How Melbourne’s most anticipated luxury hotel opened against all odds
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“We closed completely four times in our opening year,” said Damon Page, general manager of the new W Melbourne.
Such was the sobering reality of trying to launch one of Australia’s most anticipated new luxury hotels in a city that has endured some of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that was just the start. Over the course of an hour-long chat, Page related the trials and tribulations of getting a new 300-room hotel off the ground in the midst of a global crisis, including construction woes, staffing shortages, logistical complications and more.
Here’s an inside look at how the W Melbourne finally opened its doors in February, and the challenges of reaching that point.
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Official opening dates being missed are not unusual in the hotel industry. With so many construction, legal and administrative hurdles to surmount, things often take longer than expected.
Page joined the W Melbourne team in 2019. Back then, the plan was to open the new property for the all-important January 2020 Australian Open — one of four Grand Slam tennis tournaments that take place around the world each year and a jewel in the crown of Melbourne’s busy events calendar.
The Australian Open is one of the world’s largest sporting events, and players, support staff, officials, sponsors, media and tourists flock to Melbourne for the tournament, which requires tens of thousands of hotel rooms.
Beset by construction delays, however, the hotel missed that target opening date.
The W Melbourne, which has an entrance located on Flinders Lane in the city’s central business district, is housed in an unusual structure. You don’t get a full sense of the design until you step well away from the building, ideally across the Yarra River near the Crown Melbourne hotel and casino in Southbank.
Officially dubbed “Collins Arch,” the structure is affectionately known by locals as the “Pantscraper” — a skyscraper that looks like, well, a pair of pants — because its two angular towers are joined by a horizontal connector.
The W Melbourne occupies the lower half of one “leg” of the building, with permanent residences and office space taking up the rest of the edifice.
The complexity of the design — with multiple key stakeholders that included not just the hotel but other businesses — meant construction took much longer than expected, Page said.
The official opening date was moved to mid-2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
As the pandemic took hold around the world, the Australian government reacted by banning almost all international visitors starting in March 2020, instantly robbing the W of a key prospective customer base.
The border closures also affected staff recruitment. Education is big business in Melbourne, with international students flocking to the city’s world-class universities to study. These students may have class commitments during office hours but often take on shift work on nights and weekends (ideal for a hotel with 24/7 operations). With aircraft grounded worldwide and travel bans and hotel quarantine put into place, international student arrivals — and those available student workers — dwindled.
The question for the W Hotel at this point, according to Page, became: Should the property wait out the uncertainty of the pandemic, or proceed with a 2020 opening, having already missed the original date?
Page and his team decided to forge ahead with a mid-2020 opening plan. Marketing the new property after the border closures (but prior to it actually opening), he admitted, was no mean feat.
“W is a Marriott brand with a really loyal following. Guests love the idea of trying out the newest W property, wherever that is located in the world. So it was a real shame they were unable to enter Australia from overseas to do so,” Page said.
He focused at the time on the positives, including the fact that Australia seemed to be managing the pandemic well and the glimmer of hope that the country would get past the worst of the pandemic quickly. That was not meant to be.
A state of disaster
From March 31-May 12, 2020, Melbourne, along with the rest of the country, imposed lockdown restrictions, including limits on indoor mixing at events like weddings and funerals. These gradually eased through July 2020, and many aspects of life appeared to return back to (nearly) normal.
Page and his team had some hope. While the country’s borders were closed to foreign tourists, Australians were also prohibited from leaving the country for nonessential reasons. That meant if they wanted to go on holiday, they needed to do so domestically — which seemed like a bit of good news for anyone opening a new hotel.
Then, with breaches in Melbourne’s tightly controlled hotel quarantine system, the city suddenly entered a state of emergency on Aug. 2, 2020. The precautions were only planned to last for six weeks, but ended up dragging on for 12 weeks. That meant residents could only leave the house for essential reasons, such as work and medical appointments. A nightly curfew was imposed after 8 p.m. and restaurants had to switch to takeout service only.
As for staycations in a trendy new hotel? Forget it.
This left the W Melbourne, and Page, in a difficult position. “We had managed the tricky job of casting all our talent,” he said, invoking the oh-so-W description of staff recruitment, “but we had to delay the official opening again until February 2021. It was impossible to open with all the government restrictions. For the first time in my career, all casting was done remotely.”
His management team focused on both staff and future guests. They tried to keep newly hired employees engaged with their colleagues via video conferencing and Page did what he could to keep morale high. After all, he had a fabulous new property and a full team ready to go as soon as the rules changed. But when would that be?
For those guests who had booked in anticipation of the grand opening, communication was key. Page’s team wasn’t 100% sure when it could fully open the hotel, but knew the staff would try to be ready for whenever that moment came.
“COVID-19 taught us that we had to be flexible … to pivot and rethink our whole strategy,” he said.
The doors finally open
Over a year after its original opening date, the W Melbourne officially began welcoming guests on Feb. 5, 2021. The city had just pulled off a feat many thought impossible: producing the 2021 Australian Open with major pandemic restrictions, but without a significant COVID-19 outbreak in the city.
Many Melburnians had been terrified that the arrival of international visitors for the Open would plunge the city into another extended lockdown, so they boycotted the traditionally popular event entirely.
However, each person arriving for the tournament arrival (players, coaching and support staff and officials) was required to undergo the standard 14-day managed hotel quarantine, including having to take multiple PCR tests before they could enter the community or the Melbourne Park tennis complex.
The W Melbourne was not a designated managed hotel quarantine property, and, with foreign tourists still banned, there was little demand for luxury accommodations during the normally busy 2021 Australian Open. Once the tournament was completed and with no immediate lockdown in sight, however, Page was comfortable opening his property at long last.
While the team at the W was thrilled to finally have paying guests coming through the doors (almost all of whom were Australian, since the country’s borders remained closed to international tourists at the time), it was not out of the woods yet.
Eventually, the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading throughout Australia, and the residents of Melbourne (as well as Page’s team) were jolted into and out of various restrictions on their movements throughout 2021.
“We closed four times in 2021 and reopened five times,” Page said.
“What’s that famous saying? ‘Success consists of getting up just one more time than you fall down.’ I can certainly relate to that,” Page added with a wry grin.
Closing a property for a temporary lockdown involves far more than just ensuring guests have checked out and the lights are switched off. Each lockdown could be just a few days or last several months. Fresh food needed to be disposed of, but what about the swimming pool? Draining that completely would resign the hotel to an extended closure. While permanent staff received government “job keeper” benefits, there was always a risk that Page’s employees would decide to take their skills to a different industry that would be less affected by lockdowns.
Existing guest bookings could be rescheduled flexibly. But to what date? The end of each lockdown was anyone’s guess.
Those multiple fits and starts also required a careful customer service dance, Page said. “You have to be really transparent with your guests. We always made sure we communicated the current rules and restrictions when the guest booked, again seven days before they arrived and then again confirmed they had received the details when they checked in.”
The challenge, he said, was not to apologize for anything before a guest arrived, but to outline what services, like room service, would and would not be available to them during their trip.
Highs and lows
I asked Page about his most difficult moment of the pandemic. He pointed to August 2021, when the city had entered yet another lockdown, which was initially projected to last just seven days.
It lasted three months — and the property remained closed during that time.
He mused that, while all of the lockdowns were awful, oddly his team, his property and the whole city seemed to become better at each one through sheer practice. The feeling of monotony was arguably preferable to the feeling of the unknown, he discovered. Page kept a skeleton staff at the property for security, maintenance and to remotely monitor staff morale. Most of his team was itching to get back to work.
Much like teeing up an aircraft that was during the pandemic, reopening a hotel is quite a process. With a grand opening, such as with the W Melbourne, there are months of preparation. But the easing of restrictions in Melbourne occurred with just a few days’ notice each time, resulting in a mad scramble to ensure the famous W experience could be delivered for guests right from the outset.
Staff was quickly recalled, rooms checked and restocked and bookings reopened. Meanwhile, the kitchen staff had to source ingredients while also navigating constantly changing government restrictions on things like crowd limits and operating hours.
Nearly all the people whose reservations were hampered or canceled due to lockdowns rebooked their stays immediately and eventually did visit the hotel. Having endured multiple lockdowns, Page posited, Australian travelers felt they deserved a holiday and were ready to take one as soon as possible.
Asked to mention his best moments, Page cited the official opening and, to a lesser extent, the subsequent reopenings.
Brighter days ahead
I stayed in the property shortly before my interview with Page (TPG paid for my stay just like any other average guest; my review is coming soon) and if there were any issues with recruitment or restrictions, they didn’t affect my experience. The property met the sort of high standard you expect from an international, high-end lifestyle brand like W.
Page is now far more optimistic about W Melbourne’s future, with restrictions being removed both quickly and consistently. The city is snapping back to business as usual, he said, and that reminded him why he signed on to be the hotel’s general manager in the first place.
“When people were working from home every day,” he explained, “it was difficult to attract people into the city on a Friday evening. I’m happy to say this Friday, all of our hospitality venues are fully booked.”
Domestic travel demand has recovered well, according to Page. From personal experience, I can say the property was packed during my stay.
International bookings remain slow, but will hopefully begin to increase. Page expects Asian demand to originate mostly from Singapore and Japan, while when it comes to Europe, English and French visitors seem to grasp the W brand’s raison d’etre the best. Of course, as W is a North American hotel brand, Page is looking forward to plenty of Americans choosing to head Down Under and recover from jet lag in what I’d consider to be possibly the most comfortable hotel bed I have ever slept in.
Under the current government guidelines, in-house guests are not required to wear masks in the property regardless of vaccination status, though staff will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Capacity limits have been removed, so venues can book to their maximum as well.
Like hospitality businesses worldwide, the W Melbourne isn’t immune from staff illnesses, or even an omicron outbreak among its team members. Page is proud of how his staff members have rolled up their sleeves and lent a hand wherever needed, though. This is a real Aussie tradition: see the community response to the recent flooding in Queensland and New South Wales, for example.
The W Melbourne staff no longer sticks to just one area of the hotel. Members can and do pivot into other roles when other teams are short-staffed or employees are isolating. You won’t witness anyone say, “That’s not my job” here. You might even see the general manager carrying your luggage up to your room himself if need be. As long as the W remains open this time, there’ll be someone around to help.
The hotel industry has faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. Both leisure and business travel ceased virtually overnight in 2020, and it has been two years of constantly changing rules and restrictions since then.
The W Melbourne, in particular, is a microcosm of how the hotel industry as a whole has fared. After missing its original opening date due to construction delays and then postponing that opening date due to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s multiple surges, the hotel was finally able to open over a year late — then forced to close several times following that.
Still, it survived and now appears to be doing well.
“I’ve had guns pointed at me, lived through civil wars, SARS and bird flu,” said Page, “but nothing has been as sustained and uncertain as this.”
Hopefully, that uncertainty will remain behind us all for the time being.
Featured image by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy.
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