Coogee Bay Hotel (CBH) managing director Chris Cheung spoke to Australian Hotelier about his celebration plans, and the changes he’s witnessed during his 32 years in charge.
The hotel plans to mark the venue’s landmark year in style: paying homage to the past, celebrating the present, and looking ahead to the pub’s future.
Australian Hotelier asked Cheung what this approach means practically in terms of events and features at the pub.
“For us, it’s really about screaming and shouting the occasion and celebrating the occasion – it’s a year-long celebration,” Cheung said.
“That’s including huge birthday parties, a historic mini museum (which has a timeline for the hotel), a commemorative wine series, a legacy food and cocktail menu, and a grand reopening of Selina’s.”
Legendary music venue Selina’s closed back in the late 2000s, and opened intermittently for gigs throughout the 2010s.
Another centrepiece of the year’s festivities is a mural showcasing the pub’s journey and heritage, commissioned by the CBH and created by local artist Charlie Nivison (also known as Silly Pear).
When planning the year’s events, Cheung said his team had considered the local area, and the pub’s relationship with it.
“We’ve done a lot of research, and I think it’s imperative that we understand the history, and the DNA of Coogee.”
Cheung also explained why he thought the hotel had had such incredible longevity.
“The community chooses you, you don’t choose the community. In this instance, I think it’s imperative that we are part of the community, and part of our staying power is that we’ve listened, we’ve cared, we’ve evolved with that.
“One of the key critical factors for that [endurance] is internally, our amazing people and teams, that are embracing change, but more importantly, innovating and meeting the challenges of our current times.”
A period of transformation
In his tenure at the pub, Cheung has seen many changes, not just at hotel, but in the pub industry, and in the local area. Australian Hotelier asked him what the most important challenges and highlights of his stint in charge had been.
For Cheung, the most significant challenge came very early on: the recession of the early 1990s. It was a baptism of fire, as Cheung outlines.
“When I came here, I didn’t have any hotel industry experience. So I was a little, wet behind the ears. It was trial and tribulation, so to speak, but it was the ‘recession we had to have,’ to quote the Prime Minister.
“We acquired [the hotel] for the development prospect and potential, not necessarily to run the pub! And the next thing we know, we were at the coal face of the business, trying to establish a hotel with a good profit and loss, and I say – the rest is history,” he continues.
Having started with no hotelier experience, Cheung now says the highlights of his time in charge are drawn from the very core tenets of ‘good hospitality’.
“The highlight for me, without doubt, is actually working in a people industry. It’s a service industry. Above all, what puts everything into perspective is just listening to our guests, meeting our guest’s expectations, interacting and engaging with the team and being part of this wonderful community that is Coogee.”
That community has considerably altered over the last three decades, Cheung says.
“I look at the census report, I read it every time we do it, and it’s changed dramatically.
“People still talk about the backpackers – the backpackers truly went many years ago. Coogee, as we reckon it, it’s little England, it’s predominantly represented by long term UK residents living in the area.
“The market demographic, we’ve got high disposable income bordering us, it’s not the high renters area that we came into back in 1991. We’ve got very influential and affluent people in the area.”
Another standout highlight, Cheung explains, has been the restoration of the pub’s atmosphere and reputation.
“Ultimately, the big challenge for me in the early years was re-establishing its place as an iconic venue. I call it ‘the King of Pubs’.
“Now what inspired me back in 91 – there was a book that was called the Pub Guide [A Guide to Sydney Pubs] written by a Mark Shields. And when I looked up the Coogee Bay Hotel, it said: ‘A grand old lady that wants to be everything, but not a smile in the place.’
“And that drove me – the motivation to want to be where Coogee once was. I was driven to re-establish it, knowing its history. During the early 30s and 40s – this was a majestic venue known for its large ballroom and wedding facilities,” Cheung continues.
“To me it was about re-establishing Coogee Bay to its status. I think we achieved that when we won the Hotel of the Year back in 1997.”
A key aspect of the CBH’s celebrations is looking towards the pub’s future, and Cheung outlines what his vision of this future is.
“I’m only a custodian of this property – this remarkable property,” the managing director says.
“It’s very positive and it’s very strong. The venue will keep evolving with market trends and be constantly serving the community. We are the heart and hub of the Coogee community… And that drives us to be constantly evolving.
“One of the things I say is: ‘history has defined us; change is constant.’ And we embrace it.”
Ultimately, it’s this ability to be nimble that Cheung thinks is the hallmark of a truly great pub.
“For me, it’s about great people and themes to bring an extraordinary guest service and experience. Great products. Great ambience, safe and fun environment, and evolving with market demands and expectations for the above.”
Community is evidently at the heart of how Cheung approaches the running of his pub, and it was for this community that the hotelier saved his final words.
“My message to the world is: if you’re in the area, please come down and helps us celebrate our 150th anniversary.”
The Coogee Bay Hotel will hold a Big Birthday Bash at the Bay on Sunday, 26 March from noon.
Other events will continue throughout the year, with a mini museum installation on display at the venue between February and April.
Further plans for the ‘present’ and ‘future’ aspects of the celebration will be revealed later in the year.