Interview with BNE Members Armidale City Bowling Club

June 27, 2022

 

 

Interview Armidale City Bowling Club

 

In the first of a series of interviews with one of our business members, Business New England interviewed Walter Sauer, CEO of award-winning Armidale City Bowling Club. It’s certainly been a challenging time for the hospitality sector with the impact of COVID, low unemployment rates creating staff shortages, inflationary pressures and supply issues. Walter has been in Armidale for 4 years and has vast experience in the hospitality sector, having originally trained as a chef in Europe before moving into hotel management in many locations including Canberra, Sunshine Coast and Christmas Island.

 

What are the positives of doing business in Armidale?

 

WS: I think the positives for us is that we have a loyal membership base, that we have established well and truly for over 100 years.

 

It’s been a challenging 2 ½ years what changes have you seen in customers habits?

 

WS: It’s had a big impact and we are now starting to see people slowly returning in terms of meetings, functions and events. Bookings are increasing, people have had enough of online meetings, and they want to go back to the face-to-face, and in the second half of 2022 and in to 2023 enquiries have picked up, and indeed bookings have picked up. Having said that, I don’t think it will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. But there was a big big hesitancy to have a crowd of people in a room for a meeting. Outside of that, yes, it has changed, food and beverage in the restaurant had trailed of, that has picked up a little bit.  Surprisingly, the older generation clients have returned, and they make up the bulk of clients, especially at lunchtime, so that was a nice surprise.

 

To an extent you have been hit with a bit of a perfect storm with the impact of COVID on customers and impacting on your pool of available employees due to restrictions on local and international students?

 

WS: As you said, the University for us is our main source of staff, they were here often for 4 years which was great, which gives us continuity of staff. And when the government closed the borders (nationally) over half a million staff were lost. We were able to cover this just enough, but with COVID hitting staff and other issues we managed to get through it, but it’s been a struggle at times. We were lucky in that we didn’t have to shut, we had to close down certain areas, but we haven’t had to close to the extent of Sydney yet, but we still can’t rule that out.

 

And without wishing to dwell too much on the negatives, you have the spectre of inflation in the catering sector, this must present a challenge?

WS: We have in the last 2 weeks taken delivery of our first batch of frozen vegetables, because of the lack of availability of fresh produce. That lack of availability goes along to the availability of meat. Potatoes are very hard to come from New Zealand and haven’t been quite up to the same standard. I don’t envisage that getting better in the next 6-8 months, maybe more because everything they have planted now takes time. I was talking to someone the other day about planting 10,000 lettuce heads per day, but they can’t get the machine onto the field because its too wet, so they are having to plant it by hand which reduces out put to 1,000 a day.  We had trouble obtaining certain cuts of meat, we source our Chicken from a plant West of Sydney, that has to be driven up and fuel prices have increased, and interest rate rises have an impact as does the rise in utility prices.

We may well, and not just us, but the catering industry as a whole reach the point where, everything on the menu comes with chips or potato, and if you want vegetables or salad, that comes at an extra cost. I think that’s where its heading in the short to mid-term, because you just can’t absorb it

Staff costs are going up, Super is going up, and you know, that’s fine, but all this rolled into one we’ll take a big hit.

Are there areas you would like to see a more local or national focus to assist (such as tourism)?

It’s difficult, we don’t have the blue water and the sand between your toes, but there are other areas here Dorrigo National Park and Dobson’s where we take visitors along with hiking and waterfalls. And we get a reasonable amount of sporting events coming through.

One criticism we hear is a bit of a lack of awareness and co-ordination when major events are on, with businesses not being open to meet the needs of visitors, is this something you have witnessed?

The last time we had the Autumn festival , I went up there because I hadn’t seen it, and it was midday, perhaps just after midday and I walked all the way back from the top end of the mall looking for a cup of coffee and I got turned away from one place as they closing at lunchtime despite there being something like 5,000 people in town (some) wanting to spend there money , so the thing is, like you say, how do we co-ordinate this. And you look at Uralla, everything used to shut at lunchtime, now they are open at the weekend, and you can’t get a parking spot.

As a patron of the bowling club, I can see you have had a high volume of staff lately. It’s always been a club that has delivered a very high-quality level of service, which is reflected in winning club of the year awards- what have been the challenges with staff turnover?

We have lost over 150 years of experience lately. The staff we have now are great, they have the right attitude, but they lack the experience, so you might come up and ask for a Carlton Dry and they have to spend a bit of time searching for it and that’s where we are at , it just takes a while with the training and things take a bit longer.

It’s a bit surprising with the houses going up and with Big W and Target closing that we can’t find staff.  Recently, I needed some sheet metal work doing and I couldn’t find anyone to do it. If no-one has left town, where did all those people go? We didn’t have these issues before.

I’ve spoken recently to people at the higher end of the restaurant game, that I’ve known for a number of years and even they are struggling to retain experienced staff, the likes of Neil Perry so it’s a broad problem.

 

 

 

What do you think the solution is?

 

Just getting people back and double vaxxed. I understand there are trials for a combined vaccination and flu shot, but COVID is rife right now and nobody is really talking about it, its milder, but you still have to isolate.

I am also concerned with interest rate rises and utility costs rising, some people after this one rise are mortgaged to the hilt and instead of coming in and having 2 or 3 drinks and a meal , they are sitting on the one drink , with those rising costs your wages in effect are going backwards, and the way you make that money back is by cutting back on your leisure dollar spend, and that’s fine, otherwise, how are you going to do it?

There has been a lot of changes in the hospitality sector locally lately with many Hotels (pubs) changing hands, what are your thoughts on this?

 

Yes, there has been a period of consolidation lately and that’s fine with many pubs being bought up. What happened with Bottom Pub in Uralla is a concern with that being closed, its starting to fall apart. Pokies licences go for up to $500,000 each, but with the consolidation issue we welcome it, I like competition. I like competition because it keeps people on their toes.

 

 


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