June 15, 2021 | By Graeme Kemlo

One of outer Melbourne’s most awarded conference centres, Country Place, was already suffering from COVID-19 lockdowns and a massive insurance bill despite never making a claim in 30 years.  Then last week a severe storm blacked out the venue and made it inaccessible by road.

Managing Director John Harris said he had to cancel a $35,000 event for 90 people over the weekend because power was out and falling trees still blocked roads across the Dandenong Ranges.

Country House, a five-time industry award winner, has 62 accommodation rooms and hosts 200 meetings and events each year, but last year managed to stage only 50 events.  It had to shed some staff who were ineligible for JobKeeper last year and now the venue is struggling to find staff.

“It is absolutely crazy here with power lines down, phone towers out and trees still falling…we feel a bit cursed,” Harris said.  He explained that apart from COVID, one of the biggest challenges was when the insurance premium more than doubled overnight despite them having made no claims.

“We were told by insurers we were now in a bushfire overlay, although we have never suffered a bushfire. So we had to negotiate a $100,000 excess to get the premiums down to a reasonable level,” he said.

While the owners did inject some capital into the business in 2020, he said 2021 dawned with great hopes for a good year with help from both federal and state government support packages. But snap lockdowns have set them back this year.

“Last Thursday night I had to call our client and cancel the event for 90 people they had booked for this long weekend. They were initially upset, but understood when they saw footage of the devastation across the Dandenongs.  We still have no power and don’t expect to have it back until Thursday,” he said.

He said loyal clients had been very supportive, as had the local community.

Country Place is popular, being one hour from the city – far enough to provide a complete change of scenery, but not too far for delegates.

It has five conference spaces, the largest a light-filled room for 120-150 theatre-style. Popular with government, university and corporates, it has its own high ropes obstacle course for team building and acres of open space..

Harris is hopeful that without further lockdowns they might manage to host 100 events this year since some clients opted to transfer dates rather than cancel events.

“We had an event booked in March for 90 people over seven full days with an international speaker, but when he could not fly here organisers opted for a Zoom event…well we all know people get sick of Zoom after an hour or two, so sadly they ended up  with only 50 delegates.  They’ve booked again with us for a face-to-face event next March… we hope it can go ahead, but who knows.”