Not out of the woods yet: exhibition industry latest to be struck by staff shortages

For months, we complained about no work and no government assistance. Now that both of those challenges have been conquered, a new foe has arisen in their place: industry-wide staff shortages. Between the flock of experienced professionals jumping ship to seek new industries and the wealth of Eastern European skilled workers returning to their home countries, the sector finds itself sorely ill-equipped to stage the explosive comeback many were hoping for. Is the events industry simply suffering a continued plight, or does part of the blame lie with them for pushing away scores of employees? What can be done to ail this new woe?

Not an easy industry at the best of times

Anyone who has spoken to a chef or caterer for any lengthy period of time will know this. In our somewhat cushioned lives, it’s rare that you meet someone with the furrowed brow and weathered face of one that’s endured tremendous hardship. Conversing with chefs is one such encounter — an interaction akin to asking your grandfather about the war. There’s a guardedness that only comes from long hours of underpaid toil in the intense heat of the kitchen. The uninitiated ‘civilians’ have little to no frame of reference, forcing chefs to stick among chefs, forming ragged cliques of forever-restless enlistees. London, the locus of dining in the UK, is one of the harshest climates you’ll find, topped, perhaps, only by New York. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and it’s not difficult to see why many threw in the towel, retreating back to homelands or areas with a less cutthroat atmosphere — where working unpaid, extra hours is not the accepted norm.

Cheffing may be a uniquely-arduous subset of the events industry, but the rest of the sector isn’t much rosier. As is true for chefs, a large portion of events workers are of foreign descent — many Eastern European and Latin American — and often willing to work harder than their British counterparts. They must travel from event to event, setting up, dismantling, doing whatever is required of them, working long hours for average pay. Many of the 260,000 skilled events workers that were made redundant during the pandemic felt that this was the last straw, the final disservice, and decided to abandon a trial-by-fire industry that burned as often as it nourished.

Matt Shiells-Jones, a Manchester hotel manager, writes that low pay and zero-hours contracts are ‘absolutely endemic in the industry’. Dave Turnbull, national hospitality officer at Unite, remarks that the current staffing issue is ‘largely a self-inflicted crisis of the industry’s own creation’, and that it is hardly surprising that ‘many furloughed workers went back to their country of origin and decided not to come back to a sector which previously treated them so badly’.  

What is to be done?  

When researching this topic, one finds the words ‘culture’ and ‘endemic’ crop up repeatedly. When the issue is as widespread as it is, it’s hard to escape. Why offer better pay and contracts when your competitors aren’t? Perhaps in the past, the issue was easier to ignore. The events industry has always been chronically understaffed, but never more so than now. Young Britons simply don’t want to work in low-paying event jobs. They’re happy to sign up for event management, desk jobs with coffee breaks, but there’s no use having an abundance of managers if there’s no one there to set up the event. Events require workers to transport infrastructure, lift it, assemble it, and disassemble when it’s all over. They require caterers and waiters. Britons may be happy to do these jobs on a part-time basis for some extra cash, but commit to a contract? Maybe not.  

The pendulum that swings too far one way always swings back, or so they say. Hopefully the same will occur here, as event companies have no choice but offer a sweeter deal to attract new employees. Those that do may lose some money in the short-term, but they’ll be able to accept more business and breed a sustainable workforce in the long-run. A conversation needs to open up between employers and the workers that feel mistreated, so that a healthy, mutually-beneficial relationship can be reestablished.

There are some success stories. Quadrant2Design, a Poole-based exhibition contractor, has managed to retain a large part of its workforce due to well-managed cash reserves and early re-hiring. CEO Alan Jenkins comments, ‘As a business that’s been running for some decades, we have been able to assemble a strong, reliable cohort of staff that we reward for their continued hard work. Newer companies, and companies with an ever-changing staff roster, have had a much tougher time rebuilding to the point where they can confidently accept new business.’  

I think we’re all growing tired of reading bleak headlines. One need not look far to find adversity in these uncertain times. And while it seems that existential threats to the UK events industry have assumed a hydra-like quality, whereby for each hissing head that is lopped off, several more equally-vicious snouts reappear, it does seem that if these issues are each addressed in turn, the sector could bounce back to become even stronger than it was pre-pandemic. Ross Pike of Black Robin Exhibits remarks, ‘The events industry was not without its problems before the pandemic. The question to be answered is whether or not this new trial by fire will shake up the industry and force it to finally address its age-old issues.’ Cynic or not, you cannot deny the force of necessity behind the many businesses that make up the events industry — the UK doesn’t just want events, it needs them, and companies will do whatever it takes to provide them.

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