Mackay hospitality business buys motel to attract overseas staff during worker shortage

After a couple of rough years, the Sunday brunch and morning coffee runs are back in full swing.

But it’s hard not to notice the “Staff Wanted” signs in the windows of restaurants and cafes.

Business owners are trying to attract employees from the interstate and abroad, but faced with a tight job market in an even tighter rental market, doing business has become even more difficult.

A North Queensland company has resorted to buying its own 19-room motel to house staff.

Adrian Connors is the operations manager for his family business that runs a bakery, patisserie and restaurant in Mackay.

He said that they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands.

Hotel room with white and pink walls and a double bed.
The Bel Air Motel, bought by Adrian Connors’ company, in Mackay has 19 rooms. (Supplied: Adrian Connors)

“[Workers] they can’t find short-term or even long-term accommodation that is affordable for them… so we decided to buy a motel in town,” he said.

Kevin Collins, owner of a restaurant and catering business in the Whitsundays, has also had to find a way to house his staff.

“We have some lodging,” he said.

“Being able to offer accommodation is an important issue, especially for people who come from outside the region and want to move here.

“The shortage of rental housing is a problem everywhere, especially in tourist cities.”

Man smiling and looking at the camera.
Adrian Connors says he had to think creatively about how to attract staff and help house them.(ABC Tropical North: Tegan Philpott)

The housing crisis

Rental vacancies across the country remain at an all-time low, which is excluding some workers from the market.

The Queensland Real Estate Institute’s Residential Vacancy Report for the June quarter showed barely any movement statewide.

In Mackay the vacancy rate was 0.5 per cent and in the Whitsundays it was 0.8 per cent.

REIQ CEO Antonia Mercorella said creative solutions were needed to bring flat vacancy rates back to life.

“Queenslanders have been enduring these minimal vacancy rates for some time and it is understandable that these conditions have both social and economic ramifications,” said Ms Mercorella.

For Mr. Connors, his motel offered a solution when he welcomed a new team member from Indonesia.

Sink and bathroom mirror.
Mr. Connors’ motel has been up and running for two weeks.(Supplied: Adrian Connors)

He said that without long-term housing or job references, finding a rental property would have been nearly impossible.

“It seems like it’s taking three to six months for them to find accommodation,” he said.

“We had to go out and think a little more creatively and find a way to help house them, until they can find suitable accommodation.”

At the Whitsundays, Kevin Collins was desperate for trainees willing to relocate to the region for the long term.

“The reception staff, the waiters, the bar staff, which is largely made up of the backpacker fraternity, they only stay in hostels, they’re here for three months, they’re having a good time.” he said.

“That part has eased significantly.

“What the entire industry is looking for is people who want to make a career in tourism and who require long-term accommodation.”

Kevin Collins smiles on Airlie Beach in North Queensland in April 2018.
Kevin Collins has worked in hospitality all his life.(Supplied: Kevin Collins)

a cry for help

This week’s national jobs and skills summit in Canberra is an attempt to solve the widespread shortage of workers.

Tourism marketing specialist Tash Wheeler said the situation in Australia was dire.

“We’re struggling with housing and finding places for our work staff to live and, you know, they’re not the highest earning staff, but they do work,” he said.

“We’re at a record unemployment rate across the country as far as averages go, so they’re absolute extremes right now.”

An anonymous staff member pulls out a beer behind the bar.
An invitation-only jobs summit, hosted by the federal government, aims to help solve the crisis for workers in multiple industries.(ABC News: Herlyn Kaur)

Connors hoped the talkfest would lead to easier paths to finding workers abroad.

“Number one: allow people into the country to fill in the gaps to start with and bring people into regional areas,” he said.

“Number two: Come up with a long-term plan and long-term vision of how we’re going to attract people to an industry that has so much potential.”

Kevin Collins wanted to make recruiting apprentices easier.

“There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to go through,” he said.

“Where we have jobs that traditionally young Australians don’t want to fill in the long term, then let the short-term tourist market fill them.

“It’s not just about jobs and tourism, it’s about livability in general.”

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