With all the talk these days about global COVID recovery, it can be easy to forget that our industry’s recovery is by and large led by individual businesses, their teams working diligently to get everyone back to work safely and quickly.
One of those businesses is Song Hotels in Australia. We connected with Song Hotel Sydney General Manager, Jon Ackary, to hear their COVID hospitality story and what they’re doing to overcome the challenges lingering as we eke our way out of the pandemic.
Insights: Song Hotels has an interesting backstory. Can you tell our readers more about it?
Jon Ackary: This hotel is owned by the YWCA. The organization is 140 years old here in Australia. It was originally set up by Mary Jane Barker, who was married to the head of the Australian Anglican Church. The population at the time was 70% male— most of them convicts, their guards, or gold prospectors. There was a big push to find young women of marriageable age and they’d land on the docks unaccompanied, so the YWCA was there to give them safe harbor. That philosophy of housing has traveled through the company over the years and has lead our hotel to continue that legacy.
Insights: What brought you to Song?
Ackary: I came onboard seven years ago. It was a bed and breakfast style hotel, but as the city changes, it’s important to adjust with it. The whole drive in the change was to maximize the return of our operation so we could ensure the business was sustainable and able to contribute to the YWCA organization. Five years ago we upgraded the lobby and restaurant and bar, which became Song Kitchen.
Insights: What other changes did you make?
Ackary: We added accommodation space with four floors added and four floors to go. There used to be rooms that shared bathrooms, but we’ve taken them off-market during COVID and are now planning to demolish those rooms to build ones with private bathrooms.
For guests, location has been replaced by cleanliness as the number one need in a place to stay.
Some of the themed rooms at Song Hotel Sydney
Insights: What distinguishes Song from other properties?
Ackary: My view was if you don’t have a good restaurant operation, you’ve got no business being in the hotel business. Many hotels in Australia go for a cookie cutter approach, but we wanted a restaurant that would have a sense of the local community here in east Sydney. So that locality is very important to our restaurant concept. When you’re traveling, you don’t necessarily want to go to a hotel restaurant unless there’s a strong local feel.
Part of that locality is strengthened by our focus on attracting the 300,000 locals outside our front doors rather than the 300 guests upstairs. That sense of community naturally attracts our guests, and has become a lifeline of sorts during the pandemic.
Another thing, is that we’re a proudly feminist organization. And feminist just means you stand for gender equity, right? We’ve always had female head chefs, and we focus on achieving gender equity. 50% of our winemakers and estate owners are female, as is our sommelier, for example.
Insights: I’m glad you mentioned that. Can you tell me more about your “Profit for Purpose” initiative?
Ackary: People will stay in a hotel owned by a charity because it’s well located, suited to their needs, and fit for purpose. People don’t stay here as a donation to charity, but the fact that 100% of our profits go to charity is a wonderful bonus. Everything has to be first-class service, then the charity element is a nice addition for guests.
We generate millions of dollars for charity. The main focus is on housing. This has gotten worse during the pandemic, so it’s even more critical than it was before. If you can give a vulnerable person a good quality home base, that often solves many other problems. Homelessness for older women is an emerging problem, so we’re trying to meet that as well.
Insights: What has COVID’s impact been on your business and the local market?
Ackary: Fifty percent of our business was international pre-COVID, which is now not happening and thirty percent was interstate, which has been very unreliable, open one week, closed the next.
Artwork of some of Song Hotel’s Inspirational Aussie Women
Australia has an aggressive suppression strategy. Twenty cases in Sydney mean we lock down again. We understand that it’s an exponential curve in that twenty known cases could mean many more. It’s decimated the industry here in Sydney, us included.
Sydney has had a mini-outbreak so we’ve had to take in $50,000 of cancellations in the last week. There are usually seventy-five staff in the hotel and we’re down to fifteen now. We’re just trying to keep our head above water. We’re just managing to eke out fifty percent occupancy at lowered rates and not be a cash drain on the organization.
Insights: Any upsides to the pandemic?
“We’ve changed our POS system, our PMS, and are looking at metasearch and retargeting.”
Ackary: We’ve been able to pull back and have a look at things. That’s definitely been a good thing about the pandemic. We’ve changed our POS system, our PMS, and are looking harder at metasearch and retargeting.
Shiji’s offering was important to us as we needed something that integrated with our property management. Two things were important, their open integration architecture and their efficient payment gateway.
We contemplated QR code table ordering and we’re still looking at it but not quite there yet. Here in Sydney, it tends to be smaller businesses that use this so far and we’re not busy enough that we need it yet.
Insights: What trends are you seeing in hospitality or travel?
Ackary: Australians are traveling much more domestically instead of internationally, particularly in their own state. Regional travel is booming. Every backwater is absolutely full. If you go to the Northern Territory you can’t get a bed anywhere and the campervan you got last year is now two times the price. People went out to buy motorhomes but now they can’t find a campsite!
Usually 20% of the country goes abroad each year, so we’re finding people are drinking higher quality, and spending more on quality dining experiences.
Insights: What is the plan moving forward?
Ackary: It’s really incremental. We are keeping our cost base as low as we can get it and trying to add people back as the situation slowly improves. We think the situation will get under control quickly, and be able to improve over the next 12 months. We’ve been quite successful in suppressing COVID, so we’re cautiously optimistic.