One of the longest-standing problems in the Scottish hospitality industry has been shaking off the perception that jobs on offer within the sector are a temporary pit-stop for the likes of university students on their way to other, more illustrious careers.

Staff shortages that reached acute levels in the wake of Brexit and Covid are continuing to bear down on hotel, restaurant, pub, and venue operators who at the same time are grappling with soaring energy bills, higher interest rates, and higher business rates compared to those currently levied in England. Many establishments have already called last orders, and according to surveys from virtually every trade body across the sector, many more will likely follow.

These problems are fairly uniform throughout the country but when it comes to remote and rural businesses the difficulties are magnified by declining populations and a lack of affordable housing where workers can live. The seasonality of the tourist season also weighs heavily.

Speaking recently to my colleague Caroline Wilson as part of The Herald’s New Highland Clearances series, the owner of Mackays Hotel in Wick said it is rare for teenage employees to stay on after school or study the trade. One of several examples put forward by Murray Lamont, whose family has owned Mackays for 67 years, was that of a young man who left to work for British Airways.

“He was really good at what he did,” Mr Lamont said, adding: “There’s not a hope of retaining someone like him in the north because there just aren’t the opportunities. It’s about expanding the opportunities that we have.”

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Viable employment and chances for career progression are severely hampered when businesses are semi-closed, as was the case during the pandemic lockdowns and has since continued for some that have been forced to cut back opening hours to reduce energy and labour costs. Here again the problem is exacerbated in remote locations when the tourist season goes into hibernation.

Guy Crawford, chief executive of Highland Coast Hotels, underlined this point yesterday as the group announced the acquisition of The Haven, a 20-room guest house that will be integrated into the adjacent Plockton Inn to create a sustainable year-round hospitality business in the village. Highland Coast has secured financial support from the Scottish National Investment Bank, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, and other stakeholders for the redevelopment of the Plockton Inn, which it acquired in April of last year.

“This latest investment is a clear indication of the solid confidence that Scottish National Investment Bank and our other key stakeholders have in the Highland tourism and hospitality industry, which has faced a number of unprecedented challenges over the last few years,” Mr Crawford said. “As well as growing the local tourism economy, we hope to create lasting professional careers in hospitality that will benefit the whole community.”

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Highland Coast’s chairman is David Whiteford, who previously chaired the North Highland Initiative (NHI) charity which helped to establish and develop the North Coast 500 tourist route. He helped to set up Highland Coast in 2021 after securing backing from leisure sector investment specialist Kings Park Capital to acquire an initial portfolio of four properties: the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch, the Royal Marine Hotel in Brora, the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland, and the nearby Newton Lodge in Unapool.

Along with the purchase of The Haven, Highland Coast also announced yesterday the addition of an eighth property to its portfolio, Lochardil House in Inverness. With ambitions to establish the venue as a local community entertainment hub, the acquisition of Lochardil is expected to create 40 new jobs.

Originally from the Highlands, Mr Whiteford sees Highland Coast as a driver for regional growth to help repopulate the area. Through the community liaison groups established in each of the locations where it operates, Highland Coast aims to be a “local leader” on issues such as housing, healthcare and the provision of childcare for those living nearby.

“If it’s good for them, it’s good for us,” says Mr Whiteford in a refreshingly constructive and sensible take on the symbiosis between businesses and the people in the communities in which they operate.

A further judicious extension of this strategy is the group’s community card initiative, which gives those living within a 15-mile radius of any Highland Coast venue a year-round discount of 30% on all food and drink purchases. A 50% discount is available on overnight stays at any hotel from October to March inclusive, helping to encourage off-season activity.

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There is of course a wider debate to be had about the sway of tourism in the Highlands, such as whether taxation and legislation can level the playing field in the rural property market. It is rare indeed that such changes come without a ripple effect of unintended consequences.

It is also important to bear in mind that while hospitality and tourism are closely linked, they are not one and the same. Wherever people live, they value amenities such as entertainment and eating out – it’s not just for holidaymakers.

Projects such as the construction of spaceports in Sutherland and Shetland and developments around the green freeport at Cromarty Firth are expected to create new high-value jobs, and with that should come demand for more local leisure opportunities. Customers will also expect levels of customer service that will only be provided by staff who are secure and committed in their work.