Regional Tourism Matters - The Star Hotel, Walhalla
In the 24th session of Survive and Revive, Richard invited Michael Leaney, the owner of the Star Hotel in Walhalla, Victoria, and returning guest and tourism product strategist, Michelle Lester-Smith, to talk about regional tourism matters affecting Michael’s business. Regional areas have faced tremendous challenges in 2020, between catastrophic bushfires and the pandemic that needs no introduction, but these hardships are far from over. In this session, Richard, Michael and Michelle discussed how regional residents and tour operators feel about the reintroduction of tourists, and the various considerations that people sending those travellers should be aware of.
Nestled in a relatively untouched, gold-era valley, the Star Hotel in Walhalla is a replica of the original Star Hotel from the same period, which had burnt down in 1951. When Michael bought a small cottage in the town in the early 1990s, he observed that, despite having no boarding facilities of any kind, the town of Walhalla was able to attract upwards of 50,000 visitors every year. What's more, visitor dismay at the lack of such facilities was all too common to hear in passing. After seeing the evidence, Michael saw an excellent opportunity to build a hotel and one that has significantly contributed to the growth of annual tourists to the town of Walhalla to the tune of over 130,000 visitors p.a. The hotel itself boasts 12 guest rooms, conference facilities, and even an onsite restaurant. All the while, the décor and architecture maintain the gold-era setting of this nearly untouched town. Typically, 85% of the hotel’s patrons come domestically, often as weekend getaways from the nearby city of Melbourne, or as a stop along with tours up or down the South East Coast.
With the overwhelming presence of COVID-19 in the media and public consciousness, it’s almost easy to forget that Australia has gone straight from one disaster to another. The 2019 Australian bushfires accounted for one of the most significant impacts in recent times to regional communities and their inbound tourism. In the case of Walhalla, even though fires did not appear locally until just before New Year's Eve of 2019, tourism to the region dropped significantly as early as November. This was a result born of a mixture of public misconception collating all regional areas down the East Coast as to being in fire-affected areas, as well as the valid fear of unexpected road closures, and unpredictable fire spreading. Fortunately, the town itself was able to escape ruin at the hands of the fires, having lost only a single building in the Walhalla Stony Creek Fire of 2019, and only receiving minor damage that would only be noticeable by those seeking it out, in the 2020 fires.
The Star Hotel And COVID-19
From one disaster to another. As of March 23rd, 2020, the Star Hotel was officially forced to close as a result of new Government policy. However, up until this time, the business was doing surprisingly well, despite global concerns. With overseas travel prohibited, many aspiring travellers picked up short-stay domestic travel, a trend that will likely continue as things begin to reopen. The Star Hotel itself has opted to remain in 'hibernation' until they can reopen without flooding the market, and negatively impacting upon other accommodation offerings in the region. Furthermore, with legally imposed spatial limitations, the shared community spaces which were such a selling point for the hotel would be completely off limits, resigning the hotel to be a shell of its former self temporarily.
From a community standpoint, regional towns like Walhalla have mixed feelings towards the return of travellers, with some residents and industry workers fearing that tourists will bring the virus to their communities. Others, on the other hand, have noticed the significant contributions that tourism brings to their local economies, having seen the state of things without it.
As the world has slowly begun to return to a state of normality, certain offerings have begun to reopen, such as a local mine tour, and other accommodation in the town. However, with this, Michael has noticed there is an apparent disconnect between customer expectations in the short term, and what local businesses can realistically and legally provide. For example, a local caravan park recently reopened in the town and has subsequently received one of their first ever negative reviews due to certain shared facilities being unavailable. An effort will need to be made to educate prospective visitors about the altered way services will be provided to avoid unrealistic expectations, and therefore a disappointment.
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Michael’s Phone: 0436 462 462