Australia’s best-known multi-millionaire is fast becoming a folk hero among mum-and-dad accommodation owners.
In September, Dick Smith released a video which has been directly viewed more than three million times and is estimated by industry players to have increased direct bookings for small accommodation businesses by 30 percent.
His anti-online travel agent campaign, which urges the public to bypass offshore commission-charging booking platforms and book direct with operators, has prompted thanks from businesses as far afield as the UK and New Zealand.
At the Budget Motel Chain conference in Adelaide where Dick Smith was guest speaker this week, operators estimated the video has resulted in a $300 million a year boost to the collective bottom line of small accommodation businesses.
“That’s 300 million a year I’ve saved going out of the country and that’s gone straight into the pockets of the country motels,” Smith told Accomnews.
“They say it’s very substantially upped their income. I believe I’ve had a 30 percent impact. It’s a huge amount of money.”
Talking about the Book Direct campaign, he said: “It’s one of the best things I’ve been involved with in a long time.”
So, what motivates a man who has made it big to stick his neck out for the little guys? It’s not about money or politics for Smith, which makes him a powerful independent advocate and someone unafraid to take on the big end of town.
“I would have thought by now one of the big companies would be taking some action against me to shut me up, the Trivagos or something like that, but I haven’t heard from them,” he jokes.
The entrepreneur sees globalisation and its effects on small business as an attack on the fabric of Australian society.
“I’m not in the hotel industry, I’m not involved at all,” he said.
“I did that (video) because I thought it was something worthwhile to do and the reason I came down and gave the talk at the Budget Motels conference is I love small family business.
“I said to the people at the talk, we have this bird called the night parrot which is incredibly endangered and they’re spending a fortune in trying to find it and protect it.
“The government should be spending a fortune in trying to protect small Australian family-owned businesses because they are endangered.
“You used to have the local hardware shop, you don’t have that anymore, you used to have the locally-owned service station…I’m concerned we won’t have local-owned accommodation places if we’re not careful.
“Globalisation when it comes to the accommodation industry has gone too far. It will result in this vast amount of money leaving countries like Australia and going to the northern hemisphere and I’m not happy with that.”
Following the uproar surrounding Smith’s video in September, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission vowed it would take immediate action over the rate parity clauses imposed by online travel agents in their contracts with accommodation providers.
There has been no subsequent ACCC announcement on the issue, despite ongoing industry pressure for action, and the consumer watchdog has refused to provide a timescale for further regulation.
Dick Smith has questioned whether that silence is due to lobbying by powerful interests.
“They are scared of the lobbyists from the big companies which are just staggeringly powerful and they will make sure that they have frightened every minister,” he said.
“These people who are the lobbyists, they normally are Australians but they’re paid by these American companies…to convince the minister that he mustn’t change anything.”
The man who grew an electronics empire from his CB radio hobby believes in the power of determined individuals to effect change.
“I’ve told every motel just take no notice of the agreement and put on your own site cheaper prices and act in the interests of the consumers,” he said of OTA-imposed rate parity clauses.
“I’m very concerned about globalisation concentrating the wealth in the northern hemisphere which means vast amounts of money are going out of Australia.”