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With Mark Francis, CEO, Murray Regional Tourism

Tuesday 18th May, 2021

Mark Francis

I do really want to thank everyone for the opportunity just to give you a quick insight.

I'm not going to go through one hundred PowerPoints, so I'm just going to give you a quick overview around what the the insights that came through this process were and how we're actually folding them into the work we're doing.

Before I do that, I do want to acknowledge and thank Jo and the VU team, as well as Felicia and the VTIC team, because this research is really important and these types of opportunities don't come along very often.

And it is critical that we take stock, learn from those issues that we're all facing, and then really look, how we’re going to build back better rather than just move on with our life and then another crisis event comes.

And certainly we've had many, but it's just a great example of the work we're going to do in the future.

And it also aligns, I suppose, importantly, it's interesting from my board, I built into our strategic plan some years ago that we would partner with both industry, but in particular universities.

And this is just a great example of having that that goal and really working together.

Jo did mention, I think, as well about the challenges of cross-border.

I'll just give you a quick insight very quickly around what it looks like. Pre-covid and we were at $2.1 billion industry.

We welcomed over 6.5 million visitors and over 10 million visitor nights per annum, supporting over 18,000 direct jobs in our region.

And we're the largest contributor to states, visitor economy by region in Victoria.

And when it comes to resilience, it's certainly something that I think the team had to at times make sure I had some resilience on the way through because it was very challenging.

So whilst Melbourne was very hardly hit, to give you an idea, we were shot for forty one weeks out of fifty two.

So that was a result of border closures and lockdowns. So our industry was very resilient, very hard hit, and we've got a long way to recover.

And particularly when New South Wales government shut the border, about 60 per cent of all accommodation, for instance, is on the New South Wales side of the Murray.

When that border was shut, those businesses were empty. So completely empty week in week out.

And it was pretty challenging to see for me, driving through the region regularly and trying to support those businesses. We touched on in the presentation around those businesses that bounce back and that were more resilient, had a crisis plan and we've got a strong crisis plan.

So MRT had written one for the region. We'd shared that and worked with our local government partners.

We have crisis management groups. We thought we had the foundations in place.

But I can tell you that we didn't have border closures in our play book, the border hadn't been closed for over one hundred years.

So it's not one that we had in there and certainly it's not one that our industry had ever anticipated or expected.

So even with the best planning, it certainly does come unstuck at times.

But it does show that we really need to keep focusing on not only the plan that we developed for industry, but how they actually embed that within their business, because that's the gap that really shines through, particularly in this research as well.

The other interesting thing, and Felicia certainly touched on, is around how you use this research.

So, again, it shapes many, many strategic decisions. But for us, we wrote a submission, as Felicia said, I think I'm sick of writing submissions, but we wrote a submission for the Victorian enquiry into the impacts of covid on tourism in the visitor economy.

And when I finished that and then I think I received the draft at a similar time, I said to Gabby, you know, I've actually come to the same conclusions. We've used a lot of this content already in shaping that submission.

And I've just finished our three year strategic plan for our board. And again, these insights are helping to shape that.

So it's not just research for the sake of research, and I'm never one for that.

But it does really reflect how we can move through this. I think in terms of some of the critical implications, I think they were highlighted around the issues that Jo had on the screen because we had them all pretty much, and including the insurance one. That's a bit of a sleeping giant that's coming. But the mental health, the direct correlation between the financial pressures and the mental health.

What I found through the process is if I could resolve financial crisis implications that actually lessens the burden on mental health.

So there's some really strong work to be done around the business planning the business counselling. I’ve run in our neck of the woods, tourism awards, mentoring.

Now, for many years, we'd funded businesses and given them mentoring one on one to do a regional awards process and then a state awards.

And we found that those businesses that have been through that process that had good – even if it was a one pager – a business plan and a marketing plan and some sort of recovery mechanism, actually, the ones that did the best during the process.

What we found is that they were the leaders that I could call on.

They were the leaders of businesses that I could pull together, like Felicia did for us at state level, we were doing a similar process at regional level.

So, again, it's about embedding that into the process. There’s certainly the gap of skills retention and workforce is critical.

And it was there and it was underlying. But we certainly have seen that amplified like no means that we ever would have expected.

I think we've got an enormous amount of work on building industry capacity ahead of us.

I think we've got an enormous amount of work in terms of just profiling the career of choice this sector plays for us.

So for government, I think we knew it anecdotally. It was there.

We were sort of advocating in a roundabout sense.

But I think this report gives us some further ammunition to actually go back in and say we need funding to make this a career of choice.

We also then need probably a bit of a loaded question Carl, before to Jo.

But, you know, it's looking at how we do train students in the future where we've identified that we, as a distant region, have a significant challenge of attracting workforce.

And it's not because of the lifestyle. It's actually just because a lot of people don't know what's on offer and those careers.

So we've actually been thinking for some time about having a centre of excellence where multi educational institutions could perhaps deliver training, and then we would actually create direct pathways straight to industry in the region.

So, again, through this research, it gives me some further ammunition to go and amplify the government to say how do we actually explore this further?

What what do those options look like for us?

I think there's also a whole lot of work around cross border, which I certainly have been living and breathing for many years, and certainly through this process, the amount of crazy discussion.

So accessing the river was a very tip of the iceberg in terms of actually letting people use the river.

Visitors had no idea that the river is owned by somebody else.

They just come to a destination, whether it's a Echuca, Moama or anywhere else along the Murray, and they use it.

So for me, some of the other key learnings in terms of us going forward, we did some initial crisis media training some time ago.

And again, this is amplified the need to actually build that capacity.

So it's not just core skills, it's not just the fundamentals of business.

It's actually thinking through that crisis management response. It's the media response because we do have blue green algae, we do have floods. We've had them a lot of other things. But certainly that's part of their process and the learnings to come through.

The other one is really around the reference group.

So when we were pulling together a lot of our industry to try and get key activations within state government, respective state governments, and what was interesting is we really had to drill down into sectors.

So if it was the river users that were impacted I really had to drill into that, or if it was particular other sectors.

So for us, we're actually going to set up a framework that allows us to now do it on a not only a geographical basis, but also as sub-sector basis across the region. It's a very large region that I look after, and it's not easy to get people in the one room together.

But what the benefit of this has shown that we don't need to all come together. It's nice to see everybody. But one of the things we can do now is pull people together quickly, via technology, and actually have those discussions, get those insights.

And so we'll be definitely doing that moving forward.

One of the future opportunities that we may be able to have a look at in partnership is around doing a skills audit now. So whilst I know there's a range of skills that are missing, I don't, I couldn't tell you exactly in which destination and in which sector needs what skills.

So for us, our planning is going to be to put some funding in next year for our budget process to look at doing a detailed skills audit, to then work with various industry providers to see how we can actually deliver that program.

It was very much touched on place-based approaches. And so we'll certainly be reviewing our destination management planning process.

And certainly what we'll be doing is we'll be developing local action plans based at the cross border.

So what became really evident is when we separated the communities of interest, as we refer to them as, the community still wanted to engage. They still wanted to come together. But the government border closures stop that.

So what we want to do is develop local action plans now at that level that actually really articulates roles and responsibilities of respective operators, industry and local government to build out and build back better.

One of the key ones is that it gives us not only our research, so it actually verifies all the work we've been doing. We've done a number of industry surveys. We were talking to a lot of operators this report now let me go back to the cross-border commissioners, go back to the state governments and say these are the issues that we've been talking about and here's a report that actually takes that a step further. So for me, it's really important. It really helps our advocacy. It's going to help shape our future direction, not only for Echuca-Moama, but we'll take this across the entire Murray footprint and really look at those opportunities to shift.

So thank you so much for the opportunity to be part of this Jo and Felicia and thanks everybody for the opportunity tonight. Thank you.

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