As Sydney languishes under the weight of lockouts and trade restrictions, Diageo recently assembled a brains trust to discuss the city’s revival and plans for moving forward.
The world’s largest drinks manufacturer has an unrivalled perspective on alcohol consumption and societal trends, and emphasized the fact that populations around the world have been drinking ‘less but better’.
Diageo recognises the tumultuous effects on Sydney’s night-time economy, particularly hotels and small bars. In conjunction with specialist drinks industry agency Sweet and Chilli (S&C), they brought together a number of highly respected industry stakeholders last Friday (20 May) to hear their thoughts on the situation.
S&C’s Nick van Tiel led a discussion panel consisting of: Ant Prior (director, The Keystone Group), Pasan Wijesena (Earl’s Juke Joint), Mikey Enright (former Merivale, owner of The Barber Shop), Marty O’Sullivan (President NSW Small Bar Association, owner Grasshopper).
Together the group represented a cross-section of large and small venues, and international perspective that comes from working in licensed venues in several continents.
Operating one of Kings Cross’ foremost hotels and Darling Harbour landmarks, Ant Prior said he believed the culture of drinking and dining has been steadily changing for more than a decade – but …
“The lockouts have sent a message that Sydney is closed for business,” said Prior.
“If I’m a young person, and I do like going out and enjoying myself, I can’t do it in the city.”
O’Sullivan, who lives in the CBD next to Merivale’s Establishment, noted there has been a “massive change” from a few years ago, when Sydney hospitality was seen as “the pointy end of the market” and the best of the world’s hospitality wanted to come and work here.
“We’ve just stopped that momentum. People have lost the energy. Perhaps you can put the umbrella up and ride it out, but the sunshine has gone away.”
Mikey Enright, formerly manager of ivy, relayed that the bar scene in Sydney is struggling to stay alive.
“Business in the Barber Shop is now 95 per cent about cutting hair. I’ve gone from being in the drinks business to the barber business.”
Managing director of Diageo in Australia, David Smith, recounted personal experiences with the inconvenience and disruption of lockouts, unable to get a beer as he watched his home town of Leicester City win the English Premier League earlier this month.
Speaking to PubTIC, Smith said the discussion showed there was no shortage of sentiment on the subject.
“The level of passion throughout the discussion goes to show how much the hospitality industry cares about this issue.
“The events which led to the introduction of the ‘lockout laws’ were tragic, to say the least, and we understand why the NSW Government reacted the way it did at the time.
“However, the truth is that the 2014 regulations, and the raft of other regulations that came before it, have done enormous damage to Sydney’s night time economy, in some cases irreversible damage.”
Amongst the passionate attendees was Keep Sydney Open’s Tyson Koh, who has worked as an independent industry advocate, and voice of reason against self-serving rhetoric by pro-lockout parties.
“Where we’re at now is very different from where we were six months or a year ago … a year ago you wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of trying to push through any changes seen as any benefit to your industry.”
Koh believes a united front and organised fight-back is warranted and the best way to enact positive change.
“The way to do that is for you guys to organise. A lot of people in Melbourne did that when there was a threat to the live music in bars: they put money toward lawyers and changed the discussion.
“Because of the business you are in, whether you like it or not, you are activists. You need to realise that, band together, share resources, put in a bit of money and fight.”
Diageo praised the feedback from panellists and the audience, and signalled it will be directing more efforts toward helping industry to help itself.
“The time has come to turn things around,” proclaimed Smith.
“What was clear from [the] discussion is that the hospitality industry wants to be and should be part of finding a way forward – and we stand with them.”