Cyclone Debbie spelt the end of one era and the start of a new one for this quintessentially big Aussie pub.
Story: Christopher Holder
Airlie Beach Hotel:
16 The Esplanade, Airlie Beach QLD
(07) 4964 1999 or www.airliebeachhotel.com.au
Michael McFie isn’t a publican who waits around for something to go wrong. He prepares.
When venue asked him whether the pandemic had caused him any supply problems his answer was, “no, we have our own transport” (including a B-Double).
Mick bought the Airlie Beach Hotel a few years ago and has sunk $12m into it so far and hasn’t skimped on the essentials. It’s not lavish, it’s just done right and done with the future in mind. Why spec only one coolroom and be stuck when something inevitably goes wrong? Build in two cool rooms. Ditto for the air conditioning and the power (“we store our own fuel and we could power the whole block with our generator if we had to”)… if the end of the world was on us (as it has been for many), this is the hotel you’d quite happily see out your final days.
At least the beer would be cold… but more on that later.
The Airlie Beach Hotel is an institution. Airlie Beach isn’t an instantly recognisable all CAPS hub on the map like Townsville, Rockhampton or Mackay but it is the gateway to the Whitsundays. The pub is on the beach, has plenty of prime real estate, 83 rooms of accommodation and plenty of parking. Which all might account for why it’s hardly changed hands in its 52 years of operation.
After Cyclone Debbie ravaged the region, an opportunity came up for Mick McFie to take over the hotel. He’d been living in the area for years and was running a pub down the road called the Reef Gateway Hotel. He knew the lay of the land and instinctively knew the Airlie Beach Hotel was a sleeping giant. Mick keeps calling the pub ‘the asset’, and you can see why: every dollar he’s invested in the hotel keeps paying him back in spades.
DEBBIE DOES AIRLIE
Before Debbie blew through, the Airlie Beach Hotel offering was, according to Mick, just a bit too fiddly. Three food offerings seemed a little unnecessary for starters. Mick consolidated things, sticking to doing mid-market pub basics really, really well. “No one talks about how cold the beer is these days, but we do. We don’t just chill the beer glasses we use a freezer.”
And Mick has the experience to ensure the hotel is fit for purpose. “I’ve been to pubs which look amazing but I’m standing there thinking, ‘it’s taking me 10 minutes to get a beer’!” No such hassles at the Airlie Beach Hotel, it’s purpose built to ensure patrons can part with their cash, either at one of the bars, the food service area or the upmarket gaming lounge.
The results speak for themselves. It’s not uncommon to have 800 or 900 people through on a Sunday afternoon and to do 4000-5000 covers a week, according to Mick. “And it’s for everyone: the dressed-up set; blokes in stubbies and t-shirts… families — you might have 20 or 30 prams parked around the place.”
You may not find a photo of the Airlie Beach Hotel rebuild on the front cover of a style-nazi magazine like Wallpaper but you’d be hard pressed to find a hospitality project done more solidly and impeccably. Mick engaged Open Projects out of the Gold Coast as the main contractor. Open Projects is a one-stop builder that also takes care of the interiors and the stainless steel.
“We designed everything. A big part of that was sustainability and durability. You could spend a couple of hundred bucks on a table top or you could use Tasmanian hardwood, like we have. It means that every three years we can totally strip it and bring it back to looking brand new. Every two years you’ve got to do a repaint and re-carpet, while every three you’ve got to think about refurnishing the place. If you’ve invested properly up front, then that’s not going to be as painful as you might think.”
Few venues take its live music offering as seriously as the Airlie Beach Hotel. There are bands on four days a week and five shows. It’s a feature of the pub’s atmosphere, and the bands love it as well. “We fly the band up from Brisbane; put them and their families up in our hotel; feed them for the weekend and pay them well… they treat it like a holiday,” Mick explains. Flying musicians in
means the band travels light. And if the band isn’t backing the truck up, the venue needs to supply all the gear, including some of the musical instruments like the drum kit and bass amp. If the visiting sound engineer is packing their own mixing console, they can plug into the house sound system that’s ready to roll.
BACK STAGE TOUR
The main band stage sits behind the main outdoors bar. It’s different.
“I went to Daytona 500 a few years back with some old school friends. We walked into this bar and there was a stage behind the service area. We thought, ‘wow, how cool is that?’. Mind you, I had to go back the following day just to make sure I wasn’t looking at it entirely through beer goggles. But it was still cool. So I decided to recreate that look in our venue.”
According to Mick there’s no downside. The bands love it, the patrons love the look, while the bartenders are cool with the arrangement as well. Mind you, the AV installers, Kennedy Amplifier Hire Service, needed to take some care in positioning the front of house audio to ensure the bar staff isn’t getting annihilated by the full power of the beefy Martin Audio 15-inch full-range loudspeakers.
“You won’t experience this level of production outside the casinos and big concert productions in all of North Queensland. We’re really trying to achieve the impossible here, by offering free, non-ticketed shows, but we have no trouble attracting great bands — we have our entertainment calendar booked out for the next 18 months.”
Like every pub, the Airlie Beach Hotel was hit hard by the initial Covid lockdown — there’s nothing quite like a total shutdown to do that. But since Queensland closed its borders and returned life in the Sunshine state to something resembling normality, the hotel has been trading well. In fact, Mick is a little coy about it, but you get the sense that they’re doing better than ‘okay’:
“Traditionally, around 12% of our business is international. But we’ve made that up by heavily targeting our local market, within 200 kilometres. The region has money and there’s lots of investment happening or on the cards.”
Mick is confident enough in the future to keep investing. The next phase will see another $5m poured into upgrading the accommodation offering, another 150-seat bar, another 10 gaming machines, and two more detached bottle shops — complementing the current, epic bottle shop.
“We picked out the things the likes of Dan Murphy’s and First Choice don’t do well,” Mick says. “We’ve taken our bottle shop to another level. It’s called Liquor Tobacco Merchants and has product lines you won’t find anywhere else; a humidor for cigars; and a genuine premium offering.”
What an asset!