With decades of experience, Cliff Wallis knows the risks and hard work involved in running a hotel, but as the new owner of the Tathra Hotel, he may have taken his biggest risk yet.
In what may seem like a financial gamble, Mr Wallis is removing all the hotel’s poker machines.
“Poker machines have destroyed hotels in many respects,” he said.
“People are relying on poker machines and forgetting about the traditional food and beverages they’re offering.
“Some hotels have become primarily poker machine venues, and they do best in the lowest socio-economic areas.”
Mr Wallis was shocked to learn that Tathra had 70 poker machines for a population of less than 2,000 people, and was told horror stories of local people who had lost their inheritances to them.
The value of the licences for the hotel’s 12 poker machines, which were crowded into a tiny, windowless room, represented half the purchase price of hotel.
Mr Wallis plans to sell the licences and reinvest the money into refurbishing the hotel’s accommodation, while the former poker machine room will be transformed into a microbrewery.
The changes have met with resistance from many of the regulars, and some have decided to boycott the pub, but the new management style is bringing in a new crowd.
“We have a lot of people coming in who didn’t come here before — retired people, professionals, and more women coming in on their own to have a drink and listen to the music,” Mr Wallis said.
Lifetime of working in hotels
Mr Wallis migrated to Australia from the United Kingdom when he was eight years old as part of the ‘ten pound Poms’ migration scheme.
His father was a Fleet Street journalist, who arrived home from work one day to tell the family, “We’re going to Australia.”
Mr Wallis began working at the Steyne Hotel in Manly, Sydney as an 18-year-old university student.
He went on to run the Manly Vale Hotel, the legendary rock and roll venue where INXS got their start.
He bought the Sundeck Hotel in the Perisher Valley when it came under receivership, and has now owned and operated that hotel for 25 years.
Mr Wallis met his wife, Sayaka Mihara, at the Sundeck Hotel 11 years ago when she came to work the ski season.
Ms Mihara, who grew up in Tokyo, began travelling in her teenage years, spending summer vacations in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand while still in high school and university.
After graduating from university and spending a few years working in Japan, she returned to Australia on a working holiday visa, and decided to make a home here.
For the past 10 years, the couple has worked intense four-month seasons in Perisher, spending the summer months travelling or relaxing at their home base in Bournda, on the NSW far south coast.
Mr Wallis said they had been looking for another hotel to invest in when the Tathra Hotel came onto the market.
“The hotel occupies a unique position on the east coast, on the headland with 270 degree views [and] whales passing by for a couple of months every year,” Mr Wallis said.
They took over the hotel in late 2015, and are now working on large-scale renovations, with a plan to transform the pub into a three and a half star hotel, and a venue for live, local music.
Doing it for the challenge, not the money
For Ms Mihara, the biggest challenge of taking over the pub has been the long hours.
“Before we bought the hotel, summertime was our holidays. Now we’re working long hours with no break,” she said.
“It’s tough, but it’s great to see the change in the place.
“I’m enjoying meeting local people that I didn’t have the chance to meet before. It makes it feel more like home here.”
Mr Wallis said he had not taken on the business for the money.
“I’m doing it for the challenge of whether I can turn that place around,” he said.
“I want it to be a place that the community is proud of, and if they are proud of it, it will be successful.”
Story via ABC