July 26, 2022 | By Graeme Kemlo | Image: Bendigo Ernest Hotel

It is 171 years since gold was first discovered in Bendigo and it became the richest town in the British Commonwealth. As much as 560 glittering tonnes of gold was extracted and magnificent public buildings were erected around a main street they called Pall Mall.

Now this city of almost 120,000, located in Victoria’s geographic centre, is not only famous for its rich history: there’s a new rush on arts, culture, food and wine. You can add to that a focus on events, from boutique corporate retreats to the largest conventions.

Bendigo is the first city in Australia to become a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, a mark of its focus on regional food, wine production and sustainability.

But it is the renowned Bendigo Art Gallery – itself a business events venue – that has won fame for turning high fashion and celebrity into art in the last decade. Its Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe exhibitions attracted 152,706 and 143,222 people respectively, when held in 2012 and 2016, while this year’s Elvis: Direct from Graceland exhibition was a sell-out, bringing 219,000 visitors to the city. The three events generated an economic impact of more than $40 million for the City of Greater Bendigo which presides over a regional economy worth $10.6 billion.

In the city’s oldest bank building (c. 1864) there was direct benefit from the gallery’s exhibitions this year. Now revitalised as Bendigo Ernest Hotel, the building’s handsome stonemasonry and thick walls once secured miners’ gold and there’s a bullet hole in the floor said to be from gold rush days. Its unique 10-suite boutique accommodation offering, featuring different Australian artists in each room, is across the road from the gallery and has been heavily booked.

Co-owner of the Ernest, Martin Shew, said that while gallery visitors comprised the majority of guests since they opened seven months ago, they had also catered to small business groups.

“This Friday we have a buyout of the hotel by an orthodontic group from Melbourne, so we have 20 people staying for their business event, lunch and dinner with meetings in our lounge and a refurbished space downstairs,” he said, adding, “We really see this as a golden opportunity for us to explore further”.

Shew and his business partner sold two premium accommodation properties in Ballarat to buy the former bank.

“It was too good to pass up the chance to buy into the dress circle of the arts in Bendigo,” he said.

The next stage of the Ernest’s development will be to open a restaurant in the hotel with chef Derek Boath.

Meanwhile another recent addition to Bendigo’s business events infrastructure, Quality Hotel Lakeside is an ultramodern hotel and conference centre beside the city’s Lake Weeroona 1.5 km from the centre of the town. It has 78 guest rooms with nine room types, including one and two bedroom apartments. Four function spaces over two levels provide a maximum delegate capacity of 250.

Larger residential conferences may use the All Seasons Hotel which has 11 meeting spaces for up to 700 delegates with accommodation for up to 270. And for the largest regional conventions, Bendigo Stadium has retractable seating for up to 4,000 attendees.