The world of luxury hotels was magnificently represented in Melbourne for the annual Virtuoso Symposium, May 7-10, 2019. Many of the 508 delegates had come a long way, and most used the opportunity to see more of Australia (Boston Harbor Hotel GM Stephen Johnston, who had to fly home early, still said it was well worth flying 23 hours and 10 minutes, with a transit in Los Angeles, for just a couple of days). As always, Virtuoso Chairman/CEO Matthew Upchurch was in his usual charismatic form – he loves Australia, considers himself an honorary friend of the country. He told that story again and again during the week, which was most appropriate since story-telling was the main Symposium theme.
Educationals included real-time videos showing Townsville QLD environmentalist Craig McGrogan underwater at the Great Barrier Reef, talking to founder of Earth Hour Andy Ridley, in the conference room. New York-based futurist Fred Dust spoke of today’s tensions, which include the ongoing conflict between big data and human insight. Later, Dust led a fascinating detective-type workshop guessing the identity of someone only identified by images they had posted on Instagram and, since the room was full of travel people, where would you send them on a long-weekend vacation? interestingly one of the ‘hidden personalities’ was none other than Fred Dust, though some participating teams identified that person as female, or transgender, and what were a line-up of Wellington boots doing? Answer: he has a working farm in upstate New York and keeps a variety of boots for weekend houseguests.
At another session, Rosewood’s Thuy Tranthi Rieder shared some branding secrets on a panel with eco-fashionista Angel Chang (this panel was hosted by Virtuoso’s SVP Global Product Partnerships Albert Herrera). As should now be obvious, the Symposium was certainly work, but it was fun, with lots of laughs. Cleverly, one day was design-your-own. Some opted to visit kangaroos and wallabies, others for Yarra Valley wine-tastings, or golf here, cycling or highways and byways there. As luck would have it, that was the one day when Zeus, the Greek god ofrain, thunder, lightning, clouds and wind, decreed there should be rain, nonstop, but it certainly brought out the trooper mentality of the travel industry, and helped with yet more networking – the programme organisers had built in lots of that.. The openng cocktail, at the National Gallery of Victoria, was hosted by the outgoing MD Tourism Australia John O’Sullivan and the equally-approachable Peter Bingeman, COO Visit Victoria – I nibbled Moreton Bay Bugs (thenus crayfish) and looked at such living-art Australian images as a lifesaver (see photo above).
A really nice feature was the dine-around, being bussed to some of Melbourne’s best restaurants – I was lucky enough to be allocated Scott Pickett’s barbeque food at Matilda 159. The two host hotels, Crown Towers and Park Hyatt, entertained magnificently. Park Hyatt’s superb cocktail included the actual Australian Open tennis and Melbourne Cup horse-racing trophies, for selfies if you donned white gloves. Crown’s wrap-up dinner had place settings individually projected from the ceiling, really decent food and top entertainment in the form of emerald-clad diva Kerrie-Ann Greenland (from Instinctmusic) followed by the motown-type Oz Boyz quartet. Matthew Upchurch presented the Ruby of Siam award to Stephanie Anevich, from Vision Travel in Australia. Also at the dinner, Anthony Goldman, one of the brothers who current head the Goldman Group, which has main offices in both Melbourne and Sydney, formally launched a bespoke Virtuoso gin, blended and distilled at Healesville VIC’s Four Pillars Distillery. And everyone danced and the networking continued. Whatever Virtuoso does it does with style, in this case sharing the story of Australia’s authenticity, and even those who had travelled from the other side of the world considered it well worthwhile. As Susanne Hatje, GM of Mandarin Oriental New York, said on her return home, “a Virtuoso Symposium shows the tremendous value that comes from relationship building and forging and sustaining those relationships through human connections. Building these valuable connections doesn’t have a geographic boundary and it’s important to take that initiative globally”. VIDEOS BELOW SHOW, IN ORDER, ROOM 1204 AT CROWN TOWERS, THE OPENING SINGER AT CROWN’S VIRTUOSO EVENING AND, ALSO THAT NIGHT, ANTHONY GOLDMAN’S VIDEO PRESENTATION OF THE DISTILLATION OF THE BESPOKE VIRTUOSO GIN
Sydney has a plethora of luxury hotels and the fact that one far exceeds its peers in terms of rates and reputation spurs the others on. The gal was thrilled to see how Four Seasons Hotel Sydney has picked itself up from the doldrums of years with no investment and GMs who too often changed restaurant concepts, none of which worked. Now, under seasoned foodie Bahram Sepahi, MODE Kitchen and Bar is really a success. It occupies what was once a tea lounge at the back of the ground floor lobby of the 1982-vintage hotel. Now partitioned off, with frosted glass, and anchored by a massive real-log wood oven and a big open cooking area, it is inviting, and locals love it.
MODE’s Manager, Amanda McDivitt, has come in from freestanding restaurants (just as The Pierre found in New York, a woman with such experience helps a hotel restaurant enormously). She is complemented by a real Italian chef, Francesco Mannelli; as a result my fresh burrata on a melange of figs, roasted walnuts and fennel pollen, was delicious, as was my following ribeye, from New South Wales of course (five-week aged, with a side of cauliflower cooked with truffle emulsion). There was just time, after dinner, to see one of the new-look bedrooms. Gone are the green and floral images of yesteryear. Now the 531 rooms are taupe and teal, with mirrors to maximise every space: designer Miriam Fanning of Mim Design has worked with a Bali bits-and-bobs procurer who has added some just-right ceramics, and amusing foot-high wire-outline shapes of cyclists. Yes, the effect is fun.
The same word could be used for Sofitel Wentworth, the city’s venerable institution that goes back to 1963 when Qantas bought an old Wentworth hotel, named after the explorer and statesman William Charles Wentworth (he started a newspaper named The Australian, but no relation to today’s newssheet). The airline wanted a hotel for its VIPs, but they built it in a different location, on Philip Street, merely cannibalising its name: funnily enough it still has an airline connection as it houses Emirates crews and, as of May 1st, British Airways. OK, where is the fun? Well, as I entered the lobby a male of at least 80, a sage with long white Dickensian locks, was playing a grand piano.
It turned out he was one of the guests attracted to this hotel just because he CAN tinkle to his heart’s content …. Philip Logan, the GM of this 436 room hotel, knows he has an advantage being part of Accor, which has over 150,000 club members in Australia. I took the opportunity, when lunching at Sofitel Wentworth, to go very-Aussie, in fact very New South Wales, with beef carpaccio folllowed by a Binnorie-feta salad, from Lovedale in the Hunter Valley. Philip Logan told me that on September 7th, 2019, by contrast, the food at this luxury hotel will be all French. Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy will be guest-cheffing at a dinner Atout France, which attracts tourism to France, is hosting for 400 of Australia’s travel community.