Southern Comfort

Country Club Tasmania

So we talked to Matthew Hardman, who, on a December morning, agreed it was about the perfect time of year. He is General Manager of Country Club Tasmania, a multifaceted property just outside Tasmania’s ‘second city’ Launceston.

This town of around 70,000 people lies two hours’ north of state capital Hobart (where the main airport of the island is situated, although Launceston has its own, with services limited to domestic flights) and “a few gear-changes” from the north-coast port of Devonport, where the Spirit of Tasmania car ferries from Melbourne dock after their 9 to 10 hour journey. Launceston has successfully reinvented itself in recent years as a cultural centre, is a stone’s throw from the Tamar Valley wineries region, and is less than 60 km from some serious alpine treks in the Ben Lomond National Park.

The local people of Launceston sound spoiled for choice in terms of leisure options, then – even before one considers the mass of facilities offered by the Country Club. Having celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, this “integrated resort,” as Matthew calls it, features hotel, food and beverage, conferencing and a casino, with a golf course attached that is one of Tasmania’s, and therefore one of Australia’s, finest. It started life as a casino operation, with multiple restaurants and bars, then added a hotel with five-star accommodation. In the mid-1990s a major expansion took place after gaming machines were legalised in Tasmania, leading to the building of the Watergarden precinct with its café, bar and sports and betting areas as well as pokies. “That essentially quadrupled the size of the gaming assets of the property,” explains Matthew.

Shortly afterward, the property acquired the nearby Country Club Villas, consisting of self-contained accommodation a couple of hundred metres away round the golf course, which complements the hotel-style accommodation originally built for the casino. Guests using the villas have the choice of using food and beverage facilities there (two restaurants, a bar and a bottle shop) or – via a shuttle bus – over at the Watergarden. As Matthew explains, it is not necessary to be either a golfer or a gambler to enjoy the properties, and Watergarden Dining is claimed to be the busiest restaurant in Tasmania, frequently seeing more than a thousand covers in a day. “Many of our guests come for the five-star country house leisure experience. They may choose not to go anywhere near the casino or they can do that too – it’s entirely up to them.” Another activity that is slightly more unusual is trail ride, using a large stock of Arabian horses based on the property and at the disposal of guests.

The largest single segment of the Country Club’s business comes from northern Tasmania; next up is business from the rest of the state, followed by interstate travellers and, latterly, a growing number of international visitors. Matthew acknowledges that, “we have come through a very challenging time from the perspective of regulatory reform of gaming in the last eighteen months. It has definitely affected our business, no question.” This is not the place for a detailed explanation of the situation, but “we agreed with a number of those regulations and have rigorously implemented all of them.”

In this case ‘we’ refers to the property’s owners, the Federal Group, a private, family-owned company that is Tasmania’s largest private-sector employer. Starting life in Victoria in 1885, Federal Hotels Ltd claims to be “the world’s second oldest hotel group.” In 1969, Federal chairman Greg Farrell Senior purchased the Wrest Point Riviera hotel on Hobart’s River Derwent. His dream was for it to become Australia’s first legal casino – a dream that materialised in 1973. Today, many of Federal’s activities are grouped in an intriguing way as a ‘tourism’ brand: Pure Tasmania. This includes not only the Country Club (the only five-star accommodation in Launceston, says Matthew) but the Henry Jones Art hotel in Hobart, the Freycinet Lodge and Saffire on the east coast (a super-luxury award winning resort opened three years ago), Cradle Mountain Chateau and Strahan Village on the west coast as well as Wrest Point. This is a big bonus and enables organisers to build a ‘tour of Tasmania’ concept, staying at each of these desirable properties. “Wherever you start a circuit of Tasmania, we have properties strategically located in the key tourist areas.”

There are many other advantages of being in such a powerful group, says Matthew, not least the career paths that it can offer to staff, who “can transition through one property to another,” not only in the hotels themselves but the group’s chain of bottle stores, 11 pubs, the casinos and an associated network gaming operation throughout the state. “There are so many examples of where someone has come into the group and progressed. Our ability to provide rewarding career paths for employees is certainly one of the biggest benefits.”

Nevertheless, Matthew admits that finding and keeping good people is a particular challenge here, “although we have been very successful in retaining our best people.” There are staff at the Country Club who have been there since day one and “who work with just as much enthusiasm as they did 30 years ago,” he explains. “We have a great core group of staff and a sensational culture which permeates throughout the Federal Group. But no question, it’s a difficult place to attract really good staff.” Matthew previously worked across the Tasman and compares the situation to that in New Zealand, where young people after completing their education “want to move out into the big world.” But in the case of Tasmanians, he says, “it’s remarkable how many come back.”

One of the traditional attractions for them is the fresh produce. The ‘paddock-to-plate’ concept, says Matthew, has become a bit of a cliché these days but nevertheless, Tasmania is a fine place for good food and the dining outlets (a full set of options at the Country Club from pizzerias to top chefs at the Terrace) take full advantage with their sensational, authentic Tasmanian brands. “We love the opportunity to feature them on our menus,” says Matthew.

Matthew says he and his team, like any other hospitality operation in Australia, are taking an ever-closer look at the burgeoning China market as a possible opportunity to increase international arrivals. There are obvious attractions for the far-eastern tourist: gambling, fine wines; golf (not only the Country Club course itself, but other neighbouring championship standard courses, all of which pool their attractions as a kind of ‘golfing tour’ instead of an individual course to play); and the general attraction of Australia as a destination that is ‘western’ but not as ‘remote’ as Europe.

In this regard perhaps Tasmania’s remoteness, apparent to other Australians as something of a disadvantage, is absent from the view of the Chinese visitor – of course Australia is quite a long way away, but Tassie is no further away than any other state. With low-cost airlines taking an increasing interest in relevant routes, Matthew believes this is a highly promising emerging sector of new business.

Like many others in the industry, though, he is worried that the country’s multiple tourism organisations (state, city, national, and all with individual messages that often conflict) may not serve the tourism industry as well as they could. He cites New Zealand’s admirably unified strategy in which the international traveller is encouraged to visit NZ, more than individual cities or regions. The Federal group’s award-winning Pure Tasmania brand appears to be a ‘do-it-yourself’ response to that situation and so far seems to have been highly effective in portraying to the outside world a clear positive message to come to this intriguing and beautiful state.

Speaking of which, the attractions are by no means limited to gambling and golf. In February, for example, there are such varied major events as the Red Hot Summer Tour rock extravaganza and the Launceston Cup Racing Carnival. So why not get down there ahead of the international crowds and discover this ‘world apart.’

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?

January 16, 2019, 3:58 PM AEDT