Back … in the new black

Continuing the evolution of what it means to be a pub in modern Australia, we spoke to operators of all sizes from around the country to hear why it’s all in the family. Clyde Mooney reports

Once upon a time every pub’s goal was to sell as much beer and booze as possible, typically followed by kicking out a ruckus of inebriated males. In the 90s watering holes got access to poker machines, and for some time optimising the gaming room was the end goal of many, sometimes at the expense of much else. Around a decade ago the notion of a gastro pub began to get traction in Australia, ushering in a broad segment of the population that had not previously been strong patrons of the humble public house.

In recent years this expansion has broadened further to welcome virtually everyone, bringing together multiple market segments and generations in what has come to be known as the family-friendly pub.

Laundy Hotels is one of the industry’s stalwart operators, holding title to dozens of pubs under the tutelage of Arthur Laundy and family. Son-in-law Nick Tindall, group operations manager, says in the era of family-friendly they have moved toward a philosophy aimed at having a place for everyone, and everyone able to enter the hotel and easily find their place.

“The switching point seemed to be the first stage of not being able to smoke within hotels,” he recalls.

“It restricted trade not having smokers, but that didn’t last very long and it started opening up publicans’ minds to how better to use their spaces.

People were starting to look at increasing the amount of hours, and options for their hotel in the morning, or lunch, to a different clientele, as it no longer reeked from the previous night.”

The Laundys have owned and operated scores of pubs over the decades, but more recently have ventured into building their own greenfield sites. The jewel in this crown to date is the supersize Marsden Park Hotel Brewery, on a massive plot in Sydney’s booming north-west.

The ground-up design incorporated a major kids’ area, with water features, fire-foxes and massive swing set, which cost close to a million dollars. It has proven “a real winner” and is typically the area that is busy and active until evening meal service most days.


Another large, dedicated kids’ space is currently being built at the group’s Chittaway Bay Tavern. The Laundy hotel collection now counts half-a-dozen locations with significant playgrounds.

At pubs less suited to such a set-up they are working to activate ‘green’ spaces, putting in footy posts and courts in unutilised grassy areas, and suppling balls and accessories in many instances.

“Kids areas don’t have to be polished. They just need space and a few thought-promoters … they’ll make their own games up if you give them space and time.”

The group is looking at big touch screens where kids can interact with educational programs and play game, such as naughts and crosses. But there is concern that parents are increasingly worried about the amount of time kids spend on screens.

Public liability and safety are always a consideration, particularly in less regulated environments. Recognised providers of kids’ equipment ensure the kit is up to code, stipulating the required ‘soft fall’ surfacing, calculated on maximum height and coverage. Consultants are available who specialise in certifying areas.

The Laundys recently had use for such a consultant, when told a playground in planning could not be delivered and installed until 2022. Seeking a solution sooner, they opted for a hard-wearing steel structure made by a local manufacturer instead. While both cheaper and faster onsite, all boxes were checked to assure compliance and minimise any risk to children or the venue.

“You’ve also got to have a chat with your insurer and make sure they’re aware of how its operating and what you’re doing.

Kids will be kids, and you don’t want to be left with any surprises.”

Tindall says the group is also focusing more on its dining offerings, and see this aspect as pivotal to the strength of the business and family appeal.

“You tend to find the pubs with a solid food operation are the ones that will be the most balanced across the whole arrangement.

“If it means getting kids in there, then that’s what you’ve got to do. Spend the money to make it attractive to parents and children.”

Sam Arnaout’s Iris Group is one of the largest privately-owned groups in the country. While looking and functioning largely like a corporate entity, Iris takes pride in operating with family morals.

Iris incorporates a major construction element, which has not rested throughout the pandemic. The group counts some iconic pubs, such as Manly’s The Steyne, but is also busy creating its own precinct in the booming East End of Newcastle.

The Shaft Tavern, now called Hotel Elermore, was recently redeveloped, pitched to be a large-format venue for families. Similarly, the Blacktown Tavern was rebuilt to dedicate around 25 per cent of its footprint to a kid-friendly zone.

This process has also taken place at Iris’ Edgeworth hotel, and Sydney Junction, and Wentworth Hotel, which while typically known as a gaming pub also has a playground and does a roaring trade in food and beverage.

Arnaout is himself a father of two, and soon to be a slightly premature grandfather, and sees the appeal of “reprieve” through a father’s eyes with family-friendly.

“It’s certainly where things are heading,” he says. “We’re looking at drawing into these growth areas, with younger families, and we find it to be a critical piece of the puzzle.

“I think if you’ve got an area where you’re surrounded by urban sprawl, it would be remiss of you not to consider a family-friendly offering, refurb or redevelopment. You’re not alienating anyone; you’re attracting people that wouldn’t ordinarily come to the pub as well as the people that would have come anyway.

Former Shaft Tavern, the repositioned Hotel Elermore


“Cater to the kids and the parents will inevitably come. McDonalds put toys in happy meals, not because they thought kids would bolt in the door but because they knew parents would bring them there. It’s all about bringing people into the venue.”

It’s nothing new to cater to a market, and while pubs for families may be area- or demographic-specific, all types can co-exist. Beyond the parental respite, Arnaout believes these pubs need to be something for everybody.

“There are multiple spices in the recipe to make the total community venue. You need to stand behind your ethos to deliver something for the community.

Former Sportman's Hotel, the Blacktown Tavern

To be a family venue you must deliver on a safe environment, and I think having a family environment attracts a good crowd, and that helps you deliver on the promise.

“But also, being involved in the grass roots of the community, through local sponsorship – swimming and football clubs. Or 

working with the community as a whole, in the chamber of commerce or local school. Being multi-dimensional allow the community to integrate with the venue. That’s the only way you can really achieve it.”

While conceding it takes more work, Arnaout says the diversity ultimately leads to a better business model.

“The old adage is do what you’re best at and don’t try to be something for everyone. I get it, but the reality is it’s about having diversity in every business. If you’ve got a one-dimensional business you’re at risk of change.

“Pubs are now sophisticated businesses. If you want to run any sophisticated business you look at opportunity and risk, and diversification.

“It takes a lot of rigour and discipline, and planning, then once they are up and running you need the backend to be able to drive a business that clever.”


Does size matter?

Alistair Flower’s stable counts five pubs based around Port Macquarie. Flagship is the award-winning Settlers Inn, with capacity for 1,000 people.

A veteran of larger groups, now a dedicated hands-on owner-operator, Flower says you really need to maximise your footprint at larger venues. Leading this front is a focus on group bookings and large tables, based in the notion that a family get-together will be more inclined to pick a family pub, with both the size and guarantee there are activities for the kids.

Settlers specifically caters to kids, with packages for birthdays. They take a strong approach to community sponsorships, bolstering local soccer clubs, including offering merit awards – a certificate kids can stick on the fridge.

This has increasingly led to reports of children telling parents they want to go to the pub for their birthday or celebration.

“Often, the decision-maker is the 7-year-old,” says Flower. “And happy 7-year-olds means happy mums and dads.

Settlers Inn

“If you have a community strategy, you need to be able to cater to the community. I’m fortunate in that all my pubs are within a stone’s throw of each other, so I can really do community well.”

Himself a father of four daughters, Flower knows first-hand how family-friendly looks.

“That means it has to be convenient, seamless and quick, and have things that are going to occupy their young minds. You can’t go to a restaurant or café with small kids, ‘cause mum and dad can’t enjoy themselves.”

Enjoying the benefits of size at Settlers, Flower Hotels also has the nearby Fernhill Tavern, where there are deliberately no kids’ items on the menu and high-vis is encouraged. A smaller pub, this sports a more ‘boutique’ offering, as one for the guys who want to get away from the kids.

At the others there is a firm focus on playgrounds and the creation of “kids’ zones” that allow for the existence of other areas not designated family-friendly, and without kids running around. And just as important, the kids’ menus.

“What’ s certainly changed between now and 20 years ago is the whole influence and revolution of food. Food is not necessarily about alcohol, it’s about gatherings, and a lot of the time gatherings are family-type get-togethers.

“Clearly a good playground also occupies the kids, which is appealing to mum and dad, but its commensurate with the revolution of food.”

Lewis Land, previously known as Drinx Group, boasts several very large-format pubs, in The Fiddler of Rouse Hill, Camden Valley Inn, and the Belvedere Hotel in Woody Point. The group has long employed a strong focus on the market of seniors and retirees, who operations manager Brad Jenkins says are often influencers for the likes of family birthdays.


“When people talk family-friendly they often think kids, but the fact is it’s catering for the grandparents through to the family peers. It’s just as important to cater for an 80-year-old as it is an 8-year-old; making sure the comfort level for the 80-year-old works as well as keeping the 8-year-old distracted. And that there’s not just room to push a pram, but for a walker, too.”

While pitching to families often evokes images of kids running around, Jenkins offers there is a roughly six-year window, ages three to nine, where they just want to play on equipment and be active.

“I say don’t over-engineer what you need for the toddlers and early age, just make sure they’re accommodated for.”

Lewis’ Belvedere Hotel, proximate to the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, finds good business in travellers, who are often families with kids needing somewhere suitable to stop or meet up with other family members.

Square metreage is a strength at the Lewis venues, which has facilitated a preference toward groups, often of 10 or 20. In this he says the hotel’s design is important, incorporating ‘feature’ tables allowing a big family to sit together without having to push three or four smaller tables together, which is something they wouldn’t be able to do at home.

“The best thing is family invitations, where one person is inviting everyone and making the booking, which effectively forces 20 people to come along as a group that may not have necessarily come otherwise,” adds Jenkins.

The Fiddler

If you’re talking big venues, particularly in Queensland, you can’t go past the Comiskey Group – builder, owner and operator of pubs including the enormous Eatons Hill Hotel and monstrous Sandstone Point Hotel. Principal Rob Comiskey says they are “100 per cent” behind the move to families, echoing the mantra of ‘the kids take the parents’.

Never shy of big-budget capex, the Comiskeys spent $150k on a large indoor play fort at a newly-announced greenfield build at Doonan, but looking to up the ante, they added to the kids’ zone entry under a big water tank stand, grass mounds perforated with tunnels, and wire netting housing a high-ropes course.

Separate to their new sites, they are almost doubling the size of Sandstone Point, adding more accommodation facilities, a second pool – with a bar, and a spa, but also a “pump track” for

The Fiddler

skateboards and scooters, an arcade with 20-30 games and prizes to win, and oversize Jenga, oversize chess, bocci, croquet and mini-putt-putt.

“Everyone loves the accommodation, but the facilities are what drives it,” says Comiskey.

“We’re investing millions of dollars into the sites and villas, but once you get them there – yes, it’s beautiful, yes it’s relaxing – but if you can look after the kids and get them really having a great time …

“We work on: if the kids are having a cracking time, mum says ‘this is awesome, we’re coming here again’. And dad is told where he’s going.”

The nature of the Comiskey builds is such that they take significant design consideration, and as they are not out-of-the-box solutions the group engages a consultant from Sydney who inspects and advises for compliance and risk management.

“We don’t usually buy things off the shelf, so making sure the design complies with Australian standards and getting sign-off is a big thing for insurance.”

Sandstone Point Hotel


Sandstone Point Hotel and Big4

The Francis family’s IPR Hotels recently made a splash, expanding the group’s existing two hotels with another four courtesy of a big-ticket bundle buy from the Zagame family.

 IPR’s Summerhill Hotel, located in a shopping precinct, aims for a sports bar-style venue with TAB and loads of screens, but all the others have a major focus on family-friendly.

Three of these have large playgrounds. The Kealba Hotel also has a sports bar area focusing on sports and punting, but this is strategically separated from the big family bistro, seating 300, with its own entry and separate carpark and massive playground.

A similar arrangement is found at the (former Zagame’s) Boronia, too, and at the soon-to-be-settled Berwick, with a kids’ area that would fit 80-100 rug rats, and Ballarat, which could arguably charge admission. (see opening image)

IPR correspondingly provides kids’ menus, and party menus. They put on kids’ activities on weekends and a huge calendar of events on school holidays, where they enlist bigger acts, such as The Transformers, or reptile days, which are actively promoted.

Most of the hotels have a separate private area next to the kids’ area, which can be hired out as part of a party pack, with fixed price per head. This can include the likes of a balloon artist or face painter, paid for through the pub, but most of these areas are kept “kind of old-school” to cater for all budgets.

There are small theatre rooms, and a good number of arcades, and IPR selectively uses the same provider for all arcade games at each venue to leverage their engagement. The providers regularly supply free, interactive digital games, which both give the parents some relief from putting their hand in their pocket but also serve as a competitive advantage over other pubs.

IPR principal Tom Francis says they aim for venues large enough to have the separation. Not a father himself, he has found other ways to key in to the message.

“There’s typically a lot of activity on Friday nights. They become places where families can bring the kids and catch up with friends with kids.

“A lot of families come to our pubs, and I always ask both them – and my own family members who have kids – for feedback.”