Tourism businesses say they are taking on the challenge of putting Caymanians at the forefront of tourism as the island prepares to reopen its borders. But the reality of trying to recruit and retain local talent is more complex than many believe. The Compass takes a deeper look at the issue through the eyes of one restaurant.
Laurent Bodden was a teenager on an internship from the hospitality school when he started bussing tables at Grand Old House.
Six years later, he has worked his way up to join a select number of Caymanian restaurant managers on the islands.
It’s a daunting challenge to run one of Grand Cayman’s most prestigious fine-dining venues at such a young age, but Bodden feels ready for it.
“I came here with a long-term vision and I made sacrifices to get there,” he said.
“I told myself at 19 I wanted to be a manager by 25 and the opportunity came and I am loving it.”
Stories like his are relatively rare, although government is now in the midst of a new push to put Caymanians at the forefront of the industry, ahead of reopening the borders.
Businesses like Grand Old House say they are trying their best.
Part of Bodden’s role is to oversee a paid training programme.
“We are looking for the next Laurent,” said Luciano De Riso, head of operations of both Grand Old House and its partner restaurant The Wharf.
High drop-out rate
While there was plenty of initial interest in the programme, the attrition rate has been high.
More than 60 people responded to the initial advert. Just over half of those replied to attempts to schedule an interview and only 24 showed up to the interview. A further nine did not show up to training and some then pulled out in the first few days of the programme.
De Riso said he is confident that the remaining group of seven will make it through the training and be offered full-time employment.
Whether they accept the job might be another matter. Several have indicated they have work lined up at other businesses when the borders reopen.
De Riso will need to hire somewhere between 50 and 70 people to fully staff Grand Old House and the Wharf – which is currently closed – when tourism returns to something like its pre-pandemic levels.
He said the restaurants had carved out time and money to train as many Caymanians as possible to fill roles.
“Anyone who replied to the email and turned up for the interview, we are finding a path for them,” he said.
De Riso believes it is a “misconception” that the industry does not want to hire Caymanians. He said the owners of Grand Old House – Naul Bodden and Dale Crighton – had always instructed him to recruit locally. When they can’t find qualified staff, they train them themselves.
“We have seven people we are training right now and we are paying them a salary, even though we have very few customers,” he said.
“Once the border reopens, if they want the job, I can employ them all.
“Even if they don’t want to work for us in the end, we hope they have good experience to go somewhere else.”
Problems in attracting and keeping employees in the tourism sector are not unique to Cayman.
“A lot of people drop out after they realise what the job entails,” said De Riso.
“It is the same in Italy, the same in England; we have trouble in this industry because the service job is not for everyone.
“You have to work weekends, you have to work Christmas, you work when everyone else is having fun.”
Despite that, he believes changing misconceptions about the industry could attract more people to it.
He acknowledged the pay is initially low but said servers sometimes make more in tips than their managers. And tourism is an industry you can enter at 16 with few qualifications and work your way up, without necessarily needing to take out loans to pay for college or university.
Most tourism industry business owners and managers started as dishwashers or pool attendants as teenagers.
“This is an industry where you learn on the job,” said De Riso. “When you become a manager you have the respect of the staff because you have been there and you have done every job in the business.”
Paid to learn
The initial low pay matters less, said Bodden, if you think about it as an education.
“I made the experience less about what I made and more about what I learned because you can run out of money, but knowledge you keep.”
In the longer term, he said, if you have the right attitude, are willing to make sacrifices and soak up the learning experience, there are well-paid careers in tourism.
“When I was a server, I paid my bills from tips alone. There is money to be made and it increases as you move up,” he said.
Bodden is currently studying online at the US-based Johnson & Wales University while working full time at Grand Old House. His studies are part-sponsored by the restaurant and De Riso is his mentor.
Training the next recruits
Now he hopes to pay it forward, by helping to train more Caymanians to follow in his footsteps.
“My message to them is don’t be afraid to mess up,” said Bodden.
“The only way you get better is to try new things, fail and learn from your mistakes. If you have the right attitude, you will be good.”
He acknowledged there are practical barriers for some people. Without access to a vehicle or affordable childcare, the erratic working hours of a restaurant or a hotel can be difficult for some.
That was a barrier that Aaliyah Kelly, 23, one of the new recruits at Grand Old House, had to overcome to take part in the programme.
She is lucky, she said, to have her mother helping to look after her two young children.
“I have a few friends who thought about it (the tourism industry). A few have kids and it is hard to get someone to watch them.”
She said she is expecting the job to be challenging but is excited to give the industry a try.
Ahmed Myles, 26, is already part of the tourism industry. He has worked as a bartender for several years and is doing his associate degree at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He said he was excited to learn about fine-dining service with Grand Old House and hopes to work full time with the restaurant.
Myles believes there is a need for more Caymanians at the forefront of the industry and that it could be a good job for many.
“It is easier (to get into) because it is entry level – you can go in fresh out of high school – [but] you have to be willing to learn and adapt to the situation.”
He said perceptions of low pay, unstable seasonal employment and the prospect of working holidays and weekends put a lot of people off. But he believes that is a misleading picture. He took home $200 in a single shift in his part-time job at Abacus this week, mostly in tips.
“If you have the right energy and the right attitude you can make money. You have to work for it. Some people want to start today and get the Audi tomorrow.”
He believes a lot of younger people would benefit from an earlier introduction to tourism to help them become more confident dealing with people.
“Everybody, before they finish school, should do an internship in a restaurant or hotel. That should be integrated into the school curriculum,” he added.