A little bit of teamwork, please

I think it’s time for the various sections of the hospitality and tourism industries to put their petty rivalries to one side and develop a united front to face up to the various levels of Government. I can’t understand why the interests of restaurants, pubs clubs, caterers, motels, resorts and the like are so different that they have to have different specialist representative organisations looking after them. Why can’t we have a powerful, all encompassing group like the National Farmers Federation looking after our interests?

The current fragmentation of the industry makes us a soft target for all kinds of increased financial imposts — consider HACCP, smoking bans, public liability insurance, and the ‘permanentisation’ of the casual workforce as examples of this. It seems to me that in the quest for more revenue or appearing to be socially responsive, Governments look down their list of industries and say to themselves: ‘Let’s hit the primary producers . . . No, that could cost us votes, export dollars and party funding, leave them alone. Likewise, the mining industry. Hospitality and tourism? Oooh yeah, good idea — they’re big enough to be worthwhile and they don’t have any teeth. Anyway, they’re all making a fortune; we’ll hammer them again’.

Think about this . . . The Federal and State Governments have recently forked out serious money for drought relief in Australia. Why? . . . Because there was a very real danger that a great number of farmers would go bankrupt and leave the land because of adverse climate conditions — which, when you really think about it, are reasonably foreseeable given our history of cyclical drought. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the farmers this. Good luck to them.

But how does this situation differ from the thousands of hospitality and tourism businesses that have been hit for a six by the compounding effects of 9/11, the Ansett collapse, international terrorism, SARS, etc? Why should one industry get propped-up in bad times and not another? Surely we’re just as important in bringing foreign money into this country? Surely domestic tourism is just as important as agriculture in keeping regional and remote economies healthy?

Don’t think I’m being critical of Government’s here — I’m not. We’ve only got ourselves to blame. It’s our fault we don’t have a powerful, united voice that is ready to take up the fight whenever our interests are being adversely affected. It’s our fault we’re not organised enough to support and influence the two major political parties. It’s our fault we keep getting hammered.

Let’s take another, related issue for a moment. There are too many hospitality businesses in our major cities at the moment — way too many for the available market. We’re cutting each other’s throats in order to survive. Profit margins are the worst I have seen in thirty years of management, yet new cafés, restaurant and hotels just keep on coming. Why is this? Well, we’re in a laissez faire market — natural market forces will eventually prevail, or so they say. Meanwhile, we all suffer for some years waiting for the shake-out.

Contrast our situation with the way the medical profession control competitive activity, especially at the specialist level. The various ‘colleges’, like the Royal College of Surgeons, etc, limit the numbers of new entrants to their industry by controlling the ‘licencing’ of specialists. These colleges maintain the income of their members by setting a high standard for entry.

Now, I’m not pretending we’re in the same league as brain surgeons, but I do admire the way they act in a united fashion to safeguard their own interests. Perhaps we can learn from them and other industry groups somehow, and adopt internal regulatory systems that limit the number of competitive businesses to a viable number?

I believe that there are two main reasons why we have failed to develop an effective voice: First, the existing representative groups would seem to have failed to look after our interests effectively in the past, and there is a pent-up cynicism toward most of them now. In our training courses I receive a lot of negative comments along the lines of: ‘They are more interested in our membership fees than working on our behalf’. The large percentage of restaurant and café owners who have not chosen to join appropriate industry groups would support this assertion.

The second reason is that our industry is made up of large numbers of small businesses who don’t talk to each other, don’t trust each other and regard competitive businesses as their primary foes, rather than the various levels of Government who traditionally impinge the most on them. By all means watch the business down the road, but the imposition of a new tax, or health regulation, or local by-Law will probably do more to reduce your bottom line than your competitor discounting coffee by ten cents.

Sadly, I feel that a lot of people I have dealt with professionally get so caught up in the day-to-day struggle to survive and build their businesses that they fail to look beyond their front doors, or they adopt the apathetic attitude that somebody else will eventually get around to sorting all the problems out for them. The farmers and the doctors have got it all over us in this respect; they seem to be a bit more farsighted.

You may not agree with me, but that’s OK. What is important is that it’s time to bring this issue to the fore, debate it and resolve it before there’s a café on every street corner and nobody is making any money. The American business writer, Bill Copeland, once said: ‘You’ve removed most of the road-blocks to success when you’ve learned the difference between motion and direction.’ It’s time for direction.