Auckland tourism and hospitality leaders have launched a website and campaign to recruit 40,000 young people into the industry – but they say the Government needs to step up as well. In the second in a four-part series on the future of Auckland's tourism, we investigate how to shake the air steward stigma.
It was 2004, and Return of the King had just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Hobbit stars Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan grabbed the microphone. "Everybody, this is amazing, go down and celebrate, head down to Matterhorn, tell Jacob the drinks are on our tab!"
"Jacob" was Jacob Briars, the barman who had become a friend to the tight-knit group of actors, during their long stay in New Zealand to shoot Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Now 41, Briars recalls the moment with amusement. "Oscars speeches get pretty effusive these days, but as far as I know I'm the only bartender to be thanked in an Oscars speech!"
Getting name-checked at the Academy Awards, while brilliantly entertaining, probably wasn't enough to reassure Briars' parents about his decision to go full-time mixing cocktails. After all, hospitality was merely meant to help pay his way through his law and politics degree.
And there is still a stigma attached to jobs in tourism and hospitality: in part because the wages are low, they are seen as dead-end jobs. Not real careers. Like most student politicians, Briars dreamed of continuing in politics, making a difference, perhaps even becoming prime minister.
Briars' parents were from Moutere, near Nelson. They were initially askance. "They still struggle to understand exactly why I get paid to do what I do," he says. "I think the stigma is still attached to the service part of the job: waiting tables and serving drinks and bar-tending."
What has certainly reassured them is that he has now made an international career out of hospitality and tourism. As global advocacy director of drinks giant Bacardi, he is based in Brooklyn, New York. Every other week, he'll be travelling to another corner of the world to meet with some of his 350 staff. When he's back in Brooklyn, he'll start his day with a run along East River, and then grab a flat white from one of the local coffee shops staffed by Kiwis and Aussies.
He's not saying, but he's probably earning nearly as much as he would have as prime minister.
More important to him, though, he believes he's found his own way to make a difference, setting up structures to talent-spot young people from the slums of Nairobi or the banlieues of Paris, and help them escape poverty and build careers in hospitality.
It is stories like these that will be gentle lounge music to the ears of Auckland's tourism and hospitality leaders, who have launched a major campaign and website to recruit 36,000 people into the $36 billion sector over the coming five years.
In Auckland alone, the number of jobs in the sector is expected to increase 27 per cent by 2025. There will be an estimated 76,000 Aucklanders working in the industry in the next three years – but that's not enough.
"We've got a lot of work to do to bridge that gap," says Steve Armitage, general manager at Auckland Tourism and Events (ATEED). "There's a huge opportunity for Auckland and a huge opportunity for our youth to get in at the grassroots level and develop a career pathway."
He muses. "When I was at school, there was no discussion about tourism as a career prospect. It was all about law, accountancy, the more traditional industries. You can't always have the fun that you can in other sectors."
Tourism and hospitality, he says, is different. It's eye-opening. It's fun. It's a chance to re-establish the human connections that are too often lost in our emoji-stilted reliance on social media.
"You get to meet and deal with a lot of really interesting people, you get to have a direct influence on the community you live in in a really positive way, you get to showcase that to people on a day-to-day basis, you get to share your stories."
Despite the looming skills shortage, one in eight young New Zealanders is neither in work nor training. ATEED has been in talks with Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and is calling for action: "Ultimately we need central government to recognise that this is a vocation that needs to be taken a little more seriously," Armitage says.
ATEED's new Go with Tourism website includes a "right fit" quiz to direct young people into the best training or career; and "success stories" of some inspiring young adventure tourism guides, chefs, web designers and more.
The site also contains a tool to hook up employers with aspiring staff – if they first sign a pledge to work towards paying the Living Wage.
"The perceptions of jobs in tourism being poorly paid was one of the barriers to getting young people into a career in the industry," says Armitage. "There is a growing awareness by our industry that pay needs to be addressed."
This is important, because the air steward stigma remains: that tourism and hospitality is all about relatively low-skilled service jobs, or holiday jobs.
Pete Jones is principal of Manurewa High School.
The south Auckland college offers its 2000 students courses in tourism and hospitality. And Jones wanted to take it further this year with a strong NCEA Level 2 package that partnered up with employers like Auckland International Airport and SkyCity to give his students real-world experience.
It didn't happen. The teenagers were excited. The tourism industry was crying out for it. But he couldn't get the parents over the line.
Jones says: "We were contacting all the parents and they were saying, that's not a career for the future. That's going to have low-pay options."
Research last year by ATEED and Tourism Industry Aotearoa found tourism was seen as "a drop-out subject", in part because it did not count as credits towards university entrance. Some school teachers and careers advisors discouraged students from pursuing tourism.
Yet a report this year from the World Travel and Tourism Council says the skills gained by young people in travel and tourism can translate into rewarding careers in the sector – and beyond. "These youth jobs have proven to set workers up for higher paying and fulfilling jobs in later careers," it concludes.
Next year, Pete Jones is confident he'll have won over the naysayers and will be able to introduce his new tourism qualification. "We know we've got opportunities there."
When Mac Burrows began working at adventure tourism start-up EcoZip this summer, he thought it was just a holiday job. But now, as he takes a break between guiding tourists down the ziplines strung from one of Waiheke Island's highest peaks, he laughs.
The 20-year-old Bachelor of Business student thinks he may have found a career – he hopes to start his own adventure or eco-tourism company on the island where he grew up.
His favourite memories are all on Waiheke, camping down at Whakanewha Regional Park, discovering the beautiful bush and ocean, swimming at high tide … now he is considering how he can share that with visitors in a sustainable way.
His friends were surprised at first. "You explain we need logistics managers, operations managers, health and safety, all these senior roles – there are roles you can grow into."
As safety and systems manager at EcoZip, Becks Goodenough is in one of those senior roles. She says EcoZip has students visit from the NZ School of Tourism – but all they want to do is work in hotels and airlines, not adventure or eco-tourism. "They really see airlines and hotels as the future of New Zealand tourism."
That's a criticism that the School of Tourism, which trains 1400 students a year, rejects. Group sales manager Ben Potter says seven of their 11 qualifications focus on the wider tourism industry, including cultural, adventure and environmental tourism, or working around transport on the water, at airports and in travel agencies.
The NZ School of Tourism promises sustainability but its television ads reflect demand from some of its corporate partners (which include Air NZ, Koru Clubs and Auckland Airport) that it train kids to be airline crew.
It's true that, at present, most of their graduates are going into airlines, hotels and food and beverage hospitality. "We are constantly talking with the industry about what they are looking for from our graduates," Potter says, "and feel that we are delivering on those needs in what is a very diverse and important part of New Zealand's economy."
"We know the growth is coming." That's ATEED's Steve Armitage again, looking out over fast-growing downtown Auckland. "The cranes dotted around the country represent that growth. And we need to make sure we've got people who can cater to the roles that are created off the back of this. We want to make sure the service standards, the experiences people have while they're here, are first class."
Jacob Briars agrees. He's been pretty much everywhere, but keeps coming back to New Zealand. He's just bought Mea Culpa bar in Ponsonby, and will relaunch it later this month. He says our tourism and hospitality industry needs to work on basic skills, on-the-job training, and providing a consistent quality of service.
For example: almost every time he visits Auckland he goes to SPQR on Ponsonby Rd, because his friends in the fashion world love it. And for 15 years, he's ordered the same dish: linguini with crushed chilli, roast garlic cloves, pinenuts, olives, wilted spinach, rocket & parmigiano reggiano.
"I don't think it's ever come out twice looking the same, or even having the same ratio of ingredients," he says. "And no disrespect to SPQR, they create a great vibe, but I wonder, what am I going to get this time?"
Global tourism will double by 2030, Briars says, and increasing numbers of people will take shorter, faster trips to places like New Zealand. "They don't expect silver service. We have to find our own New Zealand way of hospitality, professional but relaxed, and I think we are doing that. When they come to New Zealand, they want every single experience to be fantastic."
"You should pay for that experience the same as you would to go and see a play, or go and see a concert. It should transport you somewhere else."
And the people who provide that experience? "I've always believed this industry is a melting pot. Every single person should work in a bar or restaurant at some point in their career. You learn some extremely powerful skills, like how to relate to people from all walks of life; you develop humility but you also get a bulletproof working confidence to survive."
This is the second in a four-part nzherald.co.nz series on the future of Auckland tourism. Tomorrow: How can we tell our story so visitors stay in Auckland?
• Monday: Is Auckland Ready?