April 20 2021

By Graeme Kemlo

Australia’s third largest inland city by population, Ballarat, just 90 minutes from Melbourne, avoided the Victorian capital’s famously strict coronavirus lockdown and appears to be well on the road to recovery.

For this city built on the gold rush of 1851 and made internationally famous by the miners’ Eureka Stockade of 1854, the year 2021 is proving busier than ever according to Mandy Grant, a Ballarat-based board member of Business Events Victoria.

Grant can see the spring in the step of the local business community. She’s also Sales Manager of Mercure Ballarat Hotel and Convention Centre, which boasts the largest meeting room in the city seating 600.

Like the rest of Victoria, Ballarat suffered from the loss of thousands of Chinese and Indian visitors who typically visit the Sovereign Hill interactive historical attraction each week when COVID-19 travel restrictions began to bite from February 2020.

“We had lesser restrictions than Melbourne because we’d not had a COVID-19 case in the region,” says Grant.

“But the visitors started coming on Boxing Day, initially leisure travellers.  We were booked solid. Then since the end of January the business events sector kicked in and since then we have been flat out.”

Some bookings are reconfirmations of events postponed last year, but she says the hotel now has bookings right through 2022 and into 2023.

“It is now busier than it has ever been…a lot of local meetings and events with anywhere from 10 to 40 delegates…some of them from Melbourne,” she says.

Typical meetings are two to three nights and include corporate planning getaways, as well as agriculture-focused meetings from across the region which runs from the Melbourne suburb of Melton through to Horsham in the west and from Bendigo in the north to Geelong in the south.

With a population of more than 101,000, Ballarat can sustain a healthy business events industry and the services that support it.

The gold rush quickly elevated this former 1838 town of sheepherders to a pre-eminent Victorian city, one of the richest in the British Commonwealth.

As 6,000 miners arrived each week while gold funded the wide main streets lined with elegant civic buildings, banks and hotels, many of which still stand.

Craig’s Royal Hotel opened in 1853 and Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, slept there in 1867.  It also hosted the American writer Mark Twain in the late 1800s. In 2003 Ballarat was the first of two Australian cities to be registered as a member of the International League of Historical Cities.

In more recent developments, iconic catering and venue management company Peter Rowland is taking over the food and beverage service at Sovereign Hill, which hosts business events as well as leisure visitors.

A new Quest Ballarat Station apartment hotel has also recently opened with 72 guest rooms.