Restaurant industry hails NSW Dine & Discover scheme on its final day, but says focus must now turn to staff shortage crisis

Dine & Discover

Source: Stephen Saphore / AAP Image

As New South Wales’ massive Dine & Discover voucher scheme draws to a close, a peak industry body representing restaurants and cafes says attention must now turn to the staff shortage “crisis” keeping venues from full operation.

The Dine & Discover voucher scheme, which afforded NSW residents with six $25 vouchers for use at registered hospitality venues and tourism businesses, officially ends today.

The program, which launched in January 2021, was designed to usher diners back into NSW venues after a spate of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Although hard-hit venues across the state benefited from the scheme, thousands of unspent vouchers led the NSW government to extend the scheme in June last year.

A year later, and the program appears to have hit the same snag: Guardian Australia reports some 12 million Dine & Discover vouchers, totaling in $300 million in value, were unspent as of last Friday.

The NSW government has confirmed the Dine & Discover scheme will not face another extension, giving residents less than a day to ‘use it or lose it’.

Some users have turned to donating their unspent vouchers to Australian Reptile Park, Symbio Wildlife Park, Oakvale Wildlife Park, and other venues under the Pay-Discover-Forward initiative.

Still, millions of dollars in entitlements may yet go unspent.

A handful of frustrated residents also took to social media on Wednesday night, after a temporary outage in the Service NSW app system left them unable to redeem their Dine & Discover vouchers.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Belinda Clarke, CEO of the Restaurants & Catering Industry Association of Australia (R&CA), says the scheme was success even if some vouchers went unspent.

“The Dine & Discover scheme helped consumers have the confidence to go out again in an environment where COVID-19 did scare people into staying home,” she said, adding that most customers would end up spending more than just the $25 afforded by each individual voucher.

The program was designed in consultation with the R&CA, and the state government “was very good at listening to industry and adjusting the scheme as needed”, Clarke added.

That level of consultation helped the government “deliver genuine assistance (not just business grants) to businesses to help them keep the doors open”.

But hospitality businesses need further support to face today’s challenges, Clarke added.

While businesses in 2020 and 2021 struggled under COVID-19 restrictions, density limits, and a lack of tourists, the primary challenge for hospitality venues in June 2022 is attracting and retaining qualified staff.

Unemployment rates are at multi-decade lows, reducing the pool of workers likely to don an apron or work the bar; separately, supply chain crises are pushing the cost of ingredients and power skywards, cutting into the bottom line of many businesses.

“The hospitality industry is in crisis with the current skills shortage,” Clarke said.

“We request the NSW government continues to address this challenge with investment to create opportunities to attract youth and older age candidates into the industry.”

The government has recently cleared some roadblocks keeping staff from the sector.

On Monday, NSW Minister for Hospitality and Racing Kevin Anderson said the government would temporarily eliminate the cost of Responsible Service of Alcohol refresher courses, a move designed to lure former hospitality workers back into the field.

More need to be done to bolster the hospitality workforce post-Dine & Discover, Clarke added.

“We need to change the mindset and remove the stigma attached to the industry and the myths around limited career opportunities, great income and flexible working arrangements,” she said.

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