Why Covid travel restrictions could mean big business for regional boutique hotels

Inside the Byng Street Hotel, located in Orange NSW. Photo: Supplied
Inside the Byng Street Hotel, located in Orange NSW. Photo: Supplied

Cashed-up and with nowhere to go, a new type of guest is turning their attention to regional Australia in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions, with boutique hotel operators positioned to benefit.

The most recent figures from Tourism Australia, released earlier this year, show that in the year to March 2021, 71 per cent of domestic travel was to the regions, with 84 per cent of travellers remaining in their home state.

The effects of this boom in 'holidaying at home' have been felt by Tom Nock and his wife Kristen, who own and operate the Byng Street Hotel, located in an extended mansion in Orange, NSW.

Signs were already looking bright for the hotel when it opened its doors in 2019, given the elevation of Orange into a food and wine destination in recent years, but the pandemic had been a gamechanger, according to Mr Nock.

"That year of post [the first Covid lockdown] we would never have expected," Mr Nock said, adding that it was rare for the hotel to have a vacancy.

Lockdowns in Greater Sydney and the Hunter meant that things were now quieter than usual, but Mr Nock said the property had been booked out three weeks in advance for most of the past year.

"People are coming who've never been here, or haven't been for 30 years," he said.

The rise in road trips, when borders permitted, meant that the hotel, where rates start at $300 a night, had also received bookings from Victorian and Queensland travellers.

Guests at the Byng Street Hotel weren't interested in "in a swimming pool or a tennis court but in somewhere that feels homely," according to Mr Nock.

"Certainly a big part of the market are looking for a place where they can relax, they're just looking for something special and they've got money to spend. So many of these people would be in Europe right now and they're looking for quality and they don't mind [paying for it]," he said.

The couple, stalwarts of the hospitality industry, sought to recreate the small hotel experiences of Europe when establishing Byng Street.

"We both liked the European style of a small hotel which is very much focused on accommodation with real character - where the presence of staff in in the hotel's DNA. Where staff are here not only to check you in and fix the air-conditioning but to really engage with you and to ask and help out with where you're going for dinner and really get to know our guests," he said.

"We're really proud of what Orange is doing and we get to show that to our guests. We love to look after people and we love to engage with them," he added.

Opportunity knocks

Operators looking to establish a presence in the regional market were among those looking at a listing in Gundagai, in the NSW south-west, according to listing agent Rachelle Barnett of Ray White Young.

The Old Bridge Inn, built in the 1860s, has been set up to run as a function centre and boutique bnb.

The Old Bridge Inn, in Gundagai NSW, is on the market. Photo: Supplied

The Old Bridge Inn, in Gundagai NSW, is on the market. Photo: Supplied

The property had been put to market after an extensive renovation, with the current owner having been unable to realise their dream of operating the hotel due to health reasons.

"In the last five years the place has been done top to bottom - the owner spent four years renovating," Ms Barnett said.

Interest had been from a mix of existing hospitality operators as well as "tree-changers" looking for a lifestyle property with income.

The Old Bridge Inn has undergone recent renovations. Photo: Supplied

The Old Bridge Inn has undergone recent renovations. Photo: Supplied

The success of nearby property Kimo - which offers luxury eco-hut accommodation on a working cattle station just outside the town - had demonstrated the possibilities in the local tourism market, according to Ms Barnett.

"We do get a lot of professionals that commute between Sydney and Melbourne as well," she said.

The property, which includes a manager's residence and shopfront, is slated for auction, although a date is yet to be fixed owing to the current lockdowns.

Tough but rewarding work

Although the boutique accommodation business was rewarding, any new operator should prepare themselves for plenty of hard work, according to Mr Nock.

"In the past year we've had three days off," he said.

"One of us is here every single day or at least six days a week - as owners we are very involved, we'll check the guests in and I think people love that experience of meeting the owners and having them as part of the service, that attracts them to the property," he said.

"If you've got a vision about what you want the place to be, nobody buys into it better than you. If you're going into it saying I just want to make money out of it, hospitality is a tough game," he added.

While the regions are enjoying their moment in the spotlight, he also advised future operators to make sure the location they choose for their venture is "multidimensional".

"Orange for example is unique because we've got the gold mine, and then you've got education you've got government departments you've got fantastic... Then we've got agriculture, wines and tourism," he said.

"We've got a good corporate as well as tourism market," he added.

This story 'Service over swimming pools': How boutique regional hotels captured the zeitgeist first appeared on Newcastle Herald.