Ageing luxury: Brisbane's Hilton reaches milestone

In its first 25 years, Brisbane Hilton guests have included Mel Gibson, Dame Joan Sutherland and John Farnham.
In its first 25 years, Brisbane Hilton guests have included Mel Gibson, Dame Joan Sutherland and John Farnham. 

It was the place to be seen. Four restaurants, three bars and a supper club complete with discotheque.

Some nights at the America's Cup Bar were so popular nightclub guests would spill out the front doors, the 'below deck' atmosphere washing-over the glamorous lobby.

The Hilton International Brisbane, finished in 1987 for $65 million, was then the newest, most luxurious kid on the city block.

A $37 million refurbishment that has introduced a new bar and restaurant to the Hilton.
A $37 million refurbishment that has introduced a new bar and restaurant to the Hilton. 

But, 25 years later, the nightclubs are no more. There are plenty of extravagant restaurants, bars and hotels for locals and visitors to choose from elsewhere. And though the skyline has crept up its walls, the terraced exterior of the luxury reveals the building's age.

What happened to the Hilton? Has the old girl still got it?

In a word, “yes”, according to Martin Kendall. But he would say that. As the general manager of Hilton Brisbane, keeping up appearances is his modus operandi. And, as someone who lives within the building's five-star finery, impressing guests is personal.

The hotel's new Vintaged Bar and Grill restaurant.
The hotel's new Vintaged Bar and Grill restaurant. 

“We'll never stop evolving,” he says.

“Even now we're looking at the next five years, and years after that, but I think we now have the premier, most up-to-date hotel in Brisbane, which was always the plan.”

Kendall is talking about a $37 million refurbishment that has introduced a new bar and restaurant to the Harry Seidler-designed building, updated the rooms, and will be celebrated at a lavish anniversary party tonight.

The hotel's former Atrium restaurant.
The hotel's former Atrium restaurant. 

“Guests are coming to Brisbane have high expectations – especially now they are coming through the Asian market – we're competing with the standards of luxury established in Singapore and Hong Kong," he said.

“But we're very, very conscious that we need to be a part of the Brisbane community here – we did the restaurant not because we wanted a Hilton restaurant, but to try and make a restaurant that could be a community favourite.”

It was before. The old Victoria's restaurant was regularly named among the city's top dinner spots, written of as setting the “benchmark” in Brisbane dining.

A 1980s social clipping of Stefan with then-Hilton PR Betsy Pie.
A 1980s social clipping of Stefan with then-Hilton PR Betsy Pie. 

Kerry Packer once threw the ultimate champagne blow-out for his daughter Gretel's 21st there in 1987. The hotel's various celebrity guests – Mel Gibson, Dame Joan Sutherland, John Farnham, and more – would often be spotted tucked away in a corner.

There was also the Red Parrot, billed as Brisbane's first “international standard adult night spots” and built around a sunken dance floor, high-tech electrical music system and fancy wine-list (blends from Rosemount and Wolf Blass taking pride of place). It was opened by a string of local 'celebrities' – former Nine newsreader turned LNP politician Sarah Henderson was there along with radio whiz Ian Skippen, then the host of Living on the old Network Ten channel 0.

Memories of this era are fixed in the mind of Mary Dickinson, a long-time fixture of Brisbane's social scene who would regularly be seen dining, drinking and attending fashion parades at the hotel with the city's fashion set.

A 1993 clipping from the now-defunct The Sun newspaper in which newsreader Marie-Louise Thiele does an olive-oil tasting at the Hilton.
A 1993 clipping from the now-defunct The Sun newspaper in which newsreader Marie-Louise Thiele does an olive-oil tasting at the Hilton. 

“I think this hotel was promoted really well, it attracted spectacular acts – I've never seen diamonds like those worn by Dionne Warwick wore when she played here,” Dickinson says. “Betsy Pie was the PR girl at the Hilton for many years - she'd often call us up and get us to come in to have supper with the stars – Peter Ustinov once, though I can't remember what we spoke of to quote.

“It really was one of the only places to go in Brisbane – but now, there are hundreds of options.”

The luxury of choice is the challenge Kendall admits the hotel now faces. Not only does his hotel have to compete with a score of other big-name brands for the tourist dollar, business clients have a range of conference facilities to choose from and there's a decent meal to be had on nearly every city block. There's also the problem that has long plagued the local tourism market – weak weekend trade.

A social clipping from 1991 in the now-defunct Sunday Sun: a Hilton cocktail party hosted Mel Gibson and then-Queensland Premier Wayne Goss.
A social clipping from 1991 in the now-defunct Sunday Sun: a Hilton cocktail party hosted Mel Gibson and then-Queensland Premier Wayne Goss. 

“Business is strong mid week with corporate travellers, and when there's an event in town, because there's constricted supply, so we do well,” he says.

“But we need to be careful Thursday to Monday.”

Tourism expert David Beirman, senior lecturer University of Technology Sydney's business school, says there's little doubt the Hilton exists in a tough market, vastly changed from the one it ruled in the 80s.

“But the big advantage the Brisbane Hilton has over many of its competitors is that it's right in the middle of town,” Dr Beirman says.

“That location will always stand it in very good stead, as will the fact its part of a global brand with a reputation for quality – you can stay at any Hilton in the world and expect the same standards of service.

“Brisbane does have a lot of good hotels now – it's gone from being a big country town to a world city with all the accoutrements of a global destination. If anything that should make Hilton more competitive.”

Kendall is one of the local tourism figures who openly support more hotel development in the city. It might appear counterintuitive, but he believes another Hilton-level brand is just what Brisbane needs.

By that time, the hotelkeeper hopes to have made a few more changes to his patch of international-level luxury.

“We've still got the swimming pool to do, the tennis court, and the facade,” he says.

“You can still see the hotel from the new convention centre for example – I'm thinking, 'I'd better make sure it looks good'.”

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