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Making The Exchange

Amid broad changes to the hospitality sector in Newcastle and spanning a transformational once in a lifetime upheaval in the industry, Zenith Hotels has created a customised venue that homes in on altered consumer expectations while championing the pub’s own legacy.
Group principle Andrew Lazarus spoke with Clyde Mooney on the changes at The Exchange.


A cornerstone of the Newcastle hospitality scene, the Exchange Hotel in Hamilton has reopened following a five-million-dollar reconstruction and repositioning to become the biggest gig in Steel City.

Located on a corner just off Hamilton main drag Tudor Street, the pub was established back in 1880. The all-new The Exchange threw open its doors again Saturday, 26 September, revealing a transformation that began back in January said to be “purpose-built to fill a gap in the market”.

In 2016, Sydney-based hotelier Andrew Lazarus purchased the stately Beaumont Exchange Hotel from the exiting ASX-listed Lantern Group. It has become part of the stable at his new vehicle, Zenith Hotels, joined by the Shoal Bay Country Club and more recently The Beach Hotel at nearby Merewether and the Lone Pine Tavern in Sydney’s Rooty Hill. 

Live music plays a major role in Newcastle, with bands and acts belting out at most pubs each week, yet Lazarus says there are surprisingly few venues purpose-built for live entertainment. Having previously veered away from it in his pubs in the area, time has brought better understanding of what the local punter needs.

“I pulled back and started putting on DJs, and learned a valuable lesson. Over the last few years being in Newcastle I’ve gotten to really learn the landscape. It’s a very different market.”

Embracing this market, Zenith planned a major overhaul of the tired local with aim to maintain the charm of the building, while creating one of the best large-capacity dedicated music venues in town.

Beaumont Exchange Hotel_new big screen mezzanine level during reno
Exchange Hotel Hamilton: Live at the X sign


It was decided that the top-to-bottom makeover was better done with the venue closed completely, and Lazarus engaged Newcastle-based specialist EJE Architecture to steer the new look. EJE brought over 40 years in the game, consistently working in hospitality, with no less than two dedicated hospitality teams as well as in-house heritage and interior design teams. The company’s list of clients come from almost all states of Australia, many international destinations, and iconic local venues including the Junction Tavern, the Kent Hotel, Honeysuckle Hotel, and Pippi’s at the Point.

Lead on the job was EJE director Doug White, who joined the company in 1980, ascended to his current role in 1987 and shifted his focus to the hospitality industry in 1990.

White reports the brief for The Exchange was to ‘completely revamp what the venue could be’, while considering and expanding upon existing strengths. The Hotel has long been known as a late-night venue for live music, with a menu that is good but limited. 

Zenith place a high value on the visual elements of foodservice. This had a significant influence on the upper floor being reconfigured from what was a rarely used and somewhat dysfunctional function space to a conduit for quality dining. The former accommodation rooms upstairs made for an unwieldly layout of support columns that impacted the function of the space. A significant rework to the structure brought a more harmonious dining layout, a new kitchen and location for the bar, and natural link out to the upper level terrace overlooking the street. 

Pressed metal ceilings were retained throughout this area in a nod to their former installation; previously each accommodation room had a different pattern. Vintage aspects also contributed their customary share of challenges on the site, such as walls being significantly out of square, requiring the design team to remain flexible.


Exchange Hotel Franco Malgioglio

The new venue was gearing to be something to everyone, which led to its own specific challenges in acoustic design. The intended new stage and sound system required significant improvements to the acoustic sealing of the hotel, including a three-layered ceiling system installed throughout the live music area, designed to both contain the sound and lower reverberation within the space, improving the experience for the crowd. White stressed it was critical to get this right, as a sub-standard job can leave the roof of the venue behaving like the “skin of a drum” that potentially amplifies noise outside.

Physical separation was also built into the entertainment space, allowing management to isolate this part of the venue from the public bar and dining spaces, assisting the management of ticketed shows and further control of the sound. 

The EJE team report previous renovations of the structure had diminished the integrity of many of the heritage elements, but there were still significant areas identified to be retained and celebrated. In particular were original bricks dating back to 1880 identified on the ground floor, which were stripped back to bare wherever found.

A significant opportunity was identified in the delivery of the improved and unique live music experience, coupled with the need for improved connection between the upper and lower levels – something White says becomes “increasingly important with the dining offering predominantly on the first floor” – leading to the creation of the mezzanine space, which was not in the original brief.

This also aided the desire for a larger public footprint, which considering that the hotel’s existing footprint was very close to maximum, left the only option being a strategy to maximise efficiency. A reconfiguring of the car parking, applying efficient design strategies for the back of house and bar areas, plus the creation of the mezzanine level, meant the new floorplan would almost double the publicly occupied areas.

White notes Zenith’s decision to fully close the pub to undertake the renovations goes against the trend, but that a portion of the downtime was consequently and fortuitously absorbed by the compulsory pandemic shutdown. Lazarus had dictated time be spent at each of the venues doing ‘the sort of things you never have time to do’.

A brief pause on the project when the crisis first hit facilitated planning that subsequently allowed a degree of renegotiation on works and purchases. Works resumed, and once government plans around the reopening of venues indicated that maximising floor space would put the Hotel in a strong position during restricted trade, the team swiftly moved to get all levels open and available to the public for Spring. White says the project was, overall, one for the record books.

“The pandemic has taught us all a great deal about our businesses, and the ability to remain flexible and respond to a rapidly changing environment has come out as a key strength of our practice.”


Pitching to a population accustomed to local musicians and local bands being offered at every pub corner virtually every week comes entertainment space ‘Live at the X’. It boasts a state-of-the-art sound system previously in the Sydney Opera House, and multi-level views of the stage, including the VIP mezzanine.

Exchange Hotel Hamilton: dish



Exchange Hotel Hamilton: bartender pours cocktail

Behind the stage is a massive TV screen that will serve as a backdrop for performances, as well as screening the big sporting events, UFC nights and special meets such as the Melbourne Cup – complementing the brand-new TAB and Sports Bar – because if there is one thing as synonymous with Newcastle as live music, it’s sport. The television is thought to be perhaps the largest privately-owned screen of its type in the southern hemisphere and set to be front-and-centre for all key sporting events.

But the live music will take centre stage several nights a week, playing everything from local artists to national and – when permitted again – international touring artists.

“When people pay hundreds of dollars to see an international touring act, half the spectacle is in the light show, so I think having international and local bands, we want a good light show,” says Lazarus of the new stage and screen.  

Exchange Hotel Hamilton: cocktail


While The Exchange has only been open again since late September, Zenith’s other operations went through the trials of shutdown and subdued reopening along with every other pub. The skewed conditions have produced some unexpected results, as seen in the many hoteliers doing very well in their gaming operations. Zenith’s collection counts its share of gaming rooms, but also notes other upsides, such as the doubling of food and bev revenue at Shoal Bay, thought to be the result of reduced travel by locals.

The observed gains in f&b have prompted increased attention to menu options, including cocktails, at both Shoal Bay and Beaches, and Lazarus says the market has responded favourably.

Further spreading the big-smoke cuisine message to Novocastrians, from The Exchange’s ‘The Kitchen’ bistro will come “classic dishes, done well”. The stars of the menu are the woodfired pizza oven and fresh house-made pasta, with authenticity guaranteed by dedicated pizza chef Franco Malgioglio, bringing 24 years of experience perfecting his original dough recipe.

Upstairs, in the new Swill Bar, there are cocktails designed to not be considered super-premium, but embodying a twist on the classics so as not to appear mainstream. These have been custom designed by award-winning mixologist and Zenith Hotels’ group beverage manager Brent Tozer. The cocktail bar vibe is completed through adventurous interiors, low lighting, and DJs until 3am.

Lazarus believes the changes in demand seen this year in dining standard and availability, affecting both Sydney and Newcastle, are typical of the kind of opportunities emerging from the pandemic environment.

“Dining out at the pub culture has become front and centre, and good ones are doing well.”

To this end he is satisfied the new The Exchange is ready for its new role.  

“I’m confident we’ve covered our bases in terms of what we can offer to the public.”


Back on track

Lazarus has been in the pub game for several decades, but Zenith was launched this year, consolidating his acquisitions outside his partnerships in Sydney. He has largely relocated to the Newcastle area since falling in love with life at Shoal Bay, seduced during a multi-million-dollar overhaul of that establishment mid-2018. (Featured in PubTIC magazine May 2018.)

He cites a philosophy during the pandemic of reinvesting 100 per cent of cashflow back into the businesses, with the goal of maximising their potential on the other side. And while attentive of acquisition opportunities, he recalls the problematic nature of rapid expansion he faced back in 2004, and says he’s learned from the pitfalls.

Zenith has amassed what he describes as a “fantastic team” to lift the group’s offerings and profile. This has meant investing heavily in head office infrastructure, and pursuit of top-notch general managers and head chefs, with group executive managers across food and drinks, and an interior designer who worked for years within Merivale. Lazarus’ two sons are both in the business, and each hotel has its own director.

Now sporting a team that’s ready to shine, he maintains that great assets in good locations is “half the battle” but hints at an easing in the highly selective acquisition strategy employed to date.

“I brought in a whole bunch of really good people to be able to cover those four venues, in marketing and branding, and now I feel like I could roll out venues. The Exchange will be a test for the new outfit, but I think we’ve got all the things we need.”

Running the show at The Exchange will be Gareth Rattley, taking the role of general manager and licensee. Gareth joined the group bringing years of experience managing some of the biggest venues in Sydney, including Merivale’s Coogee Pavilion, Establishment and The Beresford.

Exchange Hotel Hamilton:  Brent Tozer group beverge GM

Brent Tozer group beverage GM


Exchange Hotel Hamilton: balcony seating

Adding even more flavour to The Exchange will be Dane Jones, taking on duties as head brewer for the microbrewery now installed on-site. From here will come small-batch creations brewed as house beers, starting with the new formulation ‘Great Dane’, which is available on draught and reportedly proving very popular.

The altered environment of hospitality has shaped many changes in licensed venues, particularly those that have adapted to follow the money. Floor space and outdoor areas are more important than ever, customer expectations have lifted and their attendance patterns scattered, and a new-found emphasis on individual hygiene and personal safety has produced a gamut of new complications and concerns to address in the business model.

Yet some venues have thrived under the new rules, finding a new custom there to be had. This can be seen in the shift away from late trading at the Shoal Bay Country Club, with a result of increased revenue despite patrons tending to leave far earlier, representative of the revised nature of hospitality in 2020.  

“I guess I’ve learned the importance of having multiple streams, as opposed to being a dedicated nightclub or gaming venue,” notes Lazarus.  

“At the end of the day, if people have money in their pockets they want to be entertained, and they might end up spending their money on premium drinks and a nice meal as opposed to hitting the dance floor.”

Exchange Hotel Hamilton: Dane Jones head brewer

Dane Jones

Exchange Hotel Hamilton:  bar area