Country pubs on the brink
Country pubs on the brink

Pubs with no cheer: Regional icons on the brink

SCORES of Queensland country pubs are on the brink of calling last drinks as a triple calamity of low tourism, drought and coronavirus restrictions threaten to close their doors for good.

The Queensland Hotels Association has issued a dire SOS, encouraging punters to have a beer at a regional or country pub, to help save them.

The Sunday Mail spoke to more than 30 publicans, or pub staff, around the state, with at least 16 saying they were struggling to break even.

Many said they relied on holiday seasons to get through the quiet times, but with drops in regional tourism and mass closures during coronavirus lockdowns, many are in crisis mode.

Some publicans have turned to selling coffee and scones to make a living, while others are realising it's more viable to just run a drive-through bottle shop and shut the pub.

In the tiny mining town of Thallon, the town's only pub, Hotel Francis, which is also the general store and post office, has been struggling to turn any profit for three years.

 

The Outback pubs doing it tough
The Outback pubs doing it tough

 

Publican Bryan Guppy said a three-year drought had dropped their takings by 60 per cent.

"When I come into this town back in 2016 there were 102 people here, we're down to 50," he said.

"I'm 61, I should be thinking about retiring, not sitting here doing 16-hour days … the days of country pubs making good money are probably gone. I've got a good mate in Bundaberg, he's got one of the pubs there … he said "I don't want to open … I'm making more money just keeping my bottle shop. It's $16,000 a month for Sky Racing, it's $10,000 a month to keep the pub TAB going, staff, Foxtel, the numbers just aren't adding up."

Queensland Hotels Association chief executive Bernie Hogan said in the state's west particularly, coming out of years of drought, dozens of hotels are on a knife-edge.

"In the major population centres, there are still going to be plenty that are struggling," he said.

The Great Western Hotel in Rockhampton closed its doors last month after 158 years of pulling beers.

It is feared that without a spike in travellers to the state's west, more may follow suit.

Michelle and Jimmy Thompson at the Halifax Hotel in north Queensland. Picture: Scott Radford-Chisholm
Michelle and Jimmy Thompson at the Halifax Hotel in north Queensland. Picture: Scott Radford-Chisholm


In St George, publican Ian Wilkinson said the lockdown put so much pressure on the Bollon Hotel he considered closing the pub, which opened in 1879.

"If it had gone on much longer, I would've had to just pull the pin and just walk away," he said. "If it happens again I will have to walk away."

Ben and Sharon Clements sold up last year and bet big by taking out a 35-year lease on the Ellangowan Hotel west of Roma.

"We lived in Wollongong so we sold up everything to move up here, virtually we were here six months and got told we had to close six months later," Mr Clements said.

"That's our retirement, everything."

For many towns, a pub closing could spell the end of the great outback pub for entire regions.

"It's a long long way from Cunnamulla to Charleville if Wyandra is not here. We're the only pub in Wyandra, they can't lose us," Gladstone Hotel publican Sharon Brown said.

Halifax Hotel publican Jimmy Thompson said local trade was enough to pay bills, but they needed southern travellers to survive.

While Phil Campling, publican of the Malpass Hotel, Home Hill, said if someone offered to buy his pub, he would ask them "Are you sure?''

Federal Hotel (Wallumbilla) owner Samantha Senescall was hit with a coronavirus fine. Picture: Katarina Silvester
Federal Hotel (Wallumbilla) owner Samantha Senescall was hit with a coronavirus fine. Picture: Katarina Silvester

When plainclothes police officers issued three $6672 COVID-19 infringement fines in a police blitz of regional hotels last week, the owner of the Federal Hotel in Wallumbilla said, "We may lose the only pub in town due to this."

Mr Hogan said local hotels kept small country towns alive, and meant more to the community than just a place to grab a beer.

"They do that incredibly well, however they're often also the town hall, the respite centre during times of crisis, the mental health clinic," he said.

"They are often the major employer in the town … They really need us to get out there and do the one thing we can do and visit them."

Hotel Richards licensee Allison Bayliss - whose parents bought the hotel at Mitchell on the western Darling Downs 17 years ago - said she had come "bloody close" to closing down the town's only pub just a few weeks ago, and would be thrilled to see more travellers pass through to enjoy the local hospitality.

"People out here are real," Mrs Bayliss said.

"The loggers come in all dusty and chainsaw-y, you get roo shooters, the shearers come in.

"If you come in and start yarning to one of them, they'll say 'come down, check it out' …

"It's not uncommon to have a horse ride through the bar.

Irene Struthers at the Hotel Richards in Mitchell
Irene Struthers at the Hotel Richards in Mitchell

"It's a great experience, none of us are very fancy but we give good hearty meals, fresh veg, fresh salad, and great hospitality."

Many pubs have turned to non-traditional ideas to keep their businesses afloat, from microwave-at-home meals to selling breakfast scones and merchandise.

The Wellshot Hotel in Ilfracombe "had it tough" during lockdown, having to reduce staff from 11 employees to five as trade plummeted 80 per cent.

Owner Tracey Hatch said the coffee shop built into the pub, The Coffee Hatch, was like life-support.

From 6am they serve coffees, croissants, scones and the like, and during lockdown sold beer through the cafe's window.

Punters could also support the pub through Wellshot Hotel merchandise such as hoodies and reusable coffee cups.

This week, they've noticed an upturn in tourists and are optimistic for more.

"It's definitely this week it's got busier with the school holidays," Ms Hatch said.

"Gosh, we are so happy with our visitors."

Michael Offerdahl and family at the Toobeah Hotel
Michael Offerdahl and family at the Toobeah Hotel

 

Michael Offerdahl, owner of the Toobeah Hotel on the Barwon Highway, writes:

We really thought we had the worst of the drought behind us. It finally had rained, the locals had hope, we had hope, and then whack! Coronavirus. Our hotel had survived the worst drought in living memory only to be shut down by an invisible assassin.

There was no water for a cotton crop in the district this year; the 2020 season is the smallest plant in history for our area. This will hurt the hotel and many other small businesses in the west tremendously. With the added impact of the grey nomad market being taken out, it is indeed a very bleak outlook.

There are plenty of opportunities out here to give up hope but … I won't lie, bush hotels need a hand a big hand right now. These pubs are all small communities have. We are the post office, motel, food, fuel and the only meeting place for a cold beer and a chat.

My parents brought this hotel 22 years ago. It raised all of my sisters and brothers and for the last 10 years it has been looking after my family.

Now more than ever we need folks from the city to head west and experience country hospitality!



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