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Pizza, staycations and free toilet paper: Hotels in the age of COVID-19

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Hotels and restaurants are two of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 crisis. So what happens when they’re your family business? We spoke to East Hotel’s Dion Bisa to find out.

When Dion Bisa and I speak over the phone, she warns me that she’s already cried once this morning.

The news is perhaps unsurprising. As a founder of Kingston’s East Hotel, Dion is facing unprecedented challenges—the same that are being felt across Canberra and the world due to COVID-19.

Thanks to the virus’ extraordinary spread and ensuing government restrictions, Dion’s family business, built up over three generations, might be pulled out from under her at any minute. Yet Dion’s thoughts aren’t with the rising cancellations but with her staff, whom she says are just as much a part of the business as the Bisa family.

“Every day is a new challenge, but my team have been with me since opening—it’s their hotel and it’s very personal. Canberra is full of family-run businesses and we’re all sweating it out together.”

Located a stone’s throw from Parliament House, on any given day East Hotel bustles with visiting pollies and lobbyists while downstairs, moody Joe’s Bar turns a roaring trade in cocktails, Italian restaurant Agostinis slings hundreds of Neapolitan-style pizzas and Muse bookstore hosts regular literary events.

But not this week. Following restrictions on service and space, Muse bookstore shuttered on Monday while Joe’s closed last week.

“It’s quite possible that we’ll have to shut our doors [completely],” says Dion. “If the government says so…but in the meantime we will continue to look after our guests the way we always have, like family.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of light in the darkness. Even with mass cancellations, Dion says her faith in humanity has never been stronger.

“People are so incredible. I’ve had so many phone calls in the last few weeks of people saying, ‘I’m so sorry I have to cancel—we’ll be back, are you guys okay?’. The community support in those cancellations has been so amazing and graceful—it puts a smile on my face.”

Dion Bisa.

“There are two types of people—the toilet paper hoarders who are out for themselves and then there are the gracious, kind people who are out to support the community—and we have so many of those. It’s been very humbling.”

And while the crowds may be missing, East Hotel’s doors are still very much open because, when the world is going to heck in a handbasket, there’s always pizza.

The pizza in question is from Agostinis kitchen, which is very much still pumping—and it’s not just pizza either—with much of the expansive menu available on Deliveroo and UberEATs.

“We want to make sure our faithful guests—new and old, who are now only able to eat at home—can enjoy the restorative qualities of authentic Italian food done well and a delicious glass of vino.”

For Dion, it’s a comfort that Agostinis is able to run within the current restrictions—offering takeaway and delivery only. Not only does it allow her to keep staff paid, but allows the spirit of East to live on, despite the crisis.

“We just want to keep the doors open and the lights on for as long as possible,” she says.

“We’ve even got our own staff being delivery drivers—so we don’t have to charge high fees for delivery—and we’re giving away free focaccias and…” Dion pauses and laughs, “we’re even putting in free toilet paper for orders over $50!”

“We’ve got many rooms upstairs that aren’t being occupied, with toilet paper, so we thought, ‘why not?’! We’re just trying to share the love.”

And if pizza and free toilet paper weren’t enough to tempt you, a staycation might. Due to East’s unique position as an apartment hotel—with kitchens, living rooms and balconies in every room—staycations in the time of social distancing are easy.

It’s a sensible option to keep in mind for those social-distancing without much distance to play with. In fact, Dion says East currently has quite a few guests in self-imposed isolation.

“They’re not sick, they’re just self-isolating for various reasons, but we sanitise absolutely everything and we arrange a specific time each day when they leave for an hour and we then clean their room to the nth degree—so they’re not crossing over with our staff at all, but are still getting a service.”

And really, could self-isolation get any better than an apartment with a pizzeria downstairs?

“One of our guests rang the other day, and said ‘Love—just checking, is that bloody good restaurant downstairs still serving pizzas? Cause I’m self-isolating’,” laughs Dion. “I said ‘Sure is’ and he said ‘Good on-ya, mate!’“

Order Agostini’s for takeaway or home delivery now online at www.agostinis.com.au or by calling 02 6178 0048. Find out more about East’s STAY SANE staycation packages for couples and familes at easthotel.com.au.

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