INTERVIEW | Philip Fenech: ‘Malta needs more quality entertainment’

As the president of the General Retailers and Traders Union’s Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure Division, Philip Fenech knows the pulse of Malta’s tourism and entertainment industry like few do. The deputy president of the GRTU is a successful entrepreneur in his own right and gave BusinessToday an insight into what is driving the industry to the success  it has achieved and what needs to be done to make sure it stays there

Philip Fenech
Philip Fenech

How would you describe the entertainment industry in Malta at the moment?

The entertainment industry has grown and expanded immensely in the past few years and, in fact, it has never been as big or strong as it is today. Admittedly, it has changed over the years, but that has only made it more attractive.

What is driving the industry?

Music tourism has today become an important segment in our tourism marketing mix. It has also moved our target demographic to a younger tourist, aged between 25 and 55 years, and it has increased money spend exponentially. Malta can now boast of yearly events that are of an international calibre and feature top artists, musicians, personalities, deejays and promoters. It is also regularly attracting major global radio and tv shows as well top travel and music magazines and websites to cover most events. Clubs, bars, restaurants and open air venues have never been as diverse, and spread over all tourist areas. The economic spillover from tourism to the entertainment industry – and vice versa – is considerable. It is no surprise that tourism and the entertainment industry remain the largest contributors to Malta’s GDP.

How has the most recent budget government impacted the industry?

The narrowing of the distributed occupancy has helped make the tourism and entertainment industry sustainable all year around. The less shoulder months we have to endure, the more sustainable and profitable the industry becomes. In addition, foreigners working in Malta have also helped the industry tremendously, causing a ripple effect across multiple subsidiary industries. Let us not forget that until some years ago, this industry attracted 1.7 million visitors to Malta. Now, we’re moving up to close to three million. The government’s budget for 2020 continues to build on attracting a mix of tourist demographics by nationality and further expands on accessibility by adding new air routes or expanding exisiting ones.

As GRTU, what are the most common grievances and concerns of your members in the entertainment industry?

It is important that we strengthen our support services offered during peak times. Experience has shown us that the existing system had not been keeping up with the numbers for a number of years. Issues like cleaning and cleansing, police deployment, maintenance of public infrastructure, hospital treatment waiting time and public transport had for some time come under fire as damaging the tourism and entertainment industry and it is imperative that we tackle these matters if we are to keep offering a quality service, especially during the peak months.

Last week, a bouncer at a nightclub was arraigned in court for beating a customer. How are bouncers/security personnel selected? What can be done to improve the situation? Is it a case of more enforcement alone?

Having security personnel has become a priority for many business owners as the entertainment industry becomes ever more vibrant. We have been in discussion with the government and private security firms in a bid to establish clear rights and responsibilities of security personnel, including bouncers. It is important to understand how delicate the job of such security personnel is. There is no room for impulsive or emotive behaviour. In fact, such jobs require a lot of self-control and an understanding of how to use the minimum force necessary to diffuse a situation.

We are insisting that it is imperative to establish clearly-defined courses and training leading to formal certification that would be an obligatory prerequisite for employment as security staff in the entertainment industry. We have also recommended that each and every entertainment establishment provide an updated roster of its on-duty security personnel to the police and other relevant authorities. Having such information in hand could help in facilitating and expediting possible investigations when an incident occurs.

Do the Maltese really no longer want to work in the entertainment industry? What do you think is driving the Maltese away?

The entertainment industry is very demanding and requires a lot of sacrifice if one is to be successful, at whatever level. Its stop-and-go nature is not for everyone and requires dedication and commitment. Because of the variety of opportunities available today, many people shifted to other sectors or to different industries altogether. For example, many of the licensed security personnel in Malta, of which there are only around 150, prefer to work for government departments at museums, tourist sites or such positions, where most of the work is day shift and without much of the aggrevation and stress that security work in the entertainment industry entails. Likewise, many Maltese working as kitchen or front of house staff have moved on to other industries. One must understand that working in the entertainment industry is, at the end of the day, nothing short of a way of life. But now that the industry is becoming ever more sustainable, it is to be hoped that more people will start choosing this industry as career rather than a short-term job.

How do you reply to criticism that the industry that the industry is losing its appeal, that’s it’s all about gentlemen’s clubs and the same type of clubs?

In the last five years, we have experienced an enormous growth for such a relatively short period. With a strong economy on a national level, many businesses became cash rich, although not all business enjoyed the same level of success. This cash surplus resulted in an investment frenzy as businessmen, bouyed by their success and a thriving economy, sought to invest in new ventures. But, the way I see it, is that this over-zealousness has led to investment in projects that may not be ideal for Malta and that could even end up minimising our country’s Maltese and Mediterranean character. Businesses should not think they can change Malta into a Manhattan or Dubai, but should make sure they direct their investment into sustainable projects.

I can understand their enthusiasm and drive, but it is imperative that Malta retains its identity and that businessmen invest in projects that are faesable, doable and manageable for Malta. It is now time to take stock of the situation and while I would vehemently oppose any market interventio , we need to realise that change is happening so fast that we are even losing sight of what is actually changing and how that change might affect us in years to come. You mentioned gentlemen’s clubs ... the reality is that these are on the decrease, in fact three of them have already closed down. But people of a certain age still remember the variety of music venues that Paceville used to boast of some years ago. Paceville today – like much of the entertainment industry all over the world – has pushed out all the popular rock and jazz venues, to replace them with clubs playing mainstream commercial music. Once again, let me be clear, this is true all over the world, as businesses and industries change to cater for market supply and demand. But it is indeed a pity that the market has pushed quality music to becoming more of a niche sector.

How would you like to see the industry developing in the next five to 10 years?

Malta’s success in the tourism and entertainment industry is due to our country managing to recognise the need to cater for diverse markets and to offer a varied package. I would love to see that marketing effort expand to cover more quality entertainment. Malta is well-placed today when it comes to mainstream entertainment, but we need more entertainment for the more mature crowd. Our nightlife no longer offers these people any quality events or destinations. There are no rock, soul, jazz or blues clubs. And we have not even looked at modern cabaret clubs and stand-up comedy clubs. Malta has done huge advances with regards to mainstream entertainment, as well as theatre and drama, but are failing to offer any quality entertainment to those looking for something else. Many tourists – and locals – are not fully satisfied by what is on offer and the industry should look into assuaging those concerns.

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