As the continued sign of a deepening financial crisis overseas continues, ripples and now waves are starting to come at a more rapid frequency to our island of Phuket. With tourism and related service industries being a key economic indicator for the province, the importance of a healthy hotel
market cannot be underestimated. The recent labor disruptions at Laguna Phuket have once again underpinned concerns with the attitudes and apparent take-for-granted tourism dollar and what is for many is their own personal rice bowl.
For over 48 hours the welcome mat was once again rolled up and in scenes reminiscent of least years PAD airport blockade, tourists were again wheeling their suitcases through blockades and long planned holidays in many cases were marred by uncertainty and an inhospitable environment. As one who has worked for the vast majority of his career in the hospitality business in many countries, one of the universal messages to new staff is always treat each and every guest the same as you would someone at your own house.
It's hard to imagine asking visitors to your home to scale fences the same way they did during the airport shut down or those who own property within Laguna to get out and walk as they were barred access to public roads and unable to drive outside. Despite Thailand's fabled friendliness, what on earth is happening in the Land of Smiles, when we turn our backs on those who provide so many with their livelihoods?
Needless to say, there are two sides to the labor issue, just the same as there were in the PAD conflict and it is well beyond my knowledge or expertise to comment or report on these. I'd prefer to look at human capital, which is every bit as important as investment in bricks and mortar, technology and aesthetics in hotels.
While visitors have a choice to go anywhere in the world, its not always the flash and hardware which brings them back year after year. In many cases it's those small acts of kindness, the staff who go out of the way, and nuances of caring that only people can provide. As with any return visitor here, what keeps them coming back are, more often than not, the positive experiences of the local people and staff.
Unfortunately in any recession or economic downturn, one of the quickest fixes is downsizing of a workforce or a reduction in staffing levels. It's pure economics' and its relatively easy to re-engineer profit levels on paper to retain bottom line results. In hotels staff and related benefits are the number one recurring operating cost.
In Phuket tourism is well established with a substantial portion of the workforce now entering longer-term service in many instances in excess of 10-15 years with the
same employers. Many of these individuals were born here, coming from lower income families and were forced to enter the workplace at a young age, being unable to pursue higher education. Over the years while retaining employment, they have lacked management skills or education opportunities that have limited their career growth and kept them in lower service and less demanding positions.
In recent years, Thailand has become a world-class destination and as Asia developed and prospered, growing for much of the 90s and into this decade, a more urban hospitality workforce emerged with hotel degrees in hand.Supply of new hotels flourished and demand continued unabated. On the back of the same economic boom, consumer credit reached every layer of the population and now debt was taken on in the form of new cars, homes and consumer goods.
Here on the island, at many of the poshest of hotels, service charge income for staff often was equal or in many cases higher then their basic salaries. Shopping malls, car dealers, mobile phone shops and other businesses have accumulated at a pace faster then a speeding bullet.
Now as we enter into the most challenging economic times of our lives, the crush of jobs losses, lower benefits and declining income streams is hitting those at the lowest level the hardest. An uncontrolled free market has sold them a dream they see every day in print ads, on TV and in movies but now the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet.
For those working at hotels, as cuts come, the newer and younger staff are going back to Bangkok or upcountry to look for work; while those left behind are
struggling at a time when may have children who now are on the cusp of requiring higher education in order to compete in a growingly competitive environment. It's a vicious cycle and no doubt a good amount of the passion fueling much of the current labor pains on the island is a result of many of these factors.
And so we come full circle and back to where we started – understanding and appreciating the importance of our tourists, who at the end of the day are just the same as people we invite into our own homes. Clearly, the provincial government and tourism authorities, along with the industry, need to address greater education for hospitality staff. More internationally affiliated hotel schools are required and large-scale investment is required, not in capital projects but our very own human capital.
Laguna Phuket has been a quality employer over the years, with its pioneering projects such as air conditioned staff transportation, daycare facilities and providing benefits far above and beyond those required by the law out of respect for its workforce. There are two sides to the coin and while employers and employees work out their respective differences of opinion, I'd sincerely hope that there is a return to treating our own tourists with the same respect and a return to an unconditional welcome to Phuket.