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CEO Michael Johnson: From dishwasher to boardroom

Exclusive: Michael Johnson talks about his journey to the top job in Australian accommodation after falling in love with the industry in his first job as a kitchen hand

Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) and the Accommodation Association of Australia (AAoA) will merge on July 1, AccomNews caught up with the inaugural CEO of the new peak hotels body, Accommodation Australia (AAA).

Our latest AccomNews print issue is available now. Read it HERE

Michael Johnson was a 19-year-old diesel mechanic from Sydney when he fell in love with the accommodation industry. He was in Queenstown, New Zealand in 1980 on a three-week holiday celebrating the end of his apprenticeship when he was offered a job washing dishes at the Travelodge overlooking Lake Wakatipu.

Queenstown was a captivating place and he rang his boss at the workshop in Sydney to say he was embarking on a career change.

Michael Johnson at the No Vacancy Conference 2022

Now 43 years later he is the inaugural CEO of the new peak hotels body, Accommodation Australia, following the July 1 merger of Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) and the Accommodation Association of Australia (AAA). Mr Johnson says the one unified voice representing the accommodation industry will have much more power and efficiency.

It has been a wonderful journey to the top job in Australian accommodation after he spent his first four months in the business as a kitchen hand.

Mr Johnson talked with great enthusiasm about his career on one crisp winter’s morning following his regular 6 am walk near his home in the Hills District of Sydney’s picturesque northwest.

“After my first job washing dishes, I was fortunate enough to move across into the porter’s department. That was my first foray into customer service,” he said.

“Before long I was head of the porters. I had a great time and I didn’t see it as work. Sometimes I’d give the team in food and beverage a hand if they were short and I learned to work behind the bar, and I learned to work doing breakfasts. I worked all across the hotel in all departments.

“I was lucky enough to have a mentor in the general manager who told me ‘Look, I don’t think you realise how naturally suited you are to this industry’. I ended up learning every department, even working as a receptionist when the times were very sexist and the job was only seen as being one for women over 25.

“I was only 24 and a man who’d never typed. I was very fortunate in those days that they looked after me and let me learn the necessary skills. I ended up transferring back to Sydney in 1984 as duty manager at the Macleay Street Travelodge in Sydney’s Kings Cross. It was a very different scene to beautiful Queenstown.

“I tell people I’ve got 30-plus years of experience in the industry but it’s really 40-plus, even though that makes me sound like I should be retiring.”

Mr Johnson was part of the opening team at the Parkroyal in Parramatta in 1986 and managed the Parkroyal at Manly during the 2000 Olympics.

“In 2001, I was transferred back to Queenstown 17 years after I left there, but this time I had a wife and four children with me and I was general manager of the hotel where I started. It was now a Parkroyal and I was in fact managing two Parkroyals in Queenstown at the same time. We clustered those properties and they’d never been so profitable.

“I was then offered an opportunity to run a tourism company called Totally Tourism that involved rafts, helicopters, planes, and jetboats. It was a fantastic experience, and I did that for three and a half years.”

Michael Johnson with Tourism Minister, Stirling Hinchliffe MP and Andrew Hopper, Director General, in May 2023

Mr Johnson returned to Sydney with his family in 2007 as manager of the Amora Hotel and joined the board of what was then the accommodation division of the Australian Hotels Association (NSW). He ended up as its chairman.

The accommodation division was rebranded to Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) and Mr Johnson then joined the Pan Pacific Hotel Group in Melbourne before being involved in the redevelopment back at the Parkroyal at Parramatta.

Going into the merger of Australia’s peak accommodation groups, he brings a wealth of experience in both accommodation and tourism to the new look Accommodation Association.

“To have one voice for accommodation is something we’ve been wanting for many years,” Mr Johnson said.

“I’m absolutely humbled but excited to have the role of CEO. For members and even for governments as well to have one voice is much better than two, because two can be divided.

“For our members, there has been a lot of duplication and that’s really wasted productivity. So I see it as a really good move.

“We’ve had a number of members who have had memberships in both camps so there will be savings certainly for them. We will have greater strength in advocacy and there will be more membership engagement for all the members in the states and territories around the country and we’ve got some really good people there to look after them and ensure that they’ve got those contacts and they feel more part of it.

 “There are only plusses going forward.

“Like any amalgamation, I think there are certainly some challenges ahead but I think there’s so much collaboration and support, those challenges will be dealt with and we will move forward.”

Leanne Harwood with Michael Johnson at AHICE 2023

Mr Johnson said migration would be a major topic for discussion with the Federal Government as it works through reform of the migration system. He has also been involved in productive meetings with Minister Tony Burke’s office over the new Industrial Relations bill.

“That consultation is going well to ensure that we’re ahead of the game so that we can at least put our points of view forward on behalf of our members,” Mr Johnson said.

He said tourism from overseas was rebuilding and he was looking towards boom times.

He said overseas visitor numbers in April were 73 percent of what they were pre-pandemic and there were encouraging signs that big numbers of tourists were likely from India and China in the near future.

“The market is normalising. We’re seeing more Australians go offshore again and probably our pent-up demand for domestic travel has started to ease with cost of living and interest rates. That’s all having an impact.

“I’m someone who enjoys being busy and there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to the future of our industry.

“I’m also excited about our new board from the merger. We’ve got Leanne Harwood and Sean Hunt as chair and deputy chair – we’ve got some really great people steering our industry and I really look forward to working with them.”

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