It’s a bitterly cold and grey winter day, but rays of sunlight are streaming through the stained-glass doors of the Earl of Leicester’s newly reopened front bar.
The warm rays are perhaps a metaphor for brighter times ahead as this much-loved neighbourhood pub, and many hotels around South Australia, fight for survival after the 10-week coronavirus shutdown.
The Earl’s owner, Piers Schmidt, says the industry is not out of the woods yet, but the mood is quietly buoyant. The beer taps are open and the reservations book is steadily filling up as people ditch takeaway options and head back into the pub. Schmidt, who also owns the Union Hotel in the city and The Sussex at Walkerville, says the lockdown created a “groundswell of appreciation” for local hotels.
“Pubs are a vital hub of a community, they’re great places to meet up in a casual environment, and when all that disappeared for a period of time, everyone realised how important it is,” Schmidt says. “If there is a positive to come out of this, there is a strong resurgence in the must-have of the Australian pub, as it really is an important part of our culture and identity.”
Schmidt speaks for many pub owners when he describes the COVID-19 shutdown as a “nerve-wracking time” but he’s been heartened by the level of community support while the doors were closed.
“A lot of people in the local area wanted to help us, as there were media reports about hospitality venues that would go broke – and some still will – so there was a definite swell of support,” Schmidt says. “Now this support is people coming in for dinner, which is a better outcome. We need everyone back in their local pub, cafe or restaurant.”
The sentiment is echoed by Craig Williams of the Saturno Group, which has been part of SA’s hotel landscape for more than 40 years. Williams oversees the Saturno pub portfolio which includes The Colonist, The Mile End, The Unley and The Duck.
“The overnight shutdown was a real mind bender for regular patrons and upcoming bookings and functions – not to mention turning the lives of our staff around – and we’re all excited to get back to business,” he says. “The role of a pub traditionally is to be the neighbourhood hub for people to catch up and socialise – and we don’t see this changing as we move past the pandemic.” Schmidt says JobKeeper, along with stimulus from the state government, has “made things sustainable” and helped pay bills.
“The stress is still there, but if those support networks weren’t there I think a lot of people in the industry may have been wiped out. We couldn’t open right now without JobKeeper.” Australian Hotels Association (AHA) SA boss Ian Horne supports the extension of JobKeeper for the tourism and hospitality sector beyond the proposed September end date.
“We [have been] lobbying for it to continue until the end of the year because, by the end of September, sales won’t be back anywhere near pre-COVID levels,” Horne says. “When the deferred rent and taxes all come washing in there will be casualties, and it will take 18 months to two years to settle down. The industry was out for 10 weeks, we lost 20 per cent of the trading year.”