Fine Wines and Comfort

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-By John Boley

Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort and Spa’s website is crowded. Not that it’s a poor website, not at all, just that Balgownie Estate appears to have so many facets that it is tricky to pin down what the whole is all about. So we asked its General Manager, Gerald Ackroyd, to sum up the facilities on offer in the Yarra Valley less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

“Balgownie Estate is bringing together a dream of the synergies between wine, relaxation, fulfilment and well-being, in an environment where our clientele can experience all of it at one time,” he said rather succinctly. Fulfilment is not just in terms of quality of the product that people may consume, whether that is an experience, or food and wine, or even the resort, he went on. “It is very much a sustainable property.”

“It’s about giving the guests the opportunity to immerse themselves as a part of something that is responsible, that is in keeping with the environmental surroundings.” The property was designed architecturally to take advantage of the landscape and also the movement of the sun. “It moulds and sits into the escarpment; it takes advantage of the contours of the land. It gives people an opportunity to feel that they are in an area that is probably hundreds of miles from reality yet it is only 55 minutes from the city. The sense of fulfilment,” says Gerald, covers so many spectrums that the uniqueness of what this property offers is its own fulfilment. “People can feel that from the moment they get here. They know that they are being looked after, but also the environment is being looked after through the initiatives that are taking place at the resort.”

By way of background, this year is the 40th anniversary of the first vintage at Bendigo, the company’s original vineyard. This was developed by Stuart Anderson, a man with Scottish antecedents from a village named Balgownie (near Aberdeen). Needing more grape-growing capacity, land was then acquired some nine years ago in the Yarra Valley to add Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to the fold. There, what began as a ‘cellar door’ with a couple of rooms grew “systematically from the owners wanting to provide a real indulgent experience for people coming to the valley, knowing that Victoria and the Yarra Valley were understated in their opportunities.” The Directors built a restaurant, then 35 rooms, then a further 34 rooms, then the spa, with pool and resort facilities, a 1.6 km walking track and a host of other features (hence the crowded website).

Today, Balgownie Estate has a selection of rooms and suites (available to book direct online with prices starting below $200 per room on quiet days, of which there are not many), its restaurant and winery with cellar door sales outlet, and its ‘experiences’ – special events including weddings, conferences, a host of spa treatments, ballooning, hen nights and a wine tour complete with limo and chauffeur. Strangely, no mention is made on the website of the property’s affiliation with France’s Accor Group, hotel market leader in Europe and one of the world’s biggest hotel groups, under the Mercure banner.

That said, this is not your regular ‘chain’ hotel and appeals to the discerning and (usually) individual traveller or people simply seeking a break. Nearly half of Balgownie’s market comes up from Melbourne, seeking a short break from the city, but the rest is a mix of interstate and international visitors. “In terms of the Australian market, I suppose our price point automatically targets the guests we are after in the leisure market. We are almost always 85 per cent or more occupancy on a weekend, 52 weeks of the year,” says Gerald.

International arrivals “tend to be people who are touring the countryside and they may be here for a month or so travelling around. This is not a specific destination that people will come to for four, five or six days,” although there are a few of these. “It is a location where, in the leisure market, probably the average stay is two nights and then the average conference stay is two or two and a half days. Because of our location we get a lot of people from the western side of New South Wales and the border.”

Rest assured, though: by ‘conferences’, Gerald does not mean the gruesome end of the market with a thousand sales managers getting paid to hoon at the expense of any poor civilians billeted in the same hotel. “We are fortunate in that the resort is small enough that we can control movement of our guests. We have policies in place which allow us to block off and book out the accommodation sector so they are very separate and do not affect other guests’ experiences.” In terms of conferences, the attraction is to “the serious side, where people meet together, coming away in a beautiful surrounding to a quality environment to refresh their thinking mind, as opposed to coming out here for a getaway, a few drinks and a party. We are probably more ‘business retreat’ minded as opposed to ‘business leisure’.”

Many people who do not know the China of today will be surprised to learn that Chinese visitors are a large and fast-growing element of Balgownie Estate’s success. “We have a very strong tie with China. In fact this year we have just launched Balgownie Estate through its wine as a brand to one of China’s largest hotel chains and Tourism Victoria got involved with that as well.” In the last few years, visa restrictions have eased considerably and people can travel individually rather than having to move in organised tour groups. With individual travel they want to enjoy unique experiences. “For us, the market enjoys our quality of wine and the wine then sells the experience here.”

It would be inappropriate to quote specific figures for wine production, says Gerald, “but in terms of scalability of ongoing business venture we are probably producing enough to be a great vineyard and a great label name, without overproducing to become a serious retail glut opportunity. I think it is safe to say we sell everything we make.”

In addition, “China is a growing user and appreciator of fine wines. Everything that is aged is accepted. It’s about quality; they are very particular and rightly so. Our market within Australian tourism is unique and I think unique experiences, with exceptional offerings and customer service, are where people are now looking.” People are conscious of the dollar they spend and now are not just expecting, but are requesting – and are happy to question whether they are getting – real value. “We charge a fee that is commensurate with the experience that we believe that we are offering. The customer will then experience it and accept it and then will come back asking for more.” It’s not just about the price tag – it’s about value for the money spent.

It is evident in all customers’ purchasing now. “Customers are looking for an offer and they are looking to spend their dollar with an open mind. No longer can you just rely on word of mouth to say that this is a fantastic experience. One person’s opinion – while it is valid, and we certainly encourage feedback to improve what we do every day – you can’t just rely on that any more. People want to find out for themselves and they will use every form of media and any means that they can to get to their decision. That will make them comfortable in choosing it. As an operator it is our responsibility to ensure that we listen to as much of this as possible.”

Balgownie is currently the 2011 AHA Australian Hoteliers Association award winner for Best Environmental Initiative and Environmental Best Practise Hotel of the Year, underlining its green credentials. Fine tuning is the way forward, says Gerald, for the basics are all in place. For the future there is the option to expand the resort to 100 rooms “when we feel that the timing is right. It is commonly discussed within the hotel industry that 100 rooms is the minimum that you need to make an experience financially work. We have proven that to not necessarily be the case, though that could just be our unique model, but by having the 100 rooms it would certainly give us the opportunity to provide the experience to that many more people.”

Other opportunities include increasing the cellar door to take advantage of the fantastic landscape, bringing in another angle to view one of the valleys, and building a wedding chapel to facilitate the weddings inside rather than having a limitation through weather. So there are construction opportunities, “but with the resort itself the fine tuning is the key – providing the customer with the exceptional experience and the unique opportunity to experience the unique aspect of Victoria and we are certainly very proud to represent it on behalf of the directors.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 21, 2018, 6:36 AM AEST