Melbourne operators push for a more feasible trading environment

29 October, 2020 by Vanessa Cavasinni

Having reopened to a minimal number of patrons from yesterday, publicans are pushing for further relaxations in restrictions that will make trading a more feasible prospect.

Premier Daniel Andrews made the announcement late on Monday afternoon that as of Tuesday 27 November at 11:59pm, hospitality venues could reopen with 20 patrons allowed inside venue – with a maximum of ten people per room for two rooms – and 50 patrons outdoors.

Advertisement

As venues rush to reopen after a cumulative seven months of being shutdown from on-premise trade, publicans still have major concerns about the logic and viability of the current trading restrictions.

Nick Allardice, managing director of the Bon Vivant Group, said his venues were not ready to reopen yesterday, with The Cricketers in Port Melbourne set to open this afternoon, and The Firehouse Hotel in Ringwood reopening on Friday.

He said the lack of notice is just another in a series of frustrations with the State Government, and another example of lack of communication with the industry.

“The communication has been so poor. Dealing with us as an industry has been non-existent. There’s been no consultation, which is really frustrating. To think we can open with such little notice just shows a lack of business understanding. It could have been handled so much better.”

Allardice said the biggest immediate concern for his venue is the lack of staff, and the pressure that is putting on the mental health of his staff who have stuck around.

“I’ve unfortunately had people leave due to job uncertainty, regardless of JobKeeper. They’ve changed industries. It means I have to push my existing staff to the brink so that we can reopen . And we’re also going into the Christmas period where you’re going to get slammed anyway (hopefully).

“So my biggest concern is mental health. Not only is there a physical toll, but it’s a mental health issue for the guys who’ve had so much uncertainty and now their hours are out of control and we can’t find any supplementary staff, because there are no backpackers and the like.”

A lack of trading viability

Many venues are still weighing up whether its worth reopening under the current trading conditions.

“We can’t afford to open most venues with these patron number limits – it would cost us more to open with these limits than to stay closed. But we’re desperately keen to get our staff back to work as soon as we can,” stated Andy Mullins, director of Sand Hill Road.

Venues are striving to set up outdoor spaces that include their streetscape to increase the amount of patrons they can seat. But being beholden to Melbourne’s unpredictable weather, having the majority of your patronage outside can lead to some very light trading days.

“We also feel desperately for the many, many restaurants, bars and clubs that are burrowed into the city’s laneways or up secret staircases that have no chance at all of offering an outdoor option. It’s these very businesses that are the life blood of our city’s experiences. We hope indoor hospitality is given a chance as soon as possible,” stated Mullins.

Allardice agrees, questioning the logic of restricting indoor trading of 10 people per room to two rooms – the number seems arbitrar, suggesting that the rooms shouldn’t be capped, and rather a move to a density-based metric would make more sense, as has been the case in other states.

“No version of this first stage is viable. Visitors don’t fly in to our city for the beaches – it’s the laneways, the theatres, the wine bars, restaurants, pubs and jazz clubs that so clearly define the Melbourne experience. We hope to be allowed to trade under the same conditions as venues in other States if this incredible industry is to have any chance at viability,” suggests Mullins.

“If the case numbers continue trending as they are, we hope to be afforded the same conditions as operators in New South Wales and Queensland enjoy. We’ve done the job asked of us. We’ve sacrificed everything to protect our most vulnerable. We’ve fought battle after battle with unrelenting landlords in a global pandemic. We now need the chance to get our lives back on track and our city back to life.”

While there are plenty of immediate concerns, Allardice says “the issue that’s keeping him up at night” is the reversion back to full rent payments from 1 January.

Hes has had to deal with one landlord that would not budge, and another who has been really amenable, but even with the latter he worries that full rent payments from the new year are not feasible.

“That’s what’s staring me down the barrel. It’s really concerning – that’s what’s keeping me up at night, thinking we’ve hopefully got 7 or 8 weeks of really good trade, but then we need to go back to full rent plus the deferred payments. That’s the cliff that we’re looking at as a business.”

With rent repayments going to place a huge stress on most hospitality businesses come January, Allardice is urging the Andrews government to finally consult with the industry, and announce some measure of support sooner than later.

“Let’s not wait another eight weeks until we get to January and everyone is all of a sudden outraged that hospitality venues will be closing left, right and centre because full rents are due. [The Government] needs to get on to that right now,  and extend the  Commercial Code or whatever the next phase of support in that regard is, so that we can just focus on running our businesses.”

Image: Facebook/The Firehouse Hotel.