Penni Tastula is the CEO of the Northern Gateway Group, a Darwin-based group of tourism companies. She has had 30 years’ experience in tourism and serves on the board of the Northern Territory Tourist Commission. She has served as a commissioner for the NT Gaming Commission and on the NT Police Promotional Review Board. Penni is a Graduate Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.
AIM: You started out as a public relations hostess and guide for Kambalda Nickel operations in WA. What attracted you to management?
Tastula: It wasn’t a huge step. It was a natural progression. Our service got so popular I couldn’t cope with the number of tours we were being asked to give. Tour buses were a big deal, as that’s how people had holidays in those days. So we ended up needing a team of guides, and I ended up running them.
AIM: A lot is made of the service culture in regions like the US and Asia. How do managers of Australian tourism outlets compare with their overseas counterparts?
Tastula: The managers do a good job. But I think Australians have a very different attitude to service, and a lot of Australians who work in the service industry are pretty lackadaisical. It’s not a career – it’s more a way for them to earn some money before they go off and do something else, or it’s a second job. We don’t have the dedication and commitment to service that they have in other places.
AIM: Training is a big issue in the tourism industry. Where do you see it heading, and is there room for improvement?
Tastula: There is always room for improvement but I would suggest that part of the training needs to be attitude management. The work needs to be viewed as a profession, and a profession to be proud of. Instead of saying, “I’m just a waiter” or “I’m just a bartender”, they need to be doing it because they love looking after people and they want them to have a great stay and holiday.
AIM: What has been the biggest management challenge running such a huge group of companies?
Tastula: Changing hats 14 times a day, because we do so many different things, and I am involved in various aspects of the industry as well. At one moment, you might be having a staff issue, a very stressful situation where you are trying to modify behavior or the way people do something. Then the next you are talking to somebody about their dream holiday and the next you are doing an interview like this one.
AIM: The Northern Territory always seems to have had more of an affinity with Asia. How does that affect the way you run your business?
Tastula: I have two Asian partners, so I believe we have the best of both worlds. We have access to expertise from Asia where they do look at things differently. We offer different services and payment and bonus systems to staff who tell me they have worked for Australian companies where they don’t have these things. Having a different perspective on the way you do business is probably one of the reasons why we have grown and diversified.
We also have joint-venture kinds of partnerships with opposition companies so that our services can be better diversified around Australia. I don’t know of any other company that does that.
AIM: What can businesses do to build relations with indigenous Australians?
Tastula: Traineeships, job opportunities and being a little bit more understanding. We can’t complain that the young indigenous people don’t work if we don’t give them an opportunity for a worthwhile job. Don’t take a traineeship so you make some money. Give the young person a career path, not just the opportunity to work until you have earned your money back off the government and say, “We don’t have a job for you any more”. That just destroys people.