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Country pubs take on city airs as pandemic patrons go gourmet

Paul Little, chairman and founder of Little Group, is paving the way with a $10 million-plus renovation of the Portarlington Grand Hotel.

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He bought the famous venue in 2019, extending his passion for revitalising important parts of Melbourne.
“A good town deserves a good pub, and a good pub helps make a good town,” he said.

In mid-late summer, award-winning Techne Architecture + Interior Design will put the finishing touches on the hotel, bringing the grand lady back to life in a contemporary way.

“The original building will be restored with a magnificence that draws you in, then there is the big atrium bar terraced in three zones all modern with light, recycled timbers and seventies-inspired colours that capture the holiday feel loved by generations,” Mr Little said.

Across the heads, Sorrento’s Continental Hotel is also undergoing a major refurbishment. The ‘Conti’ will be operated by IHG Hotels & Resorts under the InterContinental brand, with a state-of-the-art restoration also slated to open in summer.

Purchaser Trenerry Consortium, owned by Victor Smorgon Group, the Kanat Group and Trenerry Property, is now developing a 106-room luxury hotel with associated restaurant, bar and function facilities, bathhouse and upmarket wellness centre.

It will join the Portsea Hotel down the road, which has already undergone a sophisticated $7 million makeover to keep pace with its well-heeled imbibers.

And on the surf coast, Justin Hemmes recently secured his first Victorian pub investment – The Lorne Hotel – through his Merivale Group.

The Sydney pub baron purchased the trophy asset for $38 million from owners, John and Paul Upham, representing part of a strategic entry into the Victorian market.

“The Lorne Hotel is an iconic venue in a truly spectacular location,” Mr Hemmes said. “We feel honoured to continue their legacy and help usher the pub into the next phase of its incredible 145-year history.“

Transacting the purchase, Will Connolly, JLL’s vice-president of hotels said that while metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney are squeezed for opportunities in the pub market, it’s a different story in regional Victoria.

“There’s less of a barrier to entry,” he said. “And operators are looking to go to regional Victoria for opportunities, which can only be a positive for the towns.”

He also transacted the recent Sydney-based purchase of the All Seasons Resort Hotel in Bendigo for $54.5 million, by MA Financial Group.

Back on the Bellarine, Portarlington is poised to enter a new era, hand-in-hand with the Phillip Ferries service between Portarlington and the Docklands, also owned by Little Group.

“Great cities – New York, London, Sydney, Hong Kong – all make use of ferries in their transport solutions. In my view, this is again possible for Melbourne and we see the pub as a gateway to the Bellarine, celebrating all that Portarlington and the greater Bellarine has to offer,” Mr Little said.

According to Knight Frank, while the pub is often the heart of regional towns, it is easy to overcapitalise, particularly where the local economy or attractions don’t support visitation.

“Critical to success is a depth of permanent population, or high visitation, and for venues to meet both markets in terms of appointments, decor and offer,” Ms Rose said.

Luckily, they’re elements these venues will have in spades.

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