Greetings from Sunny Florida, although it’s currently more rainy than sunny. As I write this letter, I’m sitting at the International Convention of Sport Fishing Trades, otherwise known as ICAST – the world’s largest gathering of the fishing industry. I’m lucky enough to attend this trade show as a promoter of the outdoors and through my second career as an outdoor writer and radio host. I can say I’m happy to simply be sitting here live at a real convention. But as I absorb my surroundings in what is the most iconic and recognizable family destination in the world, I can’t help but think about what is missing.
I happen to be at one of my favorite watering holes across from the Orange County Convention Center on famed International Drive. This is one of the busiest restaurants along this well-known road, and there are only two bartenders attempting to keep up with what is far beyond their capacity. Additional help from the back kitchen constantly has to come out to either assist with order taking, bar back responsibilities or food delivery. Let alone dishes backed up or simply clearing a table or seating for the next customer. About twenty five percent of the tables are open, but people are waiting outside for availability because there simply isn’t enough servers to have them all open.
After making it through more than 18 months of the pandemic, it seems that the light at the end of the tunnel has turned out to be a freight train heading directly for our industry. The employment challenges that the hospitality industry faces at this moment are dire and real. Some examples include my order of a candied bacon appetizer taking almost an hour added to the one and a half hours I waited in line for my rental car when I arrived at the airport. I lived through those experiences and moved on, but at what expense? These serve as micro-points in the mega-problem of the degradation of what is supposed to be THE service industry. No single person is to blame, I did eventually get my rental car and my delicious candied bacon, but how will this level of service influence the decision to travel in the future? At first, I might decide to not rent from that specific company or not return to this restaurant. But it isn’t about this time or even the next time. This is about the third, fourth and fifth times when I decide simply not to travel at all.
In Kansas, TIAK is the tip of the sword of the hospitality industry, and we represent an experience-based product. If that experience is not enjoyable, people will not seek it out in the future – or worse, will purposely seek out a replacement. When does the experience that is sought after by the public start to include nine dollars a pound steak and staying home because they enjoy the experience better than going out? I have to admit that I don’t know the answer, but the long-term damage being done right now in our service-based, experience industry could have implications long into the future. This observation brings some serious questions to the forefront about our immediate and long term strategies.
Are DMOs now responsible for workforce development? Should bed tax dollars or federal relief dollars be channeled into the programs that might or might not make a difference? One CVB director in this state goes to their local hotel to help re-sheet beds and fold towels so they can have those rooms ready for guests the next day. Is the “new normal” not so normal after all?
Again, I don’t know the answer, but we need to think about how best to address the problem in both short and long term strategic planning. The conversation has begun, and TIAK has a seat at the table. If there’s one available.
Jim Zaleski, TIAK President
Serving at the pleasure of the membership