July 5, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier | Top image: The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains | Image credit: Destination NSW

As National Events Manager for the Australian Veterinary Association Kandy Musgrave points out on the way home from a jam-packed famil in the Blue Mountains, at just 90 minutes from Sydney, it’s a destination that’s right on the doorstep of Australia’s largest population centre and it should really be top of mind for any Sydney event organiser.

“We all know it sits there but we actually don’t get out and look at it. There’s a range of options they’ve got that are at your fingertips.

“I’m certainly one of those people,” says Musgrave. “I’ve been up there plenty of times, but I’ve never really spent any time in any of the hotels or really been aware of the activities.”

I was in the same boat – I had been up into the region a few times to visit friends, but I had never explored the destination from a business events perspective.

Thus our two and a half days in the late Autumn briskness of the mountains was a delightful eye-opener.

Best suited to conferences of around 500 delegates or fewer, the region is brimming with unique meeting spaces and eating places and hotels with stunning views of the heritage-listed mountain ranges everywhere you turn. And often they are wrapped up into one convenient package.

Four focus pillars have been identified to attract visitors to the region: its world heritage status and the Blue Mountains’ stunning natural setting; food, wine and craft beer; adventure; and the area’s creative industries – over 500 local creatives are showcased through MTNS MADE, a grass roots movement managed by the Blue Mountains Economic Enterprise and supported by the Blue Mountains City Council, which seeks to help commercialise the offerings of makers and creators in the mountains.

We experienced all of these pillars during our famil, which came about through a collaboration between several local stakeholders passionate about both the Blue Mountains and business events, with some help from Tourism Australia’s Business Events Boost Program, which supported the initiative financially.

“We wanted to showcase the Blue Mountains because we just believe that…in the last five years, nothing like this has happened,” says Agnes Zalan, founder of Blue Mountains Conferences and Events, and chief organiser of the famil.

“We just wanted to show a collaborative approach, to say that we are all here and we will work together to help events.”

And one did get the sense that all the local businesses are in it together – possibly because each of the offerings of the local operators was so different, they aren’t actually in competition with each other.

The hotels we visited and stayed in were a case in point.

Our first night was spent at Lilianfels, a charming 89-room historic resort set on the homestead which was originally the summer residence of Sir Frederick Darley, the sixth Chief Justice of New South Wales. The ambience was old-school, the rooms enormous and every single one had a separate bath. And outside my window there was a casual view of a spectacular escarpment.

Darley’s, a fine dining restaurant on site, was sumptuously furnished and has been the recipient of 13 chef’s hats from the Good Food Guide over the years. Darley’s Restaurant can take groups of up to 80 downstairs – 30-40 comfortably in the main dining room – with more space upstairs for smaller groups.

Darley’s restaurant at Lilianfels

We also took a look at Echoes, just across the road, a 14-suite boutique hotel that is popular as a buyout for corporate retreats and small groups, also run by Escarpment Group.

“Each of our properties have got quite unique histories attached to them, either in their current form or in their previous form and we do try to keep those threads coming through in everything that we do, while still moving with the times and offering up-to-date modern standards and working exceptionally well within our region in trying to source as much interesting product and menu ideas and items that are from our region,” says Escarpment Group’s Group Marketing, Sales and Revenue Manager, Renee Guillien, who shows us around both properties.

“Our rule of thumb – and we do hit it on the mark pretty well most of the time – is we’re trying to source over 80 percent of our supplies from our region. And we’ve got so much in our region. Just west of us, such a dynamic range of options as far as meat supply and fruit and veg and wines.

“We’re still offering amazing things from overseas and different parts of Australia, of course, because it is such an amazing country to source products from, but we definitely do try to work within our zone and promote our region.”

In the afternoon, we visit another of Escarpment Group’s offerings in the Blue Mountains, “lady of the mountains” the Hydro Majestic, established by Mark Foy, an icon of the Sydney shopping scene in the late 1800s. Currently with 65 rooms in service, another 15+ rooms will come online in 2022, taking the property’s inventory up over that 80-room capacity, which seems to be a sweet spot for many business events groups.

“It was always a place where the people of Sydney came to be seen and a bit of excess, a bit of partying,” says Guillien.

The Hydro Majestic has quite a location

We have High Tea in Wintergarden Restaurant in the hotel, where the view is as prominent as the culinary offering – we’re perched on the edge of a valley and it’s hard to look away.

We tour the event spaces – more incredible can’t-tear-your-eyes-away views – which range from more intimate in the Delmonte conference rooms (40 pax seated) to grand in the Majestic Ballroom with its impressive vaulted ceiling, open fireplace and capacity for 250 guests seated. A delightfully unexpected space is the Cat’s Alley, a long hallway of a space steeped in oriental red, which can host 70 standing.

That evening we visit a hotel of an entirely different kind – the first of its kind, in fact, in Australia: Hotel Etico, a social enterprise which offers both a boutique luxury experience across its 15 rooms and a year-long training opportunity for young adults with an interest in hospitality and an intellectual disability. The carefully curated and well supported program sees the trainees live onsite when they work and learn skills to set them up for future employment, while helping to deliver the hotel’s service. Our tour of the hotel and the drinks and dinner that follow reveal how much care is taken to provide an enriching and safe experience for the six trainees, many of whom are in the workforce for the first time.

It’s just one of the times we come across opportunities to add an extra layer of meaning to meetings, conferences and retreats taking place in the Blue Mountains. In fact, choosing to meet in the Blue Mountains is unavoidably an exercise in corporate social responsibility, given that more or less everything we do supports the community in some way, from spending with local businesses which employ local staff, to engaging and sustaining the creative culture of the region, consuming local produce and giving local gifts.

One of the best things about holding business events in a region like the Blue Mountains is that chance to engage with those that live there and get a glimpse of life as a local.

We do that through three particularly memorable activities, the first being star gazing with Blue Mountains Stargazing run by Dr Dimitri Douchin and his fiancée Caroline. Douchin is an astrophysicist who now specialises in cultural astronomy – he has recently been appointed an Adjunct Fellow at the University of Western Sydney for that very speciality.

The pair wrap us up warmly out at the Wentworth Falls lookout and reveal the wonders of the night sky in the Blue Mountains, where the stars are brighter than back in Sydney. We look at the moon through Douchin’s telescope and for the first time I see the surface so clearly I can make out all the craters on it.

“I just like showcasing things that people don’t even think about – like the star gazing for example, that’s my current favourite,” says chief organiser Zalan.

“That was such an amazing thing. People don’t realise…how much better [it is] to look at the stars here in the Blue Mountains. There is no light pollution so you can see them.”

We also visit three artists in the own environments, through the MTNS MADE collective, and these experiences are a collective hit for our group.

“I was quite surprised at how creative the Mountains are – I didn’t know that that was something that they were looking to promote further,” says Nicolle Stubbs, Events and Conferences Officer at the Australian Property Institute.

“Obviously you know the World Heritage, you know all of the bushwalks and everything like that, but it’s nice to actually get down to the nitty gritty and meet the locals and see what they do for a living and how we can bring conferences here.”

Basket weaving with Branching Out, a member of the MTNS MADE collective in Hazelwood

We go basket weaving in a shed on the property of one of the sisters who make up Branching Out. Carolyn and Jillian show us where they harvest some of their materials from on the property before guiding us through weaving a basket. The workshop becomes a surprising bonding experience, because as we weave, we chat. I discover more about how this famil managed to be so bang on with its attendees – another Lower Mountains local is Faye Langley, who works for GainingEdge, the world leading Australian-grown convention advisory business. Langley, who accompanies us throughout the famil, worked with Zalan to find the right delegates. Zalan tells me only a few weeks later than they’ve already had two leads out of the six event manager attendees – and that doesn’t include a third who was already considering the region.

On our final morning, we visit Keith Rowe’s glass making workshop in Blackheath, where he shows us how both functional glass items and glass art is made. It’s fascinating and vaguely therapeutic to watch a swirl of molten glass become a recognisable and beautiful object and it’s even more exciting when we’re given the chance to manipulate the melted glass ourselves. Rowe, who tells us he puts his heart and soul into everything he makes, can take groups of around half a dozen for hands-on workshops where participants can take home a few of their own glass creations.

Winding back a bit, we spend an enthralling hour and a bit in the old-world opulence of The Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, being shown around by one of the owners Michael Brischetto, who is a consummate storyteller, regaling us with tales of the hotel through the ages, including multi-million-dollar renovations for what turned out to be a disappointingly fleeting visit by members of the British royal family.

The 65-room hotel has a variety of smaller and larger meeting spaces, able to cater to up to 110 people for a sit down dinner in the Grand Dining Room and 90 in the Ballroom. Smaller rooms can hold between 10 and 50 for private dining or other meetings. And as one of my fellow delegates points out, it would make a marvellous immersive setting for a murder mystery event as part of a conference program.  The hotel also has developments in works over future years which will make the property even more attractive for the meetings market.

There are more spectacular views to be suspended in at Scenic World | Credit: Destination NSW

After visits to Scenic World – plenty of possibilities for cool outdoor events amongst the lush greenery or to wow delegates with more experiences of the region’s incredible landscape – and the Lookout Echo Point – which reveals an unexpectedly fabulous lunch spot ideal for smaller groups along with an expected level of culinary excellence from Trippas White Group, who manage the venue – we spend our second night at Fairmont Resort and Spa Blue Mountains – the destination in the region for larger conferences and events.

Set in 23.5 acres of grounds on the edge of the Jamison Valley, with 224 rooms and 15 meetings spaces for up to 850 delegates, the Fairmont is about to up its credentials as a business events property, with the opening of a large new events space in the first quarter of 2022.

The space, given the name Gedumba by the local Indigenous community, is built over water and will be able to host 950 people theatre-style, although according to Fairmont’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Jenifer Dwyer Slee, it’s set to operator as an alternative dinner venue and an exhibition space when it opens.

“We’ve already got existing meeting space,” she explains. “It’s about being able to take bigger exhibitions and also to have another alternative for dinners.

“We know where the opportunity is from the clients we’re already dealing with. And we want to deliver that really well.

“And then as the opportunities grow, we could then look at what else does that space need to be to then facilitate other business.”

As the team works towards the new opening, they’re also focussing on augmenting their food and beverage experiences – like others in the Blue Mountains, the flavour is local.

“There’s definitely interest in supporting the Blue Mountains following the bushfires and following COVID,” says Dwyer Slee.

“That’s a strong message with a number of the clients I’m talking to.

“Actually bringing in those local producers – the local winemaker, some of the local growers and supporting them…through the conference that’s then being held at Fairmont.”

The impressive Fairmont Resort and Spa Blue Mountains

As part of our stay in the Blue Mountains we’re given a selection of local gifts – from locally brewed beer to chocolate covered honeycomb and artisan socks – many of which I’m continuing to sample and enjoy at home weeks after the famil.

It was a further sweetener for my fellow attendee Hayley Smith, CPD Manager for the Australian Dental Association’s NSW branch.

“All of the goodies we got – if I was to hold an event out here, I could reach out to all of [those producers and creators] and have little favours for our delegates,” she says.

“That has put a nice spin on things for me. It doesn’t have to be a toothpaste.”