How one iconic Sydney pub in operation since 1877 has survived the Lock Outs and Light Rail construction

It’s been hard to avoid all the negative talk about Sydney’s night economy since the lock out laws came into effect in 2014, keeping people out of venues and restricting alcohol consumption. Countless venues have closed, entire sections of the city have lost their nightlife, and hundreds of jobs have been lost along the way.

If the lock out laws didn’t do enough damage, a controversial light rail project has caused pubs and restaurants operating on George Street, and further up Devonshire Street, to struggle further. They’ve lost foot traffic, and some, like The Book Kitchen in Surry Hills, which has had the construction project virtually on their doorstep, have closed entirely, with no support offered from the government.

But while some have been unable to weather the storm, it’s not all doom and gloom: plenty have survived. One such venue that sits in the middle of both the lock out law restrictions as well as the Light Rail construction, is Palace Hotel Sydney. Located in Haymarket next to the Capitol Theatre, the hotel has been in operation since 1877, and thankfully shows no sign of slowing down.

I recently caught up with General Manager Paul Walker, who joined the venue last year, to find out a bit more about how they’ve maneuvered the ever-changing situation in Sydney, and where they’re going from here.

I guess to start off with, how has the venue been directly impacted in the last few years?

We’re in a tough spot in the middle of Sydney with the lock out laws and legislation changes. There’s been quite an anti-pub movement in the media since the tragic deaths of two young men in Kings Cross. While their deaths are tragic, and all stakeholders in the industry want safer nights for everyone, we shouldn’t have to close the doors to Sydney. We are smarter than that and there are better solutions. Taking the easy option to just close off the city is ignoring the underlying problems.

What happened in Kings Cross was happening well before midnight. To say that people had to stop drinking at 3am? What about the hospitality workers who don’t finish work until 1am or 2am? Now their choice is Newtown or the Casino. I think it’s poor form to target the masses with the problems of a few. If we are going to be an international city, then we need smarter solutions that fix the issue.

Then we had the tram line construction, which started to be built the week I started at the Hotel. Whilst we hope to enjoy the benefits of easier George Street access which the light rail will provide – the pain is right here and right now for many businesses. It’s disrupting traffic patterns; our suppliers find it near impossible to deliver our product with loading zones removed from George St, our customers can’t see the front of our business because of the solid dust curtains. We have had to do extensive marketing with our customers to let them know we are still open, but I think we have done this successfully.

What else have you had to do to weather the storm of the laws and the construction in the city?

We’ve made changes to our marketing mix and focused on particular target groups for sporting and entertainment events. Through the efforts of our team, we’ve been able to stay open in spite of the challenges that legislation and construction have presented.

We’ve always provided a safe and enjoyable venue for people to come to, but we’ve put more focus on this in recent years. That, and increasing our food and beverage turnover, while trying a few new things that allow us to add more entertainment for our audience, and ways we can stay open longer.

The whole thing about venues like ours is that they’re generally the safest place to be at night because everything else is now closed. You have sober management, staff and security guards, who are well trained, and customers have access to toilets, water, phones, phone chargers. We’ve also been a part of the new Phoenix Safe Nights initiative, which has been set up to encourage people seeking help to go into venues for assistance, not get thrown out onto the streets and left to fend for themselves. That is a terrible solution.

Has the government taken notice of what you’ve been doing in regards to your focus on venue safety?

We were one of the first three venues to be granted the extension of the lock outs, an  extra thirty minutes. We put our application in the day they announced it, and we heard back in a week. Half an hour isn’t an absolute game changer, but it does show that the government is willing to listen.

They could definitely be doing more though couldn’t they?

It’s frustrating that Sydney  doesn’t feel like an international city any more. Some other international cities have introduced Night Time Mayors – what a wonderful initiative to promote culture, entertainment and all that Sydney has to offer around the clock. It is embarrassing fielding questions from international guests straight off the plane about what to do at night. Why are we restricting our activities to the nine to five workers? We should be opening up, not closing down. I am all for making night life safer through more drug testing or restrictions on alcohol.. We should be encouraging venues to stay open and thrive, adding more to the arts scene, better food, more often… that’s what we’re looking for…

Do you think movements like Keep Sydney Open are helping?

I think what Tyson and the crew at Keep Sydney Open are doing is excellent.

It was good to see the Government come back a step with the extra half hour… I applaud them for it. We hope to see another half an hour in a year’s time. We are willing to discuss implementing other safe options to achieve this such as free bottled water on exit, distributing free snack food, and providing a free phone to make contact with family or friends.  We are part of the solution.

It’s our objective to showcase Palace Hotel Sydney as a good safe venue.. Live entertainment on most nights, food available from open until close, good lighting, well trained staff, good security… everything we do we hope is helping the economy as a whole.

And what do you have coming up?

We have boosted our spend on live music entertainment, which runs until 2.30am on some nights. There is new Thursday performances. We’ve always been responsible with food – it’s common sense! It’s quite important that good food is always available, so we’re continuing to improve our menu.

We have lots of new food promotions running in conjunction with events at the Capitol Theatre next door. My Fair Lady starts in a few weeks, when Kinky Boots finishes. Jersey Boys, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mamma Mia are on next year.

Then there’s the sporting events – the grand finals on the October long weekend, and Melbourne Cup is always a big time for us. The Conor McGregor versus Floyd Mayweather fight. It’s all about leveraging those events to bring people into the venue,.. Add in live music and other entertainment, great food and there’s not much more you can do to weather the lock outs and other changes to the city. So far, it’s been working pretty well.

More Info:

Palace Hotel Sydney is located at 730-742 George Street Haymarket, NSW. For more on the venue, head to http://www.palacehotelsydney.com.au/

 Photos by Johnny Au