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Celia sees cause for optimism amid Covid crisis

August 3rd 2020

In a week when SIC councillors have understandably been voicing fear over the future of Shetland’s hospitality sector, you could forgive Celia Smith of Blyde Welcome – the isles’ foremost training provider for the industry – any downbeat sentiments.

But Celia is a self-professed optimist by nature and has been cautiously encouraged by the initial signs in the days since sit-in meals resumed on 15 July.

“It’s kind of either doom and gloom and shut up shop, or you keep going and look at what you can do to diversify – what are people looking for, can we offer it?

“I do see reasons for optimism,” she tells Taste of Shetland. “The fact that folk have flooded back to The Dowry, Fjara, and Busta – those boys have worked their socks off [delivering takeaways halfway across the Shetland mainland during lockdown]. It’s certainly early days but that seems as if it’s going to continue.

“Some businesses are very concerned, some are quite pragmatic, others are just looking forward to getting back and getting the place opened, seeing customers back through the door – albeit on reduced numbers.”

Celia’s love of hospitality began while she was at school and began waitressing for Jim & Irene Williamson at Kveldsro Hotel in Lerwick. She spent university summer holidays there, going on to complete a postgraduate diploma in catering and accommodation management.

A decade spent working in boutique hotels throughout the UK instilled in her a passion for quality customer service, an area in which there is always room for improvement.

It has long been the case, Celia feels, that UK society has not valued waiting tables with the respect it deserves. Those holidaying on the continent will regularly encounter Italian, French, Spanish waiting staff in their 50s and 60s who have made a lifelong career out of a vocation that may not require formal qualifications, but which is very easy to do badly regardless of education.

Celia believes hospitality in the UK is too often viewed as a stopgap until something better comes along, or a job you do while studying at college or university.

“We need to change this attitude,” she says, “and that starts in schools promoting the industry as a worthwhile career. When I go into schools, I tell all the young people about the exciting possibilities in the cruise ship market, for example, all the big events, food production etc.”

Blyde Welcome’s approach, with the aide of Scottish Government funding programmes, incorporates working with candidates in kitchens, front-of-house and management roles on a wide variety of qualification units.

Busta recently undertook training to certify themselves as a Covid-19 secure business, and paid a “huge thank you to Celia for getting the whole team through their training”.

In a Facebook post at the weekend, the hotel said: “As always, Celia is very easy to work with and always provides a professional and polite service. This ensures that we keep not only ourselves safe, but also you – all of our lovely customers.”

There is a combination of written assignments and workplace assessments which are hugely beneficial and anything but onerous for employers.

The Covid lockdown meant transferring candidates online and getting witness testimonies from employers.

While most businesses were shut, completing online assessments was understandably not a priority for many, but as lockdown reached a close, Celia began to have more joy cajoling people and saying “this is the perfect time to do your qualification”.

Celia was kept busy with a huge volume of paperwork to complete three different audits, while she also offered the REHIS cleaning and disinfection course prior to the 15 July reopening.

The fear for her business is that, once her current batch of candidates complete their training, come September “I might not have any new candidates – that is certainly a worry across all training providers, because nobody is going to be recruiting new staff – or if they are, employers won’t automatically be thinking about taking on modern apprentices”.

“People do need to eat, and we do like our coffees. Whether that’s enough to keep businesses going… some may well fall by the wayside, I think, which is very sad.”

Celia – who, along with her Blyde Welcome colleagues, offers an invaluably bright, calming presence in an often-hectic industry – swiftly resumes her positivity: “There’s always enterprising people who have great ideas and plans, aspirations.

“Hats off to the candidates who have worked so hard. Three candidates in lockdown got merit awards for their portfolios. That’s an achievement in itself, and one I’m quite proud of them for.

“I think Shetlanders, by and large, are resilient and have weathered many a storm. It is a cliché, but as a small community we do stick together. I hope we will continue to support each other.”

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