Australia state border closures: New Albury hotel's challenges

When Kevin and Ririn Yaxley opened their luxury boutique hotel on the main street of Albury, near the contentious NSW and Victoria border, they named it CIRCA 1928 after the year the former art deco bank with its sentinel doric-like columns opened.

A year and a half later, after a series of setbacks starting with the catastrophic bushfires in late 2019 and continuing with the pandemic that has again seen the border across the Murray closed for extended periods, the couple could well rename their chic day spa and accommodation business "Heartbreak Hotel".

A decade as a luxury hotelier in the "challenging" environment of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, made Mr Yaxley and his Indonesian-born wife better equipped than some in the tourism industry to deal with the once-in-century travails that have confronted them back in Australia.

But with the hotel depending on affluent, luxury-minded guests passing through Albury-Wodonga, with a combined population of about 100,000, the five-star, art-themed CIRCA 1928 has been closed or under-patronised for nearly as much time as it's been open.

"From when we opened in mid July, 2019, we have only had five months of clean air, so to speak," says Mr Yaxley. "In any ordinary time, the bushfires would have been hard enough to confront.

"But with COVID-19 so closely following them, it has meant that it has been one continuous rollercoaster of challenges. Confidence is everything in business. We can survive with a border closure but we cannot survive with multiple, instant border shut downs.

"If we know where our market is, and our market knows that they can travel with confidence to any given area, people will travel. As such, we as a business are only confident in attracting bookings from within NSW. Only then are we not at the whim of the Queensland or Victorian premiers."

Since the second major border shutdown last month by the Victorian government, which saw Victorians stranded in NSW and barred from returning to their own state, the couple have noticed that guests are now booking days, rather weeks or months, in advance.

Despite the immense difficulties and uncertainty, exacerbated by the hotel's location, a nonetheless sanguine Mr and Mrs Yaxley approached last year's 10 week Melbourne shutdown as an opportunity to re-evaluate the business.

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"We were able to look back at our eight months since opening and re-open the doors 10 weeks later with a changed product and service, based upon what we wanted, and what we thought the market would want.

"Our objective in opening CIRCA was simply to bring our version of luxury hotel- keeping to regional Australia, something that has a huge blue ocean of opportunity in Australia. We are even more certain than ever that we will succeed: the only question being whether it is in one location or more."

Nonetheless, Mr Yaxley, who plans to add two more art-themed guest rooms this year and a further two in the future, is concerned that  some hoteliers may encounter difficulties in gaining finance for future projects.

Lenders may not be confident in financing an industry that ranks among the most distressed in the COVID-19 era economy.

"This is where Australia must decide if it really wants to support a credible, high end tourism accommodation product," Mr Yaxley says, "or settle for being just a country of mediocre accommodation options that push Australian consumers to opt for international locations while whinging about our local product."

The writer visited Albury as a guest of Destination NSW. See visitnsw.com 

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