In the 2022 Australian Hotelier Industry Leaders Forum, Sunshine Coast Hotels managing director Scott Armstrong discusses the group’s post-pandemic plans.

Queensland pubs have been lucky with respect to lockdowns, losing only 11 days trading last calendar year.

Scott Armstrong, managing director of family-owned and operated pub group Sunshine Coast Hotels, praises the resilience of the local economy and hospitality businesses on the back of a very challenging period.

“Restrictions have reminded locals how much they enjoy their suburban hotels and the social connection that we provide to people of all age groups.”

The pandemic has also accelerated the development of much new technology in the industry, he says. “There are some really positive tech initiatives that we need to embrace quickly.”

Armstrong says the biggest challenge of the past year has been staffing. “With no overseas migration into Australia and a tendency for people to look for new opportunities outside of hospitality post-Covid, our staffing levels have come under pressure, particularly in the kitchen department.

“The other challenge has been simply to keep pace with the changes in Covid restrictions with respect to patron density, functions capacities, masks etc.”

Community focus

Armstrong, who was last year named QHA Hotelier of the Year, says the Sunshine Coast is a very close-knit community. “It is important that our hotels play an active role with local charities, Chambers of Commerce, and industry groups to contribute wherever we can,” he says.

“All of our hotels have been greenfield sites, so we have had to work hard to build our awareness and profile from the moment we break ground,” he says.

“The community is central to our success – the way they view our venue’s presentation, ambience, quality of food and customer experience at each of our hotels will determine how well we perform into the future, and it has been pleasing how well our hotels have been embraced by the local community each time we have opened one.”

Greenfield approach

Sunshine Coast Hotels identified a few of the fastest-growing areas of the Sunshine Coast almost ten years ago, Armstrong says.

“Apart from a couple of pubs, the majors owned every hotel east of the Bruce Highway from Caloundra to Noosa. So we didn’t have much option but to look for new sites and engage with developers.”

Opening greenfield sites has its pluses and minuses, he says, with the major advantage being that you can design the hotel exactly as you want it, and the design can reflect the latest customer cues like allocating more space in gaming lounges.

“The other significant advantage is that you have a clean slate with no baggage from previous operators, employees or customers,” Armstrong says.

On the downside, however, is the tender process for hotels with Poker Machine Entitlements. “There is great uncertainty with our current system in terms of supply and this uncertainty breeds risk which is at odds with the need to provide entertainment in high growth areas like the Sunny Coast.”

New directions

Armstrong says the group’s plan is to continue to grow and invest in venues that fit the group’s small to medium-sized portfolio. “Pubs are both time and capital-intensive, so selection is key in getting the right ones.

“We have been working on a project in Bli Bli for a number of years and this is finally under construction now. It’s a large-format tavern that we will be operating in conjunction with Richard Deery from the Story Bridge Hotel.

“Other than Bli Bli we’ll be fully occupied maintaining a strong presence in the areas we currently operate and having fun with our locals at the same time.”

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