A hidden army of unsung workers has been keeping East Anglia’s tourism industry afloat during two tumultuous seasons.

Among the major players is Camplings Linen – a family-owned commercial laundry operation based in Great Yarmouth with a sister business in Papworth, Cambridge – which lost millions of pounds in revenue over the course of the pandemic.

The firm’s boss, Richard Turvill, says it’s an industry whose contribution has been largely overlooked – despite the key role it has played – but its workers deserve much praise.

Eastern Daily Press: Staff working hard at Camplings Linen factory on Boundary Road in Great YarmouthStaff working hard at Camplings Linen factory on Boundary Road in Great Yarmouth (Image: Archant 2021)

The business employs about 250 staff overall – the majority within its high-paced laundry operations – and it’s currently facing a shortage of about 20 to 30 permanent workers.

At the peak of the pandemic, just under 200 of its workers were furloughed. But once hospitality was able to re-start partially at the end of April with self-catering holidays it began to revive its operations, starting up the machinery and reviving its workforce. Hotels and restaurants began to return more fully at the end of May, and in each there was a delay of around a week to a fortnight for the linen to start landing at its doors as guests departed.

“We were very disappointed that government didn’t see our industry as part of the hospitality sector and did not receive rates relief. We also chose to keep our machinery ticking over and so our losses are in the millions,” says Mr Turvill.

The last year-and-a-half has been a “huge rollercoaster of emotions” – feeling responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees and their families can be quite overwhelming, he admits. Added to that was the pain of his customers, many of whom he knows quite well, and feeling hopeless to help.

“The low points I recall were just before the announcement of the furlough scheme. We had plans in place for large scale redundancies as we had no income and 200 employees. The next low point was the second lockdown as all you see ahead of you is ongoing losses – tens of thousands each week – concerned staff, and hard work.”

But you have to accept it’s not your fault in order to rebuild, and “start walking up that steep hill again”, he says.

The laundry industry has none of the glamour of front-of-house hospitality – but his business had to cope with around 400 hotels all opening at once. Despite the challenges, the team managed to revive linen service for 95% of its customers within five days – equating to half a million pieces of linen or 200 tonnes a week. “No linen means no hotel,” he says. The business will normally process around 700k pieces a week – or five tonnes an hour.

“If you want to know what it was like for the business, think of trying to deal with a tsunami scale wave of dirty linen arriving and then finding that the wave has hit the back wall and is coming at you again,” he says.

The business is an independent family-run operation and Richard is part of the third generation. His grandfather, Dudley, joined the original business – The Swiss Laundry in Cambridge – as chief engineer after the war. He rose through the ranks to become managing director but died young. His son, Keith, had to abandon his engineering degree to take over the reins and gradually bought up the business. He also died prematurely and Richard’s mother, Marina, stepped in alongside a professional manager and became chairman. Later, her eldest son, Guy, left his banking career to become MD and eventually chairman.

In 2004, the company acquired Camplings Laundry in Great Yarmouth and Richard, a management consultant, joined, becoming MD in 2015. He is managing director of The Swiss Laundry and Camplings while another brother, Mark, is commercial director. Meanwhile, a massive five-year £16m investment programme was launched to create one of the UK’s most advanced commercial laundry businesses.

The challenges which sprang from the pandemic are far from over for the business, says Richard, with costs still going through the roof.

The firm’s initial focus was on the immediate demands of the 2021 holiday season and it has thrown everything at it – almost regardless of the financial hit.

Operationally, he believes the business is in the best position it’s been in – but shortages of people, soap and textiles are just some of the challenges he now faces. There is not enough linen textile in the UK to meet demand – and not enough people ready and willing to work in the industry. Inflation is “incredibly high”, he adds, and some hospitality operations are having to operate at below their normal levels because of their own staff shortages.

In the new post-Covid, post-Brexit world, the business faces a host of other supply chain headaches. Transport is a problem, with a lead-time of 10 months for lorries and a lack of hire vehicles. Energy prices have rocketed – and the business uses a lot of gas. Machinery maintenance is also a problem.

“Industries are not used to a slow respond to receive things like spares. My equipment comes from Spain, and we were used to a system where we needed a part and a specialist engineer to fly over and fix a breakdown – this just won’t happen today.”

Richard admits he has been living on a cliff-edge for much of the summer. The business has been able to survive through the sale of assets – not an ideal situation but reflecting the long-term view that the business takes.

At the same time, more potential customers have been knocking at the door – hotels which had difficult experiences in the summer and now want Camplings to service them. The focus now is on finding “discerning” customers – independents which recognise the value of what Camplings does and appreciate its approach to service.

And despite all the issues with staff shortages, the team has stuck together “unbelievably well”, says Richard.