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Hotels need to boost occupancy, attract local workers

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Hoteliers and other industries are sifting through a limited pool of capable and willing Bermudian staff

The hotel industry is hoping for a brighter 2024 tourism season after years of dismal occupancy rates of less than 64 per cent as far back as 2010, tourism figures show.

In fact, the best occupancy in nearly a generation was 67 per cent in 2007, for a sector that today amounts to just 2,400 to 2,600 hotel beds.

Asked about the figures, Bermuda Hotel Association president Stephen Todd conceded: “We must do better.”

Hoteliers are no longer comparing their 2024 performance to 2019, but rather to 2023, although the occupancy figures are not that different – down from a 2018 ten-year high of 63.7 per cent to 61 per cent in 2019, when compared with 2023’s 61.7 per cent.

“We need to focus on determining how we can fill that underutilised inventory,” said Mr Todd. “If we are averaging between 33 and 34 per cent unoccupied beds in any given calendar year, that is not something to take pride in.

“Our focus must be on getting that occupancy number higher. We have to turn that dynamic around.”

Stephen Todd, president, Bermuda Hotel Association (File photograph)

Hoteliers believe they have a good opportunity to do better this year, although raw overall numbers are hampered by the loss of the two major South Shore hotels.

But one of the challenges, as tourist arrivals improve, is keeping up with staffing levels, especially with locals. And it is not just a hotel problem.

For the second consecutive survey over the past two years, employers have raised staffing as a key problem in their search for improvement in business conditions.

This was highlighted in the just-released Bermuda Chamber of Commerce Business Barometer Report, prepared by Narrative Research and sponsored by HSBC.

The report notes that businesses in general are still struggling to access talent, with staffing listed as one of the top challenges.

One quote sums it up: “Staffing will remain the top issue. And with immigration policies in place (restricted jobs), we feel no stability. Having to apply on a yearly basis, which takes time, money and stress when we know we will not be able to find local staff who will stay more than a week or two.”

Another quote noted: “Lack of available qualified staff and salary expectations of unqualified staff. Unqualified staff are expecting the same salaries, in some cases higher salaries than qualified staff with years of experience.”

In terms of hotels, Mr Todd said: “As it gets busier, we take on more employees, but the challenge we are constantly facing is retaining that workforce, primarily locals.

“Unfortunately, we are still heavily reliant on guest workers in positions we can’t fill with Bermudians, who are just not gravitating towards the hotel industry.

“We need people who can fill these positions right away, or who are trainable. But after that we need to be able to retain those we hire.

“Some people don’t want to work shifts or nights. There are some unsociable hours, because we operate a seven-day a week business – weekends, public holidays.”

The ratio of guest workers to Bermudians has changed dramatically over the years because of the lack of Bermudian interest, and guest workers have become valuable.

“We are required, because of closed and restricted categories, to demonstrate to immigration authorities that we have done all that we can to attract Bermudians.

“And after that, it is time sensitive. We have to recruit on a global basis, competing against other tourism destinations that have the same challenges that we have. We have to work much harder in the same talent pool internationally than we did, say a decade ago.

“And once we have recruited, if we can’t turn it around in a timely manner, we lose them to competitors who can.

“We really struggle to find local recruits for bartenders, waiters, housekeeping and maintenance staff. It is not just difficult to recruit, but also to retain, the staff. The turnover ratio is much higher. You see a higher percentage of guest workers in hospitality in general, not just hotels.”

The Government has floated the idea of attracting thousands of overseas Bermudians to return to the island. Mr Todd said hoteliers would like to see that happen, hopefully bringing many who are interested in the hotel industry.

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Published May 10, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 11, 2024 at 8:08 am)

Hotels need to boost occupancy, attract local workers

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