The year 2020 has been the most eventful for some time, and one that will be remembered for generations to come. We have witnessed Australian bushfires, the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, the third American president to be impeached, an olympic postponement and of course a global pandemic that has inflicted devastating ramifications on businesses and communities, both physically and economically.
QHA’s Review magazine also adapted to the changing times with a move to an online publication, where we continued to speak with hoteliers across every corner of Queensland to listen to their stories on how they survived the past four months.
For our hotel members around the state, times were extremely tough during the government-enforced restrictions, yet publicans were both resilient and innovative in their efforts to continue to trade in some capacity whether it was through retail sales or take away meals; however for others it was a time to renovate, or a total closure.
We loved their stories of tenacity and ingenuity so much we wished to share excerpts from our online interviews in our flagship print publication.
There is a saying about breeding them tough in Queensland, and this pandemic has definitely proven just how tough Queenslanders are. Barry Fitzgibbons, director of Fitzgibbons Hotels & Leisure Group is one of those resilient hoteliers. His new look Robina Tavern had just opened in March to customers eager to check out the new renovation, when government restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic forced the hotel to close.
“We were likely opened at about 80 percent when COVID-19 hit, and so we were able to have a very successful soft opening, as we call it. But unfortunately we never had the official opening,” Barry said.
“When we did open though it was very popular, very successful and we were extremely happy with it. All areas were booming; the gaming, the bars, the food, it was just phenomenal.
“And then all of a sudden on March 23, it all shut down.”
Thankfully with the recent experience of operating the business through renovations, the business continued to trade by way of an affordable takeaway menu to keep the local patrons happy and some staff employed.
“When Covid hit, we did a cheaper takeaway menu that was well received and well patronised, and then when we were allowed to open in these restricted ways, we have been absolutely hammered. At one stage I think we were booked out about five weeks in advance for what we were allowed to accept,” Barry said.
The demand was attributed to the striking renovation that took place to the venue which saw the hotel expand its space to accommodate up to 800 people at full capacity taking advantage of the beautiful lakefront.
Similarly, in Toowoomba, husband and wife team Kosta and Jasmine Theodosis purchased a rundown hotel and renamed it The Met Hotel, in October last year and went straight to work on renovations which continued through to March. The pair had anticipated a grand opening when their plans came to an abrupt halt.
“It was disheartening to say the least, after putting so much heart and soul into the hotel, we literally put everything we had into it physically, emotionally and financially,” Kosta said.
“It was just sad to be honest, but we’re not ones to dwell, so we just set to work on how we could come back stronger and better. We love our team that we put together and were so happy with how things were going, so my biggest concern was being able to have the same team when we returned,” Kosta said.
“Unfortunately we had to let all our staff go when we closed our doors. Being such a new business, we didn’t qualify for the Jobkeeper scheme. Our staff were just incredible and we didn’t want to lose them, so we were very grateful to hear that they’re all coming back,” Jasmine added.
“We completely closed the doors, and got back to doing a few more small renovations around the pub,” Kosta said.
“With a 156-year old building there’s always something to do! We have however continued to do a live stream every Thursday night on Instagram with our house band, Fenny and the Mets which features myself as well as some other fine Toowoomba musicians, as well as special guests every week!” (Kosta incidentally is a professional drummer who has toured the world and performed with artists such as Robbie Williams and Amy Shark).
Unlike other hotels which experienced light relief in the form of a bottle shop to continue some element of business operation, sadly The Met Hotel didn’t have that option.
Across the state 27km east of Longreach, an alternative opportunity became available when Tracy Hatch bought the Wellshot Hotel in Ilfracombe. She was grateful to have both a bottle service and a place to serve coffee.
One of Tracy’s dreams with the hotel was to have a quirky little coffee corner out of the hotel, and with one section of the hotel opening out to the Landsborough Highway with barn doors, Tracy offered a coffee window and called it Coffee Hatch which was a play on her own name.
“Luckily we had started that pre-Covid, and without even knowing as it was happening, we were able to trade out of those windows for takeaway alcohol and food,” Tracy said.
“We had that outlet from 6am until 9pm, and we always opened the Coffee Hatch at 6am. I don’t think it would have been as achievable as it has been without having that opening onto the highway and people being able to see in. Customers couldn’t come inside, but with the hatch window there, people could see it and they could pull up. The truckies have been phenomenal and because there’s not much other traffic, they’re able to stop in,” Tracy explained.
“So it’s like a bit of a drive through at the moment. But that’s not who we are normally at the Wellshot Hotel, but it did provide another avenue for us to trade out of while all this was going on.” Another hotel that opened up the roller door out the back was the Sunset Tavern set in the beautiful town of Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, about six hours north of Mount Isa.
With a township of about 600 permanent residents, Karumba is known for its recreational fishing, attracting Australian travellers, families, backpackers, international visitors and grey nomads during its busy tourist season which attracts about 100,000 visitors each year. However Karumba’s Carpentaria Shire shut its borders during the height of the pandemic.
“Our tourist season runs from about Mother’s Day to Father’s Day (May to September), and we usually start to gear up in March ready for Easter which is normally a very busy time of year for us, but just as we were getting ready for the tourist season, it just got taken away,” Sunset Tavern director, Ben Malady said.
“We were heavy in stock, heavy in food stock and it just wasn’t going to keep frozen or be good in six month’s time, so it was really just a matter of trying to turn our stock back into money so we could have enough cash and resources to get through this,” Ben explained.
“Our tavern is at the front of the block on the beach and our car park and driveway is at the back. So we just opened up the roller door and set up a drive through and did take away meals and liquor at the back door,” Ben explained.
“Our manager, head chef and another lady who’s been with us for quite a while have also been madly painting and gardening at the moment. They’ve gone from chefs, managers and bar staff to painters, gardeners and decorators.”
Outback and country towns are often the hardest hit when it comes to natural disasters, but they are also quite often the towns who show strength through solidarity and this is especially true of Home Hill, a country town located just 12kms south of Ayr in the Burdekin region, North Queensland. Home Hill’s community has shown solidarity by supporting one another, be it through shopping locally or employing locally. While the tight-knit community endured a hiatus from indulging in a hearty meal and a pot of beer from their local pub, the Malpass Hotel, patrons could still access the bottle shop which attracted a higher number of locals during the lockdown.
“We were able to operate our bottle shop during the restrictions, and during that time we actually saw an increase in our bottle shop trade of 15 per cent in the three months. So people were still drinking, they continued to come in but were drinking at home,” Phil explained.
“The other thing that happened was, because of the restrictions, customers haven’t been going over to Ayr, they stayed local and they purchased with us.”
About two hours south of Home Hill in Collinsville, Pit Pony Tavern owners Nigel and Janet Lobegeier said they were the largest employer for the township outside of mining operations.
In a town of about 1200 people, it was hard not to feel the pressure of the pandemic with 47 of those people being their employees. However Nigel and Janet said their team was extraordinary and remained positive.
“We have a community of 1200 permanent people who live here in the town, and have a transient of about 1000 fly-in, fly-out, drive-in and drive-out coal miners. To describe the feeling in the town would be to say we were very nervous, like most Australians, I guess,” Janet explained.
Like many other hotels across the country, the Pit Pony Tavern closed its doors, however the couple were determined to still provide for the local town by way of take away meals.
“We are an ageing population here in Collinsville and we have a lot of elderly people that we need to keep in their houses and keep them safe from what may come in and out of the town.
“We needed to keep an eye on those people. On a Friday morning I do a morning tea with 10 or 12 elderly ladies who are 80 years old and over, so we had a big chat about not going out,” Janet said.
“I told them if they’re feeling unwell, to ring me and if they need their groceries delivered, then we will do grocery delivery because we also have the FoodWorks store here in town.
“So everyone just rallied together to make the best of a shocking situation,” Janet said.
Retail sales were a small saving grace for the Eumundi Group also, which experienced an increase in sales over the past four months.
“We had one outlet that had no good news to report and that was in Broadbeach which became a ghost town. But certainly the Liquor Barn and the bottle shops anywhere near Woolworth’s obviously did very well. As people went in to collect their toilet paper, they’d pick up a six pack on the way out,” Chief
Executive Officer, Suzanne Jacobi-Lee said. “And the retail liquor has continued to perform quite strongly, so that’s been the icing, I won’t say cake, it’s the icing on the brick!”
The Group owns both the Aspley Central Tavern and Ashmore Tavern which was impacted more so from the imposed shutdowns than Aspley was, predominantly due to its location being on the Gold Coast where economic drivers are traditionally tourism.
“When the planes were stopped, the Gold Coast was one of those areas where you used to get a lot of tourists from Asia, so I think it was being felt before we even knew that COVID-19 was the problem it has turned out to be.”
Suzanne said the group took advantage of the downtime and have just about completed renovation works at the Ashmore Tavern and are also looking to commence expansion of the hotel’s sports bar.
For other hoteliers such as the Paynter family from Boreen Point in Queensland, who leased out Apollonian Hotel, the workload increased dramatically. With their lessee walking away from the business when the March closures were enforced, Neil and Lou Paynter had to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
“When Covid restrictions hit, our lessee at the time closed the doors and basically walked away,” Lou said.
“We bought out the remaining lease and took over renovations and operations in mid June. “With great support from the local community, we hit the ground running but it has been very difficult and challenging to say the least. Opening with only two remaining staff, no tills, stock or platform, it was a little challenging.
“The family has done well to put in the ensuing hours and get the show on the road and we have great staff members now and are enjoying the rejuvenation of the business and establishing community spirit back into our town.”
The hotel’s famous Sunday spit roasts are yet to return but the couple have discovered another gem for their menu which is sure to be a hit with locals and visitors.
“So while the spit roast is not currently available we have a wonderful array of smoked meats ranging from Jumbo Chicken wings, Pulled Pork and Brisket Burgers which we’ve been able to serve to our Sunday customers among other meals.”
Like the Apollonian, if ever a hotel needed to reinvent itself to keep business afloat, this year has definitely been the time, and as hoteliers were prompted to think outside the box, that’s exactly what Toowoomba’s The Southern Hotel did.
Known for its mouthwatering meals, The Southern Hotel reinvented the business model from a bistro within a hotel into a takeaway restaurant. With a kitchen busy with seven chefs under normal circumstances, hotel owner Richard Bowly was faced with the heartbreak of having to let not only his chefs go but also his staff.
“That’s when we sat down and brainstormed what we were going to do to keep going. We discussed whether to try to do takeaway food because we’ve got a very strong food business here,” Richard explained.
“Generally my kitchen’s under pressure every day of the week, so we sat down and started talking to the chefs and we were talking about the jobseeker payments originally because that was the only incentive at the time. Three of our chefs are on visas, and each of them are very good, loyal people who have been with us for a while, but because they’re on visas, they couldn’t get access to anything.
“So I decided to have a crack doing takeaway meals and we kept the kitchen management employed and those three chefs (because I couldn’t throw them out on the street - they’d have nothing),” Richard added.
The response was overwhelming and Richard was blown away by the support of the community, preparing double the number of meals he had initially anticipated.
“It doubled my expectations in the first week and it grew by about 20 per cent in the second week, about the same in the third week, and then in the fourth week it grew by 40 per cent,” Richard said.
Thanks to the success of the takeaway meals, Richard extended the operation to offer a home delivery service. Unlike the Southern Hotel that struck it lucky, other venues didn’t have the same fortune, and much like
The Met Hotel, Townsville’s Molly Malone’s Irish Pub had just finished renovations and repairs following one natural disaster when brothers David and Glenn Zellar experienced their next battle.
Having purchased the Irish hotel in early February 2019, Townsville experienced one of the worst flood events in its history, where 3300 homes were damaged by floodwaters, and about 1500 homes rendered uninhabitable.
“Thankfully, the venue itself didn’t actually get flooded out, but there was a lot of water ingress through the roof and other areas. As a result of the floods, the centre of town was pretty much closed down for a period of time. So in that time, we had to get in and make the repairs to the areas where the water had come in through the roof and then obviously there was cleaning up around the venue as well because of the mould and mildew caused from the flood,” David said.
One year on from the 2019 floods, and the pub was finally able to enjoy a summer season, having celebrated Australia Day, yet David and Glenn opted to save their first-year anniversary celebrations for a later milestone. However the time for celebration didn’t last too long, before the second disaster.
“We took over in the beginning of February 2019, basically when the floods started, how’s that for timing? We took the pub over, had six months of training and then Covid set in,” David said.
“We don’t have a bottle shop or anything connected to the hotel, it’s just a hotel in the main part of town.
We reviewed whether or not we could do takeaway meals, but after consulting with various other businesses, as in Townsville business owners with hotels, we decided that it wasn’t viable to do that. So we basically had to close down on 23rd of March like everybody else did.
“When we opened up, I think we had been closed for 88 days.”
Now having experienced being open to the public with the restrictions having eased, David was particularly hopeful the borders would stay strong across Queensland to ensure the hospitality industry could continue to operate.
Long-time publican Michael Wilson, owner of the Cooktown Top Pub located in the Cape York Peninsula, also looked forward to a return of strong trade and strong borders.
For a tourist destination heavily reliant on both international and domestic visitors, Cooktown has experienced a reduction in trade due to the pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“We’re set about a block back from the river, the trees skew the view, but one of the main attractions this time of year is the sunsets, they’re quite spectacular.
“We typically also get the grey nomads who are pretty self-sufficient, as well as the young ones in their four-wheel drives who are passing through on their way to the Tip. But the local scene is alive, because this is really the only pub in town,” Michael said.
“In the perfect world where we would have a tourist season, it begins in June. There is a Discovery weekend which celebrates Captain Cook, and that brings about 5,000 people to the area, sometimes more. And that weekend marks the start of the tourist season so from June right through to September/October, that’s when our busy season is.”
The Discovery Festival held each year is a fully costumed re-enactment of the landing of Lt James Cook and his first meeting with the Guugu Yimithirr people, and 2020 marked 250 years since Cook’s landing. This milestone celebration has been postponed until next year.
Not all celebrations were postponed in 2020 though. Squeezing a well-deserved celebration in prior to the social gathering restrictions and hotel closures in March was The Manly Hotel, which raised a glass to the McDonald family who celebrated 50 years in the hospitality industry.
The month of March marked the 50-year anniversary for the family who has run The Manly Hotel since 1970 when Stewart and Dulcie McDonald took over the license.
Like many family-owned premises, the McDonalds passed their hotel down to three of their children who still hold the license today; Jenny Bradley, Doug and Sandy McDonald.
Working together in a family business has been rewarding for the trio who attribute their successful longevity to their loyal staff - some who have worked at the hotel for more than 35 years.
“Fifty years is quite a long time for a business to survive and maintain its relevance to its community,” Sandy said.
“We have survived many challenges over the years with forward thinking and our family of workers.”
The family was able to invite all current and previous guests, employees and suppliers of the hotel to their event, where Sandy, Jenny and Doug hosted the festivities at the hotel’s Sails Bistro with a 1970s-themed menu, drinks and entertainment.
From renovations to recreations, Queensland publicans have persevered and will hopefully continue to enjoy eased restrictions in our Sunshine State.
You can read the full stories from these hotels on our website.