Roughly 60 and 90 minutes respectively from the Melbourne CBD and surrounded by vineyard views, Balgownie Estate Yarra Valley and its sister location in Bendigo are popular choices for leisure visitors seeking a relaxing stay at a wine estate. This is why the head of operations for both properties, Flack, says that watching stressed-out corporate delegates transform almost on arrival is so rewarding.
“You actually see the ties come off, the polo shirt goes on and they visibly relax,” he says.
Having worked for more than a decade in city hotel kitchens as an executive chef, Flack’s passion for high-quality F&B means he approaches business events a little differently. His philosophy when it comes to serving groups is that bigger can’t mean simpler and that serving the same restaurant-quality food to conference and leisure guests is essential.
“My initial understanding of conferencing in the city venues was that it was sandwiches and cold foods and just very structured, formalised,” he says. “I remember walking into the [conference] room and we’d have breakfast set up for 60 people and it was so corporate it felt stale. Basically, they had their setup in the middle of the tables with croissants and Danishes. And it was just mundane and every table had to look the same, but it was just flat,” he says.
“I got into it thinking I’m going to have to change things and try to use my creativity as a chef and think of all the ways we could do it better.”
Now at both Balgownie Estate properties, he seeks out ways to create experiences for delegates that feel like a leisure stay, not a conference one. And a big part of that for him is, naturally, the food.
“Coming out here, it was a huge change. I had become an office chef and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and I loved it. The conferencing that we’re doing feels casual but still brings professionalism. It’s amazing to see delegates on the day, they check in and they might still have the tie on and then you see that progression. Even if they check out the next day, they just look vibrant. They look like they’re refreshed and relaxed. And that’s what we say: Yes, it’s a conference, but it’s a retreat. It’s an escape,” he explains.
Flack says they’re constantly seeing more and more requests from planners for proposals that simply request that their event be “less corporate”.
“The planners and the EAs are always looking for something they can put in front of their boss or the CEO that doesn’t look like just another event,” he says.
“We say it’s a holistic experience. We have an endota spa here, we have the local partnerships with Global Ballooning, Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, Four Pillars gin and we have great partnerships with the Bendigo property as well.”
“Some of them come the day before the conference and it’s an incredible switch off. They might have a big presentation for the conference at 9am, so they drive out and they’re stressed and it’s just, work, work, work. Now, we’re seeing delegates come the day before, they get to relax and have dinner with their colleagues, they don’t talk shop so much and when the conference starts the next day, they’re refreshed, relaxed and can take on the day with a fresh focus.”
Always up for a challenge, Flack moved to the Victorian wine estates in June 2020, when a devastating fire completely destroyed the Balgownie Yarra Valley restaurant, cellar door and kitchen. Overseeing these areas at a time when COVID lockdowns were also taking place, took the challenge to a new level, forcing them to come up with some creative solutions that allowed them to maintain some creative dining options for guests, many that can be replicated now.
“I had Harry the hirer on the phone and we set up a temporary marquee on the tennis court that did breakfast through to diner for guests, cellar door service, in-room dining options and many boxed picnic-style offerings to keep expectations met.
“So now, if you want to do a wine and cheese tasting for your afternoon break, if you want to take the umbrellas down and do picnic boxes to chill on the lawn, stuff like that, the answer is yes. It’s always yes until it just doesn’t work.”
Flack says he’s proud of the fact that the dining experiences they’ve created inspire delegates to return as leisure guests again and again.
“Why shouldn’t the restaurant show off? Morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea all have restaurant touches.”
In addition to the restaurant, private dining and function spaces, Flack says with the addition of the newly renovated suites – and more renovated rooms to come – there’s even more reason to book the property for a group retreat.