Marilou Halvorsen Q&A

So what attracted you to the opportunity at NJRA?
I had been a member actually through my previous employer with the restaurant association and had worked closely with Deborah Dowdell on a state tourism committee. So for 10 years we served on the New Jersey Travel Industry Association together.
I knew Deborah, I knew the organization. I’d been involved and attended some of the events. So, you know it was not new to me. I was very aware of the excellent reputation that it has in the state of New Jersey. It was unfortunately the sadness of Deborah’s passing because she was the Restaurant Association. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I’m excited to be here but at the same time, every day I walk in this office I do think of her.

So how did you get in the industry? Where are you from? Walk us through a bit of your background.
Well, my first job actually out of school was working at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. I was the assistant to the vice president of events. From there I went to work for a special event company traveling all over doing events and marketing those events all over the country including Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

Did you go to school for special events?
No, actually I went to school for two years to Arizona State University, then my Mom started working at Monmouth University, so I transferred there so I would be able to go to school for free, and I graduated, with a degree in Communication and Journalism.
And then I got a job as the Executive Director of the New Jersey Amusement Association representing all the amusement parks in New Jersey – Six Flags, Morey’s Pier, Great Adventure, etc. I was there for about five years. And then I was recruited by the Storino family to head up their marketing department at Jenkinson’s.

I was there for 14 years. Then they also bought the casino pier and the water park in Seaside Heights, so I then became the marketing director there as well. I handled both properties. And then the role expanded to get involved in government relations, community relations and human resource issues. The position grew it wasn’t just strictly marketing anymore.

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As you look back at that experience what do you take away from Jenkinson’s? What are some of the things that you learned there that you will bring to NJRA?
An association is just like a business. My members are my customers. I have to make sure that their experience with the restaurant association is a good one. Whether it’s for member benefit, networking, and legislative initiatives. You know we need to make sure that they’re happy with their affiliation with the New Jersey Restaurant Association. Because without members you’re not an association.

Based on that, what are the priorities of your agenda at NJRA?
First and foremost is membership. Looking at who our existing members are and what do they need to have their businesses prosper especially after hurricane Sandy. Looking at opportunities where we can expand our membership base where we’re lacking on members in different segments of the market. And why are they not joining and education. The new mandate in 2014 is going to be big with the ServSafe. And we’re working closely with the NRA to expand that program to educate and really become a premier educational outlet for New Jersey. And a resource for people to come to be educated with the ServSafe and the alcohol program.

Is liquor a liability front and center in this education process?
I think it’s the entire ServSafe program that they offer whether it’s food or alcohol. But I think we really need to look at our membership. That’s a core of what we need to do going forward and the benefits that we’re offering our members.

As you perceive the membership benefits, how do you break those down? Do you look at insurance as one piece and then ancillary things? Do you see people in shipping and office supplies, et cetera? And then do you see the lobbying that you do as another piece?
I think you look into the ones that are going to give your members real cost saving benefits. We have a grant with the Department of Labor so that we’re able to offer education either free or with a huge discount. Legislation is the next segment because that’s also cost savings, making sure to keep track of things like minimum wage and any other hospitality related legislation that could possibly damage our industry. And then the others are networking or ancillary types of things are certainly important but maybe not in the forefront as the others. I think cost savings and legislation are at the top. The first thing that pops into my head is it would seem to me that whatever the cost of membership is for somebody new, it would pay for itself in very short order.

You certainly got a unique snapshot of the industry with your first day on the job being the day that the hurricane hit. You’ve got a group that was severely impacted, what is it that you can do to help these folks rebuild and reopen?
The first thing was to communicate with our members and unfortunately that wasn’t too easy. With the power being out and limited access with email and voice mail. But just making sure that everyone was aware of what is available as far as resources. I’m working on putting together an information session with the SBA, disaster assistant people, and FEMA who does deal with small businesses and hosting them here at the headquarters at Hospitality House. And inviting our members to come in, listen to the presentation, and then question, answer period with them; get some one on one time with these representatives to answer specific questions not just what’s on a web site. They can actually sit down and talk with people and get direct information.

What role does the Gala play?
Especially now, I think it comes at a perfect time to get peoples’ minds off the storm. But you know I think it’s a good time to remember and celebrate the excellence that this industry offers.

Hospitality means that they’re in their communities and they themselves have damage but are doing for their neighbors and the people in the towns where they have their businesses by feeding them and whether it’s Thanksgiving dinner or just, first responders. And I think it’s really just to take a moment and acknowledge that amongst one another; how the hospitality industry works and to celebrate that by these various awards.

And then also remembering Deborah, we’re giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to Betsy Alger in Deborah’s honor and again you know Deborah is a true example of excellence and such a hospitable person. You know even when I came to be with her, how gracious she always was.

As you look out the window at the state capitol, what are the key legislative and lobbying priorities that you see for the association right now?
Well I think anything that affects small businesses. You’re looking directly, first off at minimum wage. Add that on top of Obamacare, you know all these issues and I think it’s important for the legislature to know that this small business industry is just a never ending well that you could just keep tapping into. There’s a reason why we’re called small business and the profit margin on small businesses is, it’s small and they need to understand that.

We’re the biggest private sector employer in the state of New Jersey. You cannot just keep looking to hurt us financially. We’re employing kids, who are the people that are in your neighborhood. Those are who we employ. We donate to the PTA’s, and to the Pop Warner’s, and to the dance troupes. And you know, our industry is always willing to give out gift certificates and donate and host those dinners and donate to the pasta dinners. It’s really those things they’ve got to look at. We are an essential part of New Jersey. Economically and politically. I suspect too that you know the industry is not looking to just keep the people at minimum wage forever. I mean, I think the idea is that we create opportunities and this is an opportunity to grow and to get promoted and move along the chain into greater opportunity. The burden should be shared. We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with, and the other thing I think is really important is you know a lot of these guys and gals live in fish bowls and never get out of running, you know, in their own little world and I think it becomes really important in a world of Facebook and Linkedin dominated, it’s really time to get back out and start talking to people again, saying and hearing from people that are in the same situation that you are in and thinking about it. I think we have lost that. I think the association creates that kind of opportunity again to talk to people.

You know because with 22,000 restaurants in New Jersey, I am not the only one that has good ideas. The board of directors are not the only ones that have good ideas or thoughts. You know everybody who owns a restaurant will bring something new, a different point of view, and a different way to go about it. That needs to be heard because the more input we get, the more successful we will be in our lobby and efforts in the government front.

And it is also, an incredibly active vendor community. That believe it or not, it’s actually equally interested in not only selling your product, but in giving you information and helping you share what you know, what else is out there in terms of ideas. To be more productive, or new menu ideas, or whatever it is.

We’ve been very, very fortunate with our partners. Our super allied partners. They’ve been here for years. A lot of them have taken the time to reach out to me, to welcome me, meet me at the show. I had lunch with one of them and you know they’re really a solid foundation to who this organization and what they offer us. It really has a nice group.

So crystal ball what, what do you want the association to look like in five years from now, what do you see 10 years down the road, what’s this going to look like? With your imprint on it and with the help of your team.
You know I wish I could answer that question pretty specifically. And unfortunately there are a lot of other factors like the economy. I mean, there are so many different elements to that. But, you know I talked to a lot of the people on the board. They went through the long search process so there are some things that haven’t happened yet. So next year is going to be a rebuilding year. Looking at things, analyzing what needs to change, what doesn’t, where do we need to grow and making some real substantial changes. Building a strong and vital association, probably by two years. Five years you know it’s my hope to increase our membership by at least 50 percent, maybe 60 percent.