Updated: Jul 2, 2018
They were among the unlikely heroes of the April 2015 superstorms, providing locals with shelter, food and a friendly shoulder. But now it is Bank Hotel, Dungog owners Bruce and Eileen Clark who are looking for new ways to keep their heads above water in a challenging regional market.
The husband and wife team are no strangers to hospitality. A fourth generation publican, Eileen has spent her life behind the bar and one could argue it is in the genes, with the couple's daughter also in the business, running the The Royal Hotel just up the road.
But a declining youth population and the absence of a local caravan park to attract grey nomads is proving challenging for the pair.
"When we first purchased the Bank Hotel in 2002 the railway was in town. It was great and our accommodation upstairs were called 'hot beds'. One worker would get out, go to work, and another would get in," Bruce says.
"We had house keepers that worked non-stop, but that stopped in early 2003 when they re-railed from Newcastle up to the north coast.
"Then it was tough. In the town itself there's 10 liquor outlets for a population of about 2,700. Plus we have overheads, insurance, public liability and you cannot physically run it all yourself, so there's wages.”
Bank Hotel owners Bruce and Eileen Clark who are looking for new ways to keep their heads above water, in a challenging regional market...
Bruce and Eileen say a lack of local employment opportunities also draw youth away from the town.
"The community has been decimated by a lack of work. When they de-regulated the dairy industry a lot of local dairy farmers closed up, some went south to Victoria. Then they closed the forestry down. There's just no local work for young people to stick around."
To combat the declining local market, Eileen and Bruce have recently moved toward a digital strategy, re-branding the hotel online as a cosy and affordable tourist stop with wholesome food and comfortable accommodation. Eileen has also become proficient in the art of online accommodation booking sites.
"We decided it was time to smarten ourselves up," Eileen says.
"The hotel was getting old and we were really bogged down. We knew we had to do something, so Bruce rebuilt the big veranda and we've hired a web designer to take care of our digital presence, including social media. I also learned how to register the hotel on popular online booking sites.
"The idea is that we want to attract travellers looking for somewhere affordable to stay with dinner and a hot bath. We're not going to pretend we're something we're not, but it's friendly and cosy with traditional pub-style meals and a comfortable place to sleep. We just need to put ourselves out there more and online is the way to do that."
We're not going to pretend we're something we're not, but it's friendly and cosy with traditional pub-style meals and a comfortable place to sleep..."
In addition to its traditional roots, the hotel also has a colourful history having survived the April superstorms, which sadly took the lives of three local residents, two who were locals at the pub. It has also been the accommodation of choice for touring British band Mumford and Sons, and was recently used as a filming location for Jessica Mauboy's television series the Secret Daughter.
"During the April superstorms we had people taking refuge here and we offered accommodation to as many as we could. We also had cats and dogs here during that time. All of our 18 rooms were full with people and some were here for more than a year due to insurance issues," Bruce says.
"At that time the hotel became a central place for people. We had long tables of clothes, blankets and shoes, we provided food because we had a generator, as well as water and whatever else we could. There were houses floating across the road. We knew what we had to do was help, so that's what we did."
"During the April superstorm we had people taking refuge here and we offered accommodation to as many as we could..."
Bruce also assisted in pulling a neighbour to safety from a home that was inundated with water, while in the aftermath Eileen and her daughter braved the roads driving the hotel bus to the Bull n' Bush at Medowie, which is also operated by Eileen's family. There they collected all the frozen food and came back to cook for the community at no cost.
"Our hotel has experienced so much," Eileen says.
"The storm was one thing, but in 2012 Mumford and Sons also stayed at the hotel during a Gentlemen of the Road stopover, and Jessica Mauboy was here not so long ago shooting The Secret Daughter.
"We’ve have had some pretty special visitors and this is a special place. We would love to see it back on the map."
Look carefully and you will see a couple of familiar scenes!
The Bank Hotel
270 Dowling Street
Dungog NSW 2420
(02) 4992 1701