Jane E. Fraser
April 19, 2011
Service, where the bloody hell is it?
WHEN you walk into a hotel or resort and the staff greet you with “You right, there?”, you could call it a unique Australian welcome. Or you could call it a shameful lack of training.
Low service standards are widely considered to be one of the biggest threats to Australia’s tourism industry, with travellers encountering everything from inappropriate greetings to downright rudeness and refusal to help. While there is general agreement in the industry that the problem is serious, and getting worse, no one quite seems to know what to do about it.
Sydney travel agent Wendy Buckley says even some of Australia’s “best” hotels and resorts have a disgraceful standard of service.
“I’ve travelled so much in the past few months and I’ve seen it everywhere,” Buckley says.
The managing director of the family travel specialist Travel with Kidz, Buckley says “you go into the average hotel in Australia and most of [the staff] have attitude. They should be appreciative that the guest has chosen to holiday in Australia and they’re not.”
Buckley believes the problem is caused by a lack of leadership from hotel owners and managers.
“You can’t blame the Gen Y person who’s been thrown in there; they’re influenced by who’s around them,” she says. “If only someone cared.”
Buckley says there are a few Australian properties that have excellent service but they are in the minority, with poor service evident in all standards of accommodation.
She gives as an example the story of a colleague who recently stayed at a $1000-a-night resort and was told to get her own coffee because the staff member was “busy”. The same guest had her glass of sparkling water repeatedly topped up with tap water by an uninterested waiter during a meal.
Meanwhile, staff at overseas destinations - many of which are a lot cheaper to visit than Australia - are bending over backwards to make visitors feel welcome.
“If you go to Fiji and places like that, they have a real appreciation that you have come to their country,” Buckley says.
An experienced hotel manager, who asks not to be named, agrees that the problem is a lack of leadership and skills at the top. She places the blame with the body-corporate ownership model that allows “cashed-up solicitors” and other professionals to buy into an industry they know nothing about.
“People buy [hotel and resort] management rights as a retirement fund but they have no hospitality experience,” she says. Some who buy management rights run the property themselves, with varied levels of success; others believe they can rely on paying low wages to contract staff.
“They’ve bought it as a business,” the manager says. “They don’t care; they’re hands-off.
“The only way to run a hotel is to be there, be there, be there. I think Australians also think they’re a cut above serving someone; they see it as below them. In other cultures, service is respected.”
The latest TTF-MasterCard Tourism Industry Sentiment Survey identifies skilled-staff shortages as one of the top three issues facing Australia’s tourism industry, along with the strong Australian dollar and adverse weather.
The chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum, John Lee, says service standards are a long-running problem that has been exacerbated by the economic environment. With unemployment low and big salaries on offer in mining areas, hotels and restaurants are struggling to find and keep staff.
“It’s a tough time to be in tourism, a very tough time,” Lee says. “Definitely within the past couple of years, the problem [of poor service] has become a more prominent issue.”
Lee is confident the necessary training structures are in place and says the problem is a lack of buy-in. In the absence of skilled and willing Australian staff, the federal government needs to make it easier for tourism businesses to bring in staff from overseas, he says.
Many of the visa arrangements that allowed businesses to use overseas workers have been changed in ways that “conspire against the tourism industry”.
Beyond bringing in foreign workers, Lee says it is hard to say what can be done in an open market. “I don’t have a long list of solutions.”
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