By Colin MacGillivray
TRAWOOL Estate’s general manager has opened up about the difficulties it and other food and accommodation businesses have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Burrows said Victoria’s most recent lockdown was tough to endure for the estate, which opened at the end of 2019.
Mr Burrows said there were times when he and owner Wesley Old wondered whether the business would be able to survive.
“The lockdown absolutely broke us this time. We lost about $250,000 in revenue and we still had to pay all of our full-timers in annual leave, which was close to $100,000 for no return,” he said.
“It’s been a really bumpy start [since we opened]. I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to put together a conservative budget for the next 12 months, trying to get our first bit of profit.
“We’re building and we’ve got a fantastic business model, the estate is stunning and people love what we do. We’ve got a really good energy and feel to the place.
“In saying that, we’ve got a lot of work to do and resilience still to instil to get over what has probably been $1 million of loss over the past 12 months.”
Mr Burrows said Trawool Estate had elected to reopen its accommodation business slowly as Victoria emerged from lockdown last month.
“There are a lot of costs that come into play when you’re reopening the hotel. You’ve got to have a full deep clean of all the rooms, get everyone back in and get everything set,” he said.
“We decided as a business we weren’t going to open up the accommodation and just focus on the restaurant for that first weekend back.”
But after a slow start, Mr Burrows said the estate was now rebounding strongly.
He said the accommodation had been at capacity for the past two weekends and a newly-opened 50-person restaurant serving Asian-inspired cuisines had been well received.
He said support from residents in nearby towns like Seymour, Tallarook and Yea had been key for the estate.
“We do get a lot of support from locals. We’re not trying to be a pub, we’re an elevated dining and accommodation destination and trying offer something different for local people,” he said.
“At the moment we’ve got a really good local fan base who have been looking after us and supporting us, especially coming out of lockdown.
“It’s really important to us that we keep building our local clientele. Melbourne is very important to us and what we want to do in terms of long-term weddings, events and conferences, but the local support is just as important to us.”
Mr Burrows said Trawool Estate would establish a local loyalty program, offering discounts on food, beverage and accommodation options, in the second half of the year.
He said employing people locally was also important, but maintaining a local workforce during lockdown presented its own challenges.
“We’ve got some fantastic Seymour kids and our events manager is from Yea,” he said.
“There are struggles trying to find young males in regional Victoria to work in hospitality because a lot of them go and do trades. Hanging onto female staff is also difficult when you go into lockdown … because with the instability at the moment they can go to a supermarket, they can go do a trade, they can work as a PA for someone.”
Mr Burrows said uncertainty across the industry was the biggest challenge most food and accommodation businesses faced.
“I had to ring up and speak to a bride and cancel her wedding, which was the most devastating thing,” he said.
“It’s an emotional time when you go into lockdown, because you’ve got to call the staff and tell the kids they can’t come into work, and you don’t know when they’re coming back.
“Then to have to speak to a bride who is devastated at having to miss out on what’s meant to be one of the best days of her life was really tough. But she took it really well and we managed to reschedule her for August.”
Mr Burrows said businesses that were still on their feet had learned plenty from the pandemic.
“I think from a food and beverage perspective, not complicating menus and over purchasing [is a lesson we have learned],” he said.
“After lockdown we’ve now put on a set menu … so we’ve got a selection of three entrees and four mains. That gives us an opportunity not to waste food and it’s all stuff we can keep if we were to shut the doors again.”
Despite the uncertainty of the past 12 months, Mr Burrows said Trawool Estate planned to stick around for the long term by building stronger bonds with the community.
“If we go into another lockdown there’s no certainty we’ll be able to get out of it this time,” he said.
“We’ve got people knocking on the door for money and it’s challenging. But we’ve got a really good list of bookings. We’ve got eight weddings booked in for October, November and December, we’ve got the new restaurant and we’re going to be featuring on a hugely successful Australian TV show in October.
“Now we just need to get through the next couple of months and put some money in the tills. Hopefully we are building something that will be part of the Goulburn Valley for the next 50 years.”