Justin Winslow leads the newly formed Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association created through the merger of the Michigan Restaurant Association and Check In Michigan, formerly known as the Michigan Lodging & Tourism Association. Winslow previously led the MRA. The merger created one of the largest trade groups in Lansing that represents businesses statewide that collectively employ more than 595,000 people and generate $40 billion in annual sales. That’s 12.5 percent of the state’s total workforce and nearly 10 percent of Michigan’s GDP, respectively.
What are the big issues in 2019 for your industry?
There’s going to be a new political environment, and that’s going to be unique not just for us but for everyone with a new governor coming in. That’s going to provide some new opportunities. Some would say challenges, but I think there’s going to be some new opportunities as well out there.
What are a few of those opportunities?
The Governor-elect has been very focused on education and in providing the requisite skills and training necessary to meet job demand that is currently far outpacing supply. The MRLA has dedicated a lot of time and effort to this space, creating unique partnerships to provide a pipeline for the hospitality industry of individuals capable of not just securing a job, but sustaining a meaningful career with opportunities for advancement. I think there is space to partner in this capacity.
If Gov.-elect Whitmer were to call and ask for your advice on what she could do to help your industry, what would you tell her?
I would take that call seven days a week. I would tell her of the extent that we can partner on workforce development. She has a real passion for education and we are in K-12 schools now, and to the extent that we can take that and make that a full ladder of training and opportunity in this industry to start early on and provide a career ladder of opportunity, that is an interesting conversation we would like to have with the incoming governor.
What’s something in your industry that will get more attention during 2019?
The labor crunch and wage growth is manifesting a lot of change in the restaurant and lodging industries. I think you will hear more about the increased role that technology generally, and automation specifically, will play in these industries going forward.
How do you think the economy in 2019 will affect your industry?
We saw the University of Michigan weigh in that it isn’t necessarily imminent that a recession is coming, but a lot of people believe it is coming — if not in ’19 then in 2020. So we’re watching closely because the restaurant industry and the tourism industry, or the hospitality industry, sometimes end up being the front runner of those things. You can see some of the indicators in this industry before you see it in the overall economy.
What are the signs saying now?
We just finished getting some information in our Q3 trends report that suggests some of the sales and traffic are slowing a bit. That has us cautious. We want to see if that is an anomaly or if that is a foretelling of a trend going forward. We’re going to be watching that closely in 2019 to see where those numbers are and how that works in partnership and in tandem with the workforce challenges we have. Is one causing the other, frankly?
What else is the data telling you as 2018 comes to a close?
We saw sales growth of 0.7 percent and that’s the first time we’ve seen sales growth be lower than 1 percent since we started doing this at the beginning of 2017.
What’s one prediction you have for 2019?
To me, I think it’s still going to be continued growth for the hospitality industry overall. We’re seeing the tourism numbers come in in record numbers. People are staying longer, they’re spending more money, and that overall is going to positively impact this industry in 2019. If something’s coming negatively with the economy, we believe it’s more likely it’s held off into 2020.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.