Staff shortage has tourism ‘working on the edge’

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By JULIUS DENNIS

A lack of workers has reduced opportunities for two Alice Springs businesses to profit from the recent surge of tourists.

Some doubt cast on the on the size of that surge: Are claims that Alice tourist accommodation is booked out a genuine full house?

Does it mean there is a body in every one of the town’s hotel beds?

Or does it mean accommodation houses are operating at substantially reduced capacity because of the lack of staff?

At The Rock two out of the five hotels are closed and there are complaints that restaurants are operating below standard.

One Alice Springs hotel manager says that they worked for 24 hours from 6am yesterday to 6am this morning when a staff member was sick and there was no one to replace them.

At one hotel in town, a young prospective employee enquiring at the front desk was told staff was needed in the restaurant, at the bar and in housekeeping.

The hours offered for housekeeping were 6am til 2pm seven days a week.

The manager of that hotel said that over Easter weekend they had in one instance turned over 64 rooms in four hours.

Easter Monday was supposed to be quiet so they pushed back the cleaning of some rooms to Tuesday. It wasn’t quiet, they could have sold every bed that they didn’t prepare and more.

In Alice the consensus from hotel managers the News has spoken with is that staff levels are low, but they are pushing through in a manner that one manager called “unsustainable”.

Another manager says that their hotel is only running at 70% 80% capacity because of a shortage of staff. That hotel usually employs 25 to 30 backpackers, but currently only has four.

They say that “other hotels are shutting off rooms” – whether they are willing to admit it or not.

Another manager insisted that their hotel was running at 95% capacity, but admitted whether all rooms are available depended on how much staff were available that day.

Tourism Central Australia says there are around 1000 beds in Alice Springs hotels.

Additionally, there are over 130 beds currently locked off from use at the Mercure, currently known as the Todd Facility for Covid use.

Everyone agrees the shortages are industry wide and in all facets of the hotels.

Hospitality is stretched too: Stefanie Prechtl, a manager for the Todd Mall cafe, Page 27 and Epilogue Lounge across the mall, says the businesses, which have the same owner, currently have around 30 employees. They could easily take on another 10.

“You could do so much more but you just can’t, it’s limited, there is no one,” says Mrs Prechtl.

The staff is usually made up of 80% or more international workers.

The lack of workers is also affecting their hopes of reopening the cafe at Epilogue, which has recently been renovated.

They had considered opening Epilogue five or six nights instead of the current four, but that can’t “because there is no team”.

Primarily they need chefs, as well as a “whole team” to run the cafe during day shifts, which if open during the peak holiday season could bring in “a lot” of income to the business and boost the local economy.

Mrs Prechtl says that the job search is so strained that if you don’t pounce on applications, the workers will be snatched up by someone else: “If you don’t call them back within three, four hours they have another job already.”

Across town on Traeger Avenue, the accommodation at Jump Inn has had its doors shuttered since tourism came to an abrupt halt last year.

Now in a time when hotels and caravan parks are jam packed, the hostel has remained shut besides a few long term guests.

Audrey Turner, who owns the business that also includes the popular restaurant and bar downstairs, says that the struggle to fill positions is why the beds stay empty.

Even though the families currently holidaying in The Centre are not the market she would “usually target,” the business would be able to accommodate them if she had the workers.

“I can change anything to suit the demographic now, but I don’t have anyone to help me.”

Mrs Turner would need two housekeepers, two receptionists as a “bare, bare minimum” and in an ideal world a manager, to get the accommodation up and running.

Mrs Turner, usually relying “only on backpackers” to fill the cleaning and desk roles, says she’s advertised but to no avail.

The restaurant has managed to open, but like Ms Prechtl, Mrs Turner is also looking for chefs.

The search has been ongoing for six months without any positive returns.

This week, the head chef in the restaurant at Jump Inn was forced to take a week off. Without another chef the restaurant has had to limit its menu to what the trainee cooks can handle.

“If the government gives [people] some incentives to help people to stay in those positions, I think that’s going to help me a lot.”

Ms Prechtl says that her business is trying to make the job opportunities “more attractive”, by offering a sponsored visa position which can lead to permanent residency, a usually enviable position amongst international workers hoping to stay long term. 

Even with that carrot on offer, there has been “not much” of a response from a national search.

Ms Prechtl thinks that part of this is “because Alice doesn’t have the best reputation out there”.

All three of the Page 27 and Epilogue workers the News spoke with say that they don’t enjoy living in Alice any more.

They are afraid when they walk to their cars at night. It is not uncommon for employees’ cars to be vandalised while they are working night shifts at Epilogue.

“You haven’t met anyone who doesn’t have a bad story to tell,” says Ms Prechtl.

There is “constant fear” while working nights: “It only gets worse every year.”

With the crime and the demographic of young travelling people missing, they say Alice Springs is not the town they came to two or three years ago.

Ms Prechtl says that the nightlife is slowly dying: “The town is desolate at night. There are fewer locals on the streets, only tourists.

“They’re thinking three times: do we really want to go out? Do we want the car to get smashed in the carpark?

“It has so much potential here, but it’s not going anywhere good at the moment.”

PHOTO at top: Stefanie Prechtl (middle) with chef Yem Eugenio, and cafe worker Fiona Guagagnin • Renovations at the Epilogue cafe are almost finished.

1 COMMENT

  1. It was hard enough to get and retain staff beore Covid.
    The government gave a little financial help to the tourism and hospitality sector but nothing compared to the $200 million they gave the building sector.
    I have had businesses in this sector for over twenty years.
    I spoke to the government including Michael Gunner personally and suggested that unless they provide funding, or incentives, that at the end of Jobkeeper there would be no one left to physically work in the sector.
    Other parts of the sector like the airlines have been underwritten with the $1.2 billion cash pool incentive to retain staff.
    Alice was always going to be in trouble. It’s just now that we are realising it.
    One angle no one seems to see is from the owners’ and investors’ perspective. Why would I want to risk everything again to start up in such an uncertain time with no clear timelines as to when numbers will be consistent?
    I got dropped from a great height when Covid cost me 100% of my tour business and am not keen to put myself back in that position.
    People suggesting hotels should just open more rooms, and staff will come, or tour companies should take the risk and start up again have obviously never run a business and don’t understand the economics.
    Alice will continue to be “full” during any event organised here as we have lost so many beds and operators.
    Until someone is brave enough to back small business again by way of tax relief, and funding, there will be this problem. Investors have moved towards safer options.
    We were the shit on the shoe for over a year and now they want us to go back to pre-Covid levels?
    Please ask the question for me as I’ve had no joy.
    Why are Tourism NT and Tourism Central Australia pushing on with advertising the area when we cannot deliver what they are saying?
    Crime needs to be addressed and you need to be fighting for operators before trying to get people here!
    I think they know this and have tried but have hit brick walls with the government re funding. It all seems a bit cart before the horse to me.

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