With trade back underway for the last month in New South Wales, Alistair Flower has now turned his attention back to investing in his two most recent Port Macquarie pub purchases.

Having established Flower Hotels in Port Macquarie a few years back with the purchase and overhaul of Settlers Inn, Flower has grown the group in the last few years to include the Lake Cathie Tavern and Hastings Hotel. The publican is now turning his attention to overhauling these hotels to make them reflective of their local communities.

The freehold of the Lake Cathie Tavern was purchased two years ago, with a leasehold operator already in place. But early this year the leasehold owner decided to bow out of the business, and Flower decided to take on the leasehold as well – with the deal being finalised two weeks before the 23 March shutdown began.

“I opened the doors for three days and then closed them again,” stated Flower.

Rather than sitting idle in that time, new branding was worked out for the venue, and the kitchen equipment was replaced, while plans for a comprehensive overhaul of the hotel were worked out. A DA for the hotel is set to be lodged in the coming weeks to include a family-friendly alfresco bistro area and kids’ playground, as well as a new bottleshop under the Cellarbrations banner.

“It’s a very good, vocal and loyal community that have really been crying out for a local pub. This pub has been on the market many but its hasn’t really worked as its always been offered as a leasehold.  We think having the venue as a going concern, we can spend some money on capital works, which will hopefully tap into its potential.”

Flower Hotels also purchased the Hastings Hotel just over a year ago, and is also lodging a DA for the Wauchope pub to give it a good overhaul. The plan is to open up the venue internally, to make it a more spacious venue, and give it a more traditional country pub feel.

“Even though we’re only 15 minutes from the coast, it’s still very much a traditional country pub and we really want to uplift the attributes of the demographic in a relatively rural setting.”

The investments come as Flower has noted the huge residential growth on the outskirts of Port Macquarie, both long-term and in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“There’s lot’s of residential growth happening, which includes hundreds of new homes being developed at the moment. Port Macquarie and regional areas like ours, particularly since COVID-19, have been real hotspots for people relocating out of Sydney. You talk to real estate agents up and down the coast line and they’ve never been busier. People just want to get out of Sydney now when they can work from home.”

Personnel a concern

While Flower has been pleasantly surprised by the support that the pubs’ local communities have provided since re-opening, he says that HR issues related to COVID-19 remain a real concern. Having stood down staff during the shutdown, the majority of the casual staff are new hires that have to be trained, which takes time. The other challenge is getting some staff to return, with the uncertain future of JobKeeper meaning they have looked to other industries for employment.

“There’s still an element of fear of the second wave that means people don’t want to come back. Because if we have to close the pub down again, there’s a possibility that JobKeeper is not available to that person. It’s a really challenging time, when we’re trying to get back to decent levels of trade, but having real challenges with human resources.”

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