Life in lockdown: a publican’s perspective

06 May, 2020 by Vanessa Cavasinni

Will Connolly, Vice President – Investment Sales at JLL Hotels & Hospitality, spoke to publicans in Melbourne to see how they have coped with the shutdown, and what they expect their future operations to entail.

As the COVID-19 lockdown came into force for our industry some six weeks ago, it was met with short notice, scant details and shock and panic for publicans throughout the country.

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Many operators were faced with a new reality, requiring thinking on their feet. With little preparation, they remodelled their businesses which they had spent years building successfully.

As a commercial estate agent that specialises in pubs, 23 March represented a day in which the JLL Hotels team and myself had to think differently, and in a sense, remove our ‘agent’s hat’. This marked the beginning of a period in which the best thing we could provide was a phone call and an ear. It was a time for listening to clients.

Whilst our industry leaders have been providing tremendous voice, it’s also important that we hear what’s happening ‘on the ground’. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been able to gather a snapshot of what some of our industry’s private operators have been doing within their venues to get though, letting them tell their story within the COVID-19 shutdown.

Being Melbourne-based, I’ve spoken to a range of Melbourne operators to ask what they’ve seen as some of their more successful initiatives and a general perspective of a publican’s life in lockdown.

Sam Austen – Current Leasehold owner of the Golden Fleece Hotel, South Melbourne

  • What initiatives have you undertaken with your business? What has worked? What hasn’t? Are some worth keeping upon re-opening?

The Golden Fleece Hotel, South MelbourneOn the Sunday prior to the national shutdown, we immediately reverted our entire trading space to a ‘pop-up’ bottle shop. By 11am that following morning, the first of 12 pallets of wine arrived from one wholesaler and by week’s end we had scaled from carrying $30,000 inventory liquor to $130,000.

Admittedly much was from a supplier who provided us with wine we could retail at $10 per bottle and $100 per case thinking that hardship would drive sales through the bottom end of the market. What in fact happened was the opposite, it appears that people have sought comfort in more well-known brands through a time of crisis, therefore proving more challenging than first thought to drive the change in this business model. What has certainly helped however is the introduction of our online store, which allows us to penetrate the market of contactless service, delivery etc all done by their phone from the comfort and safety of their home. This type of service could certainly be one worth keeping in the future.

Rabih Yanni – Current Leasehold owner of the Botanical Hotel, South Yarra

  • There’s been a lot of talk in terms of ‘the world never being the same’ following our industry’s lockdown. Do you agree with this? Or can we get back to where we were?

The Botanical Hotel, South YarraHopefully it’s a better world! Remember, there is no progression without change. This could be the ‘control-alt-delete’ moment we needed. I have been in the industry for 27 years and a keen observer of eroding margin and profitability due to onerous taxes, duties and a low barrier of entry for competition. Whilst I did not want the war, perhaps we needed the war. There are great opportunities through this time and more so at the other end for the professional operator.

Initiatives we’ve all been forced to undertake will no doubt remain. Take home, heat-and-serve meals and alcohol sales have been successful and will no doubt continue to be seen post-lockdown. One thing I will discontinue is pre-batching cocktails for retail sale as I want to see the bar full again, shakers shaking and guests having fun to groovy tunes before too long!

Nick Allardice – Current Leasehold owner of The Cricketers, Port Melbourne

  • Could the ever-mentioned ‘new normal’ turn out to be a positive for our industry long term?

I think so. And I believe there could be a new-found respect for our industry. Whilst we have no doubt our loyal patrons/family are awaiting our return, it’s not going to be without its challenges in the short- to medium-term. We’ll need to think of new and innovative ways to ensure that all trading spaces remain profitable, as it appears certain we will be under a version of restrictions for at least the next six months. What’s important to remember though is that people are resilient, and we will eventually find our new normal that will be a positive environment for all.

 

On behalf of the JLL Hotels team, we look forward to the day when venues across Australia can re-open their doors with their enterprising new initiatives carving the way to a stronger and even more resilient industry than before.

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