“My feeling is people are that keen to support live music they’ll even wear a slightly higher ticket price to sustain it through the COVID fog.”
His cautious optimism is widely shared among tourism and hospitality operators across regional Victoria. They know Melburnians, severely limited in travel options, are busting to escape after months of lockdown.
And if regional real estate agents are right, Melbourne also faces a mini exodus of residents as work-from-home families eye the bush for fresh air, space, and cheaper housing.
The Age has spoken to chefs who are packing up their inner Melbourne digs and heading for food and wine-loving centres like Castlemaine where, they say, the job prospects are now better than in the city.
Mitch Duncan, who owns pubs in Victoria’s “inner-north” such as the foodie Farmers Arms in Daylesford and the refurbished Great Western in Ballan, says the bush-going chefs are on the right track.
He says there is general consensus in the industry that central Melbourne’s hospitality scene will be in the doldrums for years as social distancing rules, a new wariness of crowds, and a slump in the city office worker population render many of Melbourne’s small bars and restaurants unviable.
So confident is Duncan of the prospects for regional hospitality he’s looking for another country pub to buy within commuter distance of the city.
In the meantime, both his existing pubs will remain closed as he prepares them – he is revamping the Farmers Arms beer garden – for an expected “massive” summer.
Victoria’s tourism industry has been hit hard by the combined impact of coronavirus restrictions and summer’s devastating bushfires.
Even before the stage four restrictions in Melbourne and stage three in the regions, total visitor spend in regional Victoria was already forecast to decline by 65 per cent, which equates to a $7.9 billion loss, for 2020.
Tourism Minister Martin Pakula met with industry representatives last week and he says they focused on giving operators the best summer possible.
He says a marketing campaign will be rolled out, once it’s safe to do so, encouraging Victorians to support local operators and enjoy regional accommodation, produce, dining, experiences and attractions.
Terry Robinson, chief executive of tourism agency Destination Gippsland, says despite a horror year of bushfire and pandemic, business confidence is rising in anticipation of restrictions easing in regional Victoria and then in Melbourne before Christmas.
He notes that businesses have closed and expects that will continue, with many small operators relying on JobKeeper to stay afloat.
Despite the hard times, Robinson says there is new investor interest in tourism across the region, including at Bass Coast and around the Gippsland Lakes. “People are seeing regionial tourism as a good investment and career,” he says.
The owners of Gurneys Cider in Foster near Wilsons Promontory are also preparing their grounds for live music and to serve picnic-style meals.
James Gurnett, whose family runs the business, is expecting holidaymakers will flock to the area once restrictions are lifted in Melbourne.
“We’ve talked about it being potentially one of the biggest summers on record,” he says.
They plan to arrange the outdoor space in “quadrants” to keep patrons separated and serve food in biodegradable packaging rather than the usual wooden boards.
James’ brother Tom says the business will try to make the holidays special while keeping patrons safe. “Be prepared for a different experience,” he said. “People are going to have to be patient.”
Grampians Regional Tourism Board chief executive Marc Sleeman says businesses in the region were inundated during the brief period of opening in June and he expects record-breaking visitor numbers in summer.
The board is working on a campaign to reassure local communities that every step is being taken to prevent the virus being carried in by the holiday rush.
Both the Northern and Southern Grampians shires have zero cases and three cases each in total throughout the pandemic.
Operators needed a boost for their businesses with at least two traders closing in Halls Gap during the pandemic, Mr Sleeman says.
“When you’re talking to business owners on the phone and they start crying about the struggles they’re going through, it’s quite difficult to manage,” he says.
At the much-loved eatery Chris’s Beacon Point near Apollo Bay, they are confident about the future despite social distancing rules limiting the Mediterranean-style restaurant to about 20 customers per sitting.
Venue manager Tee Lim is hoping for a bumper summer. “Hopefully, touch wood, we don’t have any bushfires.”
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.