have been rolled out with end dates relative to the data provided at the time of the announcement, for example the increased level of support applicable to the wage subsidy is due to revert to lower levels on 1st February, other critical supports have similar Q1 timelines. 

A cohesive longer term plan needs to be drawn up and put in place to allow for future planning. The Government like us, are dealing with an ever evolving situation, and it is difficult for them to provide clarity when the full picture is not yet visible. A well thought out support package, with considerations given to all stakeholders, would be the first step on the road to the recovery and it would protect the mental health of the nation. It was concerning to hear the comments from CMO of England, Professor Ronan Whitty, regarding the potential for lockdowns in the UK during Winter 2021. If this is the case, then an EU wide stimulus package or monetary policy may need to be introduced to fund the necessary investments needed to protect economies and to position them for recovery.

If you are reading this and the message resonates, then please use your contacts to ask our political representatives one question – Are they working on the longer term plan for the Irish economy that will encompass the financial and mental wellbeing of the country? 

For many in the Hospitality Industry, the wounds are still raw from the 2008 collapse and its’ aftermath. That was a very difficult trading environment, but at least the Industry and the country could trade out of it. The resilience of the nation was tested to the fullest, but we came through it. This too shall pass, and we will recover & rebound. Now is not the time for agitation and frustration, now is the time to look after each other, the time to focus on what you are thankful for, to stay calm in the storm. For many in the Industry, I am sure that like me, they have experienced a different work-life balance during this pandemic, personally I have enjoyed having more quality time with my family, though deeply concerned for our business. 

I am deeply concerned for the immediate future of the Hospitality Industry but more concerned that my family & loved ones will stay healthy and here is where my conflict lies. The situation has escalated dramatically, and our immediate focus now needs to be on acceptance that we are in the worst phase of the pandemic to date and to acknowledge our own individual responsibility for the collective good. We have all heard the comments that it’s only like a “bad cold”, but personally, its’ not a lottery I wish to play, and I will be doing my utmost to keep me and my family and my teams safe and I hope all of my industry colleagues will do the same. 

On a personal note, the last 9 months have taken a heavy emotional toll on me, closing our 5 businesses 3 times was very difficult, due to the impact on employees. I work with a great team; I miss working with them and I look forward to when we get back to some sort of normality.