[Entertainment is] as important as food, wine, and staff. It’s like the heartbeat that brings everything together.
venue sits down in the newly refurbished Paddington Inn with Solotel COO, Justine Baker and Entertainment Manager, Adam Lewis, to talk about what makes a big hospitality group tick, Paddington the suburb and the crucial role entertainment plays.
Story: Christopher Holder
338 Oxford St, Paddington NSW 2021
(02) 9380 5913 or paddingtoninn.com.au
Solotel is a sizeable hospitality group owned by the Solomon family. It has some 28 venues on its books — mostly in Sydney — ranging from the likes of the Opera Bar, city pubs like the Edinburgh Castle, and restaurants such as Chophouse. A year or more ago, Solotel merged with Matt Moran’s restaurant group, Morsel, greatly bolstering its restaurant stocks. After a year of bedding that merger down, Solotel is back into a growth phase, looking to expand its events business, and looking ahead to the completion of its largest (and as yet, unnamed) three-level venue in the Barangaroo development.
Keeping a steady hand on the tiller is group COO Justine Baker. venue sat down with Justine to hear more.
venue: How has the Morsel merger worked out?
Justine Baker: Last year was all about consolidation, focusing on the merger and getting it right. We bought all of Morsel’s staff into Solotel so we’ve become a much bigger head office team. Plus there’s the addition of all the new Morsel businesses.
This year there’s more of a focus on growth where we’ve had Chophouse on Blythe Street coming into the portfolio. We’ve only just taken over the Clovelly Hotel. In Brisbane, we’ve got a new venue at the Anthony John Group’s redevelopment of Southpoint, which is a beautiful old Queenslander we’re turning into a pub. So that’s a creative, fun project we’re really excited about.
And then the big one is a project we’re working on at Barangaroo, which will open around November this year. That’s still in its design phase, but the building has commenced so you can see the structure of it now and the three storeys.
venue: What sort of venue will it be?
Justine Baker: It will be based on an open-to-all ground floor bar that will cater to the corporate lunchtime trade and afterwork drinks, as well as tourists on the weekends. The middle floor will be a Matt Moran grill/restaurant focused on his ethos around great produce, working with specific farms and butchers, along with a big seafood focus. Upstairs will be an exclusive rooftop bar perfect for parties, events, providing a wonderful Sydney experience, with lots of great champagne and great cocktails, which our group Bars Manager Jeremy Shipley is very excited about. It’s going to be like three venues in one with a total capacity of 850, which is pretty big for us.
venue: How do you view your role as COO?
Justine Baker: As COO the teams that report directly to me are Marketing, Operations, Food & Dining, HR and Projects & Design. I see my role as acting as the bridge between the owners/directors and the Solotel teams, ensuring we align our strategy to our everyday; that operationally we’re sticking to our more strategic, long-term goals.
I think part of my role is also as guardian of our culture, ensuring everyone who comes onboard holds our values, understands why we do things, how we talk to each other and why we’re in it. And especially to keep the fun alive.
venue: How would you describe the Solotel culture?
Justine Baker: It’s still very much a family-based culture, even though we’re a pretty large family business now, and obviously with Matt Moran coming in it’s not 100% Solomon family-owned anymore. But the culture is driven from the family around honesty and integrity. We talk a lot about creativity, fun, and we want to remain agile and not stuck in bureaucracy. There isn’t one type of Solotel person, we’re a diverse bunch and that’s very much at our heart because we’re such a diverse portfolio.
venue: How do I know I’ve walked into a Solotel venue?
Justine Baker: We’re about community — whether that community is a global one like Opera Bar which is 100% a global community; or something like the Paddington Inn, which is more a local community. There’s a sense of fun and relaxation about a Solotel venue. There’s no ego. You don’t have to be someone to walk through our doors. There’s that sense of it being easy to drop your burdens of the day at the door and have some fun.
venue: What’s the process for bringing a new venue on line or into the fold?
Justine Baker: It starts with a business plan: a feel for the potential revenue and the cost structure and how to design a building that can be run efficiently.
Once we’ve signed off on the budget, we then draw up a narrative identifying our target market, our brand values, our market position, and what we want every guest to feel when they walk through our doors. From there we’ll go to the design stage.
venue: Using the Paddington Inn as an example, what are the key pieces in the design stage?
Justine Baker: The Paddington Inn refurb has been a long time coming but Oxford Street has suffered for many years and business has been quiet. More recently we felt there was an opportunity and a new wave of optimism sweeping Paddington — and we wanted to ride that. We took the opportunity to put in a restaurant and go back to our roots.
venue: Your ‘roots’?
Justine Baker: Years ago we used to lease out a restaurant at the back of the venue, so it was good to be doing that again, only this time within the context of a modern pub offering.
venue: When did architect George Livinnianis get the call?
Justine Baker: Coincidentally, George lives in Paddington, and he worked with Anna Solomon, our creative director, for around nine months to get this off the ground.
venue: How many people are sitting around that planning table in the early phase?
Justine Baker: There’s probably only four or five of us, and as the project grows, so do the teams coming in. We’ll build a project team, which might encompass the beverage team, operation teams, HR, entertainment, and the marketing team. So the project team was probably about 22 by the time we finished.
venue: Does it fall to you to ensure the venue, once opened, adheres to the spirit outlined in those initial meetings?
Justine Baker: Part of my role is putting my guest hat on and to imagine I’m visiting for the first time: Do the menus make sense? Is our signage right? Do our guests look lost or is there a real sense of purpose in the flow? We feed that back to the general manager of the venue or the head of an office team.
venue: How’s the Paddington Inn report card currently looking?
Justine Baker: The front bar is where we want it to be. It’s outperforming what we had previously, and our Saturday nights are allowing people to come back and party in Paddington. Lunches have been slow, so that’s a challenge — we don’t have a midweek corporate lunchtime crowd. So we’ve shut some mid-week lunches, but our dinners are good and our weekend trade’s great, so we’re happy.
venue: Where’s Paddington the suburb sitting on the comeback curve?
Justine Baker: First up, it is making a comeback. The mix of retail has changed, which has been positive. Previously it really was just fashion outlets which limited the range of patronage. Now there are homeware stores, galleries, cafes, casual food as well as Merivale’s refit of the Paddington down the road.
So there is definitely more of a vibe in Paddington and a reason to stay for the locals instead of always leaving and going to Redfern, Surry Hills, the City, or even Double Bay. But it’s the start of a long journey for Paddington. I think there’s some fundamental planning decisions that need to be made before Paddington comes back to where it was. I’d like to see Oxford Street become a boulevard rather than the major arterial council considers it to be. If there were trees in the median strip and we treated it like a Chapel Street then it’d totally alter the tenor of the suburb.
venue: How do you grow quickly but not get stretched too thin?
Justine Baker: It’s such a valid question. We talk about it all the time. Our litmus test is our culture. If our culture isn’t right and staff retention isn’t high or staff are getting burnt out, we know we’ve gone too far. We’re moving to structure our team so there’s a focus on being a specialist. We’ve taken a lot of generalists away so people can really specialise on one element. Whereas before it used to fall on one person to do a lot, and that’s never sustainable.
Adam Lewis has joined Solotel as the group entertainment manager. It’s quite an usual appointment and demonstrates how seriously Solotel takes its entertainment offering. We talked to Justine and Adam about the group’s approach to entertainment.
venue: How important is entertainment to the DNA of a Solotel venue?
Justine Baker: Essential; such a big part. It’s as important as food, wine, and staff. It’s like the heartbeat that brings everything together. For the Paddington Inn it’s been at the forefront of how we saw the venue; how we thought it would feel, not how it would look. That’s very much around Adam Lewis’s role and the impact he’s had on the group.
venue: Adam, how would you describe your role?
Adam Lewis: I see myself as responsible for how the venue feels. Solotel encompasses such a diverse range of venues and audiences and localities and people, and I feel like my responsibility is to find what makes those venues and suburbs tick and find what makes people enjoy the ambience of a bar or a restaurant or a pub in the location it’s in, and give them the best possible version of that.
The Paddington Inn, for example, is a really interesting one. The area has a certain feel, but there’s a lot of renewal happening as well — not just restaurants but bars and pubs opening up along the strip. My job is to find a way to both join that ecosystem but also stand out and give something unique — it was important to have a fresh approach with this venue.
venue: Such as?
Adam Lewis: Generally with our venues’ music, whether it’s background music or DJs, I tend to take the creative lead. For this project I started working with a collaborator Kylie Roberts who runs this great touring and entertainment crew called Picnic. They’re big in the party scene, and I worked very closely with Kylie on all the music playlists for the venue. So rather than going to a certain music supplier like Nightlife and using the in-house lists or in-house catalogue, I wanted to start outside that known ecosystem, and in the process give us something completely unique.
I wanted to ensure all the music — the playlists and the DJs — would fit into a cohesive narrative. If you’re sitting here on a Saturday and have some afternoon drinks and you’re still here for dinner when the DJ starts playing, you’re going to enjoy a really cohesive, strong experience.
The flipside of working creatively is the backend to make that work. And for that we tried some new things with Nightlife. We use Nightlife in a lot of our venues, and they’re a trusted partner. This time we pushed the envelope somewhat with how we’d access the catalogue.
This time, our approach was to work with Picnic to organise playlists in Spotify, which has access to pretty much anything you can find musically around the world. We then brought those playlists to Nightlife and said ‘this is what we want to have in our venue’. In turn, they worked to make it a reality.
Obviously we can’t use Spotify commercially in the venue — although some do use it, outside the law — but Spotify is a familiar interface for Kylie and I to build the playlist. Meanwhile Nightlife can translate those lists into a commercially available offering with Nightlife’s superior volume normalisation and reliably appropriate pauses between tracks. It’s been the best of both worlds, you might say. Nightlife bridged the gap and smoothed the edges.
venue: How does music impact a venue’s bottom line?
Justine Baker: It affects the crowd. Increase the BPM, people start dancing. People drink more when they’re dancing. People stay longer in the venues when they’re having fun and they can actually really feel it. If it’s too sedate or the lights are up too bright, people leave because they’re triggers that tell them they have to go home. Whereas if you can get that nice honeyed lighting — the soft glow, the warm vibe — and you can feel the music then you want to party and everybody’s got a smile on their face. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting there having a chat, you may just be dancing in your seat, it’s still a feeling that compels you to stay and it will make you return.
Adam Lewis: Absolutely. I don’t think people appreciate just how much it affects trade. I think it changes people’s behaviour. It changes the way people interact with a space and that varies a lot from venue to venue.
George Livissiannis: georgelivissianis.com
Nightlife Music: 1800 679 748 or nightlife.com.au
AUDIO: STYLE A CORNERED MARKET
It’s no secret that architects hate loudspeakers. They’re ugly, obtrusive, generally the wrong colour, and they’re installed last minute, conspicuously wrecking the clean lines of the interior design.
Danes know a thing or two about design. Danish design and architects generally get along well. What if a Danish company had a crack at designing commercial loudspeakers that worked sympathetically with the interior architecture without sacrificing performance?
This is the story of Cornered Audio, and the Paddington Inn is one of the first Australian installations to have used the Danish company’s sleek designs.
The Paddington Inn restaurant uses 8 x Cornered C5TRM models that neatly sit in the cornice section of the ceiling without ugly brackets (pictured above). Even the Cornered Audio speaker cable is triangular to stay as low profile as possible. (Two EAW SB120 subs are surreptitiously designed into the cabinetry to provide some extra low end and stay out of sight.)
DJW took care of the audio, and the boss, Dave Coxon, was duly impressed: “They’re an impressive loudspeaker. Certainly powerful enough and look really great tucked up nicely into the architecture of the space.”
Demonstrating the no holds barred commitment to high performance, the front bar uses EAW MK8196 two-way loudspeakers combined with concealed SB120 subs. The DSP and routing is handled by a Symetrix Radius 12x8 EX. The combination is very hard to beat. Dave Coxon has seen plenty of pub and nightclub speaker installations: “The front bar really cranks on the weekends and the combination of EAW MK series loudspeakers and M Series Powersoft amps gives the pub all the power and clarity they could ever need. No one wants huge speakers in a space like this and the MK8196 two-ways definitely have the right combination of size and performance.”