The merger of the Michigan Restaurant Association and Check In Michigan, formerly known as the Michigan Lodging & Tourism Association, creates one of the largest trade groups advocating for business in Lansing. Set to formally launch in April 2019, the new Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association represents businesses statewide that collectively employ more than 595,000 people and generate $40 billion in annual sales. That’s about 12.5 percent of the state’s total workforce and nearly 10 percent of Michigan GDP, respectively. MiBiz spoke with Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association who will serve in the same role with the new group, about the drivers for the deal and what’s next.
Why bring the two associations together?
This is the culmination of conversation that has been going on between these two organizations for 20-plus years. There’s a lot of crossover in membership, there’s crossover in philosophies and in the industry as a whole, and there’s a lot of similarity in issues and priorities that cross over between the two. It’s really just a realization of that. It’s been discussed for a long time and the time was right.
Why is it a good idea?
First and foremost, it takes all of those similarities and now combines them for a stronger and unified voice for the entire hospitality industry. Not just restaurants, not just lodging, but hospitality as a whole in Michigan now has a stronger and a unified voice making its concerns and priorities known for those that make decisions that affect both of our industries.
With that stronger and unified voice, do you now look to get more ambitious in pushing your issues in Lansing?
We definitely have made the powers that be in Lansing know that this is coming, so I think you’re going to hear that voice and you’re going to see, for instance, when we have our Capitol Days — when we bring in industry — those days will be louder and definitely that voice heard, and definitely in Washington, D.C. as well.
What’s in it for a small business owner in the hospitality industry in Michigan?
We’ve been telling our members there’s very little change expected in the day to day. The issues we fought on for your behalf will continue to be fought for and not diluted. All of the member value you’re getting from this association continues to be the same. We think for the lodging members, there’s opportunity for more member value, more outreach in terms of workforce development and helping to create a pipeline (of talent), which is something we focus on here at the (restaurant) association and with our nonprofit foundation.
Why has talent become such an important focus?
Our education foundation really is focused on expanding and creating a pipeline because we have seen the challenges that the restaurant industry has faced, and that is not unique to just the restaurant industry, in recruiting and retaining enough employees. We’re going to provide more value on that front for the lodging sector now.
How big of a problem is that for the industry?
I think it’s a huge deal. We’re talking about the second-largest private employer in the state of Michigan, so if this industry can’t grow to the degree that it can and should grow because it doesn’t have the workforce to do so, that’s a problem not just for this industry but for the state economy as a whole.
How do you tackle it?
Some of the things we’re working on is we do Pro Start, which is a high school curriculum taught in the tech centers — usually the vocational centers — creating an interest and a passion for those who are young to build that up and be the future leaders of this industry.
What’s something unique you’ve done?
We have a partnership with the Department of Corrections now to teach our food-safety training and our restaurant management and culinary training in prison so those non-violent offenders that will be paroled actually are of interest to our industry. We did some polling earlier this year that shows over 50 percent of our members would hire someone previously incarcerated, and those numbers only go up as you demonstrate to them that you can provide training so you’d be getting fully trained people coming out.
How has the program been received?
They’re training about 300 individuals statewide right now and having them come out. Through our partnership, we’re looking at that being over 1,000 per year and then expanding the amount of training they have so they’re even more valuable to employers. We’re talking about people, with the training they have, not just coming out to be going into baseline, intro-level jobs, but have the wherewithal to move into management and have career-type jobs. That obviously lowers recidivism, which is great for the state, and fits the goal that Corrections is looking for. And it’s filling a need for this industry.
The word ‘tourism’ is not in the new association’s name. Is that any indication of a change in focus?
It won’t change the focus. We as a restaurant association had already been advocates pushing for the continued support and increased support for Pure Michigan funding, and you’ll see that only increase as the two organizations come together. We view ourselves as the industry trade association, so it’s not that tourism isn’t going to play a role. I think we’ll have representation of CVBs on our board of directors, and we’ll be consulting with and working with the tourism industry nonstop. There will be a strong partnership, even if it’s not specifically mentioned in our name.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez.