MORE than most people Radcliffe’s and Port 53 restaurateur Adam Mitchell knows there is no such thing as a free lunch.
And just because the Winter Blues Festival once again turned it on for the twin towns with acts bopping pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes and anywhere else a crowd could gather doesn’t mean it was free.
Except for the public.
Mr Mitchell said behind the scenes is a different story; with small business investing tens of thousands of dollars to attract plenty of bands – and even more customers.
Most crucially, he said, the festival brings a vital cash injection at a low point in the tourism cycle – the middle of winter.
“There was hardly a bed to be had anywhere in, and around, Echuca-Moama as thousands of people from out of town flooded the streets – and set tills ringing from one end of town to the other,” Mr Mitchell said.
“And they all seemed to love it; many had been before but just as many were first timers who said they would be back.”
As happy as he was with the whole weekend Mr Mitchell still had a slightly sour taste in his mouth come Monday morning.
He said it has been a tough year for the hospitality industry, as it has for others in country towns, with many external factors keeping the crowds away from Echuca-Moama.
“Floods, elections, blue green algae, increasing competition and the dwindling port attractions are just a few things that have impacted our tourist trade,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Thankfully the festival helps us all to get enough cash flow to hopefully survive the winter,” he said.
“The festival was created by locals to support local businesses – and the community spirit that makes this festival work always blows me away.
“More than half the festival committee has no business affiliations or financial investments in it; they simply do their job for the many thanks from those local businesses.
“Aside from that it’s a rather thankless task I respect and deeply appreciate.”
This year, however, it was the attitude of some of the locals with which Mr Mitchell had a problem.
Even though he agreed he “loved” locals, and loved his local ‘regulars’ even more.
“They support us when the tourists are away and help us crazy business owners in hospitality to survive,” he said.
“As I reflect on the sound of blues music drifting down the streets of Echuca I also remembered the conversations.
“Most are positive but as with all reflections we tend to dwell on the negative the most.
“For example one patron at the weekend accused me of ripping her off as she carried a children’s meal of nuggets and chips to her seat.
“She angrily abused me while complaining for paying $8 and that I should be ashamed of myself.
“She continued by claiming she was a local and that I should be supporting the locals.
“As I looked at this self-proclaimed ‘local’ – although neither I nor my staff have ever seen her in our venue – I felt an anger burning in me even though I remained calm.
“I mentioned I was a local too and that I wished she would support me by paying for an adult meal, telling her at the same time $8 is the general price for a kid’s chips and nuggets.
“I refunded her after she threatened to take a photo and destroy my business on social media.
“The refund wasn’t out of fear, but out of a hospitable heart and wanting her to enjoy the rest of her weekend.”
But Mr Mitchell said the more he thought about that, and similar comments, the more it upset him.
“I should have said ‘why are you complaining about supporting locals when you just walked into a free venue to listen to ‘free’ music that I had just spent more than $7000 on with band and production costs.
“Not to mention the advertising and overhead costs to promote it all.
“The festival is free to attend – at the cost of each and every venue involved,” Mr Mitchell said.
“We are the ones paying artists to come to town and perform, with the hopes of selling a few nuggets and chips to pay for it all.
“Local small business is the only risk taker in this equation.
“I also heard people complaining about beer prices at another venue that had, like us, invested so much money into a free festival.
“I personally was accused of bumping my prices for the tourists after the lady paid $7 for a cheap house wine that I put on my lists just for the weekend so people with less money could afford a cheap drink.
“It’s becoming clear why we local businesses struggle to fill our seats in winter and why so many businesses run non-profitable specials and deals to attract bums on seats.
Mr Mitchell said ‘locals’ who think they are badly done by and who only venture out in the peak of tourist season and only on the bumper weekends should try dining outside of Echuca-Moama more often.
He said if they did they would see local prices are very good compared to Melbourne and other tourist destinations.
“Of course we are a tourist town and our prices will be a little higher than the average country town, but that’s due to supply and demand which is a normal part of business,’’ he said.
‘‘So as I reflect and opened my doors this week I looked forward to waiting for my regular locals to come in and support my local business as usual.
“But most of all I look forward to seeing my best regular local customer, who wouldn’t allow me to buy him a beer at the festival, saying ‘this is your weekend mate; I am happy to pay’.
“Some people get it. Some don’t.”