Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sydney's 'rough quarter' turns smooth operator - the renaissance of Sydney's Central precinct

How often have you heard people describe Chippendale, Redfern, Haymarket and Ultimo as Sydney’s “hot and happening” suburbs?

Probably never.  In fact, it has only been very recently that these former slums have emerged from their slumber and prompted a renaissance of the southern end of Sydney’s CBD.

I am on a guided tour led by Sydney Architecture Walks founder and principal guide, Eoghan Lewis, and he describes the Central railway line as Sydney’s “Berlin Wall” – it splits the city in half with an almost impenetrable barrier.

Eoghan says it provided not just a geographic divide, but a sociological separation, with those settlers east of the railway line generally the moneyed classes, while those to the west were the earliest residents of “struggle street”.

Central itself was pivotal to the city almost from its inception, being the link between the agricultural fields of Parramatta and the rapidly growing city. So vital and busy, in fact, that Central became the site of Sydney’s first toll-way. 

Sydney’s Central district (circa 1819), home to Australia’s first ever toll-way

 In 1811, Governor Lachlan Macquarie introduced a toll to pay for the maintenance of the “road” from Sydney Town to Parramatta. In reality, it was a rambling 25km dirt track through the bush that was so ill-constructed that in heavy rain it became an impassable quagmire for horse-drawn coaches and goods wagons, and when dry an axle-breaker of potholes and tree-stumps. As one of the tour party quipped “so what’s changed since then?”

Of course, there has been plenty of water under the bridge over the past two centuries. Central was probably at its peak one hundreds ago when trains and trams made it the transport hub of Sydney. Department stores bearing the names of their founders – such as Marcus Clark, Mark Foy and Anthony Hordern – opened in and around Railway Square, while Tooheys established a vast brewery just a little further down the road that would often envelop the area in an aromatic haze.  

 Central was at its busiest in the first half of the 1900s – the plume of smoke comes from the old Tooheys/CUB brewery site

Ladies would come in to the “Big Smoke” from the suburbs and country areas for shopping while their husbands would retire to the pubs to catch up with mates, play a bit of two-up or just down pints of amber fluid before their wives extracted them before (or after) the “six o’clock swill” got the better of them.

The second half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the precinct though, with David Jones opening up in Market Street and then the development of Circular Quay pushing the city’s business and retail heart a lot further north towards Circular Quay.

Central declined rapidly. The department stores closed, the trams stopped, even the brewery closed. The area may have become the site for a tertiary institute – the Institute of Technology, which then became the University of Technology – but even that was quickly labelled as one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings. Urban decay set in.

As our erudite and passionate guide, Eoghan – an architect by profession – explains: “The suburbs that surround Central – Ultimo, Chippendale, Surry Hills and Redfern – were a cultural no-man’s land for decades, but in recent times, this part of Sydney has experienced a resurgence in popularity with a steady influx of young creative and a thriving contemporary art, architectural and design scene.”

The signs of change began just prior to the 2000 Olympics. The ABC moved its HQ to Ultimo, a brand new hotel – Mercure Sydney – brought contemporary style and comfort to the area, and a number of corporate office buildings were opened. But it has really only been in the past three years that people would have noticed the changes.

Firstly, the brewery site was re-developed and outstanding architects such as Jean Nouvel, Alec Tzannes and Norman Foster hired to create a dramatic design for Central Park’s buildings. Then, UTS decided to add some of the most dramatic new architecture seen in Sydney for many decades. The Frank Gehry “crumpled” building will open in the second half of 2014 and will become an immediate landmark, while DCM have designed a stunning building next to the existing “ugly” UTS tower. And down a sidestreet, Bates Smart designed a pre-rusted student housing building called Iglu. Off that same side street, a new street (Kensington Street) of boutiques, restaurants and galleries is set to emerge from the Central Park re-development that will inject a bit of Melbourne into the Emerald City.

The Central Park redevelopment has converted the former Toohey’s/CUB brewery site into a landscape of modern architecture-driven buildings, while retaining some historical buildings and adding innovative sculptures such as the Halo

 Art is already flourishing in the area. The White Rabbit Gallery looks as good on the outside as the modern Chinese art does on the inside. Central Park boasts the vivid “Halo” sculpture, designed by Jennifer Turpin, that spins in a fashion that makes viewers feel “a bit pissed”, according to Eoghan. He’s right. Amazingly, the sculpture pivots on a tiny 10mm marble.

The area doesn’t ignore the stomach either. We walk towards Redfern and on the corner of busy Cleveland Street the intoxicating smell of fresh bread comes from Sydney’s pace-setting Brickfields Bakery, where you can stop for artisan breads and cakes, plus fine coffee (I am told). However, you will need to like your coffee, because queues are known to stretch almost as far as the old Hellfire Club – which was for many years one of the area’s few – and rather dubious – claims to fame.

Redfern has an immediate connotation for most Australians, encouraged even more so by the recent ABC TV series, Redfern Now. But if it has been a hot-bed of controversy in the past, today it is a hot-spot for funky architecture.

In George Street – where a new purpose-built cycleway is just being finalised – a harsh metallic looking exterior amongst a row of Victorian-era houses has become a shrine for followers of uber-trendy house design. Engelen Moore were the designers and if the exterior is not to everyone’s taste, the interior’s bold design, expansive space and sharp natural light has made it a favourite for photo shoots in the glossy magazine world.

In nearby Stirling Street there is a remarkable take on the weatherboard house. Amazingly, the inner suburbs have been off-limits for wooden design because the material is considered “low class” by councils, but when plans were put forward to replace two existing wooden houses with one large wooden house, they were accepted and the subsequent result has become known as “The Ark”. The project has strong green considerations: passive solar design (good use of natural ventilation/cooling and extensive shading) no A/C (apparently it works without), solar hot water, 100% rainwater collection for re-use on site.  In combination with this, all the materials were chosen on the basis of their sustainable credentials.

While the changes to the style of houses and buildings have been quite dramatic, the commitment to open spaces in the precinct has been just as significant. That is best manifested in Prince Alfred Park that runs along Chalmers Street leading to Central Station. For as long as I know, this was a place to be avoided, especially at night. That wasn’t always the case, though, with an ice-rink, swimming pool and parklands attracting the crowds until about 50 years ago. More recently it became a home for vagrants, drunks and (at times) some even more unsavoury characters.

Prince Alfred Park provides vast open spaces and family-friendly facilities in the heart of the city

Today, it is transformed. Barely visible from the road, the grounds now include tennis courts, a magnificent swimming pool, fun children’s facilities that hark back to the days when it was the site of a quarantine station for animals (think elephant slide) and beautifully manicured grounds, ideal for picnics or a lazy doze in the sun.

The redevelopment won the Australian Institute of Landscape Architect Award for creating an “exemplary landscape” in a changing urban environment

“The redesign of Prince Alfred Park and Pool is a poetic reinterpretation of Sydney’s large 19th century city parks, and as such, is an outstanding contribution to Sydney’s heritage of urban parklands,” the jury said. “(It is) not only environmentally responsible but also a lyrical response to a forgotten site.”

We started at the Mercure Sydney Central so webegan to head back to the hotel, but not before a short, and very significant, detour.

We went under the railways that block off the two sides of Sydney (there are proposals to build OVER the top of the railways, but I think that might be in someone else’s life), through a tunnel that once used to be rather scary. Today it is full of people bustling towards the UTS and Ultimo. They walk past fascinating old photos of Railway Square and Central Station while they listen to buskers that range from the ordinary to the…very-ordinary. Think of singing in the shower…these buskers think they are the new Eric Clapton or Amy Winehouse, but in the end they are just interesting buskers giving the peace no chance.

We end up on the other side of Central almost outside the ABC. There are railway lines beneath our feet and as we look towards the site of the audacious Frank Gehry building (still under wraps, but the “crumpled” building design will make this a landmark as soon as it is unveiled), Eoghan explains that this will be another of the “connections” that finally links the various elements of Sydney’s forgotten south together.
The Goods Line will connect Central to Darling Harbour, converting an old railway freight line into public space featuring dining and entertainment areas, along with the (already famous, but not even unveiled) Frank Gehry UTS Building (above)

The Goods Line – a far better name than the previously utilitarian UPN (Ultimo Pedestrian Network) – will link Central with Darling Harbour in much the same way as the High Line did in New York. The 500 metre stretch of disused railway track will sit four metres above street level, and start from the end of the Devonshire Street pedestrian tunnel, span across a heritage railway bridge at Ultimo Road and finish near the Powerhouse Museum. There will be restaurant precincts and art and entertainment areas, and will finally end the "big divide" between east and west of the CBD.

Mercure Sydney has played a pivotal role in returning Railway Square to its former glory. The hotel has just undergone a multi million dollar refurbishment, and guests can enjoy the Sydney skyline views from the expansive second floor balcony or the rooftop swimming pool
I was part of a group being shown the area as a result of the re-launch of the Mercure Sydney Central. We returned to the hotel – which has just benefited from a multi-million dollar upgrade – and we had a spectacular dinner on the extensive balcony overlooking Railway Square. One of the group suggested – rather optimistically – that Railway Square could become Sydney’s version of Times Square. Well, there’s quite a long way to go on that score, but thanks to the progressive efforts of visionaries such as Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the city is certainly heading in the right direction.
Further information:
Sydney Architecture Walks:
Mercure Sydney:
Peter Hook
December 2013

Saturday, 19 October 2013

It’s time to ditch the smartphone and make the most of the moment

Smartphones have their uses, particularly during crises such as Sydney’s recent bushfires, but you have to wonder whether smartphones are increasingly denying people from ‘making the most of the moment’.
For instance, at concerts, half the audience seems to watch the performance via their smartphone rather than just taking in the richness of the event. How can a tiny and tinny version of a concert captured on a smartphone replicate the actual thing? Instead of something special gained, it simply results in a unique moment lost.
The intrusion and negative impact of the ubiquitous smartphone is now apparently affecting sporting prowess. According to Fairfax Media, Australian Rugby Union CEO, John O’Neill, blasted the wobbly Wallabies straight after their 22-0 loss to the All Blacks in Auckland recently, saying: ''Twenty per cent of you are letting down the other 80 per cent. That 20 per cent are the same 20 per cent who have their mobile phone in their hands right now. The same 20 per cent are the ones on the grog midweek instead of complying with the rules. So put your f---ing mobiles away. In fact, don't even bring them with you on match day. I'm your employer. I'm not your mate. You're getting paid for the privilege of wearing the gold jersey and representing your country. And you are letting us down.''
Taking out the smartphone on a holiday might not warrant such a withering response, but there is a time and a place for their use. For instance, why take out the phone and post on Facebook that you’ve arrived at a restaurant. Why not enjoy the whole experience, talk with your partner or family, savour the moment and then – if you have to – post a little later?

The “Outsmart the Smartphone” campaign launched by Sunshine Coast Destination is very commendable. It is not about banning the instrument, but rather asking holidaymakers to think about appropriate usage.
In collaboration with British technology expert, Dr. Tom Chatfield, they’ve designed a Smartphone ‘Code of Conduct’, which lists seven simple behaviours to encourage individuals to break free from smartphone dependency, especially if they are planning to holiday on the Sunshine Coast. They are:
1. Avoid being a search-it-all
Make the most of the moment and seek out your own special corner of the coast.
2. Elbows and phones off the table
Make the most of the moment with great food and company (There’s a great restaurant in Caloundra called Table Manners, which does its best to educate young and old about correct etiquette when dining).
3. Kiss your phone goodnight 
Make the most of your night with a restful night’s sleep or some romance. 
4. Look before you snap
Make the most of the moment and take in this truly breathtaking place. 
5. Take a phone-free day
Make the most of the moment and experience nature without distractions. 
6. Talk now, text later
Make the most of the moment and enjoy this precious time together. 
7. Taste before you upload
Make the most of the moment and savour every mouthful.
Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is claiming to be the first ever destination to act on the issue of smartphone dependency, and a number of the region’s attractions have joined up to support the campaign.
The campaign follows research undertaken by Galaxy Research, which found that 55 per cent of Australians believe they could not live 24 hours without their smartphone and 65 per cent keep their phone within arms reach throughout the day.
Even more worryingly, the research revealed that smartphones have become so addictive that 48% of Australians interviewed said they had been interrupted by phones during sex and 53% were using their phones while on the toilet. I can vouch for the latter because my son managed to drop his iphone in the toilet while a recent holiday in Phuket.
Anna Musson, ettiquette expert, notes that: “The research highlights how obsessed we are with our smartphones, we’ve lost touch with what constitutes positive social behaviour. 80 per cent of people said they’ve had a conversation with someone where the other person was texting and almost half of all Australians (48%) have argued with a partner over their phone usage.”
"Whilst there is widespread commentary around the appropriate use of smartphone technology, the Sunshine Coast is the first destination to put a stake in the ground to address the issue. Considering the natural beauty of the region, this is perfect destination to do so.”
And before anyone claims that the campaign is close to being evangelical, I think Tom Chatfield has exactly the right view – it’s all about balance: “This doesn’t mean technology is bad, toxic or something we need to give up. Rather, we need to become technology gourmets and learn how to pick and choose how we use it.”

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Andrew McEvoy had the “balls” to be different

There was a moment in a presentation by Tourism Australia Social Media Director, Jesse Desjardins, at the Australian Society of Travel Writers AGM when I wasn’t sure whether I was being conned.

The very smooth-talking Jesse had just revealed that the infamous kangaroo-genitalia “cover up” had not been a case of political correctness but in fact a clever tactic to get the world’s media to talk about Australia via its most recognisable symbol – the kangaroo.

 “The censored image of Big Baz caused outrage on Facebook when it was posted by Tourism Australia,” said the Daily Mail in the UK, who obviously didn’t get the joke

While Aussie radio shock-jocks railed against the PC and nanny-state implications of the move, the images went viral and TV was covering it from one corner of the globe to the other. The common theme was that people were talking about Australia, something that traditional campaigns can rarely achieve.
Of course, ten years ago “Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” went global but for all the wrong reasons, where as kangaroos – whether they are fluffy, cute creatures or rather well-endowed bruisers – are quintessentially Australian and resonate with just about everybody.

Jesse said that the cover-up had been a deliberate strategy to attract viral social media attention, but more importantly he said that Tourism Australia MD, Andrew McEvoy, was in on the strategy and fully endorsed it.

It is that refreshing “bravery” and conviction that makes Andrew McEvoy’s departure from Tourism Australia disappointing. After the organisation had stumbled through much of the 2000s in a relatively directionless fashion, McEvoy recruited tourism experts who knew their field and then trusted their judgement to get the job done.

“Collaboration” was the hallmark of his four-year tenure. He knew that with limited budgets he needed private enterprise and state/regional tourism associations to be full partners in tourism promotion. That was put into practice when they followed-up Queensland’s remarkably successful “Best Job in the World” campaign with their even bigger “Best Jobs in the World” promotion that covered the whole of Australia and attracted 600,000 applications and more than 45,000 videos from nearly 200 countries..

It’s fair to say that much of the tourism industry hasn’t embraced social media successfully. In fact, many still see it as potential for negative comment and therefore use it only in tokenist fashion (“put the press release out on Facebook” is a favourite phrase of marketers who don’t get the medium). On the other hand, Tourism Australia was prepared to take a risk with their strategy, and the numbers from this promotion, as well as even-grander enterprises such as Oprah Downunder, proved they knew what they were doing.

I left Jesse’s session convinced that a once tortoise-paced organisation had begun to display gazelle-style stealth and rat cunning. The whole kangaroo episode was a result of a fortuitous opportunity from Featherdale Wildlife Park, who sent through a photo of Big Baz that would normally have been just another (good) photo on Tourism Australia's Instagram pages, but the social media team thought that a little pixilation in the right place could arouse considerable more interest than the naked photo, so to speak. And it did - in buckets.

That confidence of action only comes with a confident and pro-active MD who understands that attracting attention in an incredibly crowded media environment means taking risks.

He is heading off to Fairfax to head off their Events business, and if anyone needs entrepreneurial and cutting-edge acumen it’s Fairfax (after all, I persuaded my wife to buy shares in the company and they’ve lost 75% of their value since then, so I have a little self-interest in Andrew's future success).

Events are at the heart of Australia’s tourism future and anyone who was in Sydney during the recent long-weekend would have seen the impact of hosting major events. The Fleet Review, rugby league grand final and One Direction gave tourism and hospitality the ideal direction, with the city booked out in record fashion.

On these occasions you often hear people say “why don’t we have more new hotels built?” Well, there is a simple answer. Unless there is demand, there is no incentive to build, and Tourism Australia – under Andrew McEvoy – has understood this very clearly. He made Tourism Australia’s priority to drive business by encouraging major events and media buzz across all platforms.

“Under Andrew’s direction, Tourism Australia concentrated heavily on opening up new markets, attracting new airlines, stimulating tourism investment, encouraging an events-based tourism culture, and embracing new innovative, digital communication channels which have had demonstrative benefits for the industry,” said Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) Managing Director, Rodger Powell.

“Australia's tourism profile has changed dramatically in the four years that Andrew has been at the helm, and it must be remembered that for much of his tenure, Australia has had to cope with a very high Australian dollar, intense international competition and a persistently depressed world economy. Throughout this period, Australia has been able to build up inbound tourism from the rapidly emerging Asian economies, while also consolidating its presence in traditional markets.

“He has really driven a major cultural change in the way Australia pursues its tourism objectives, and with Chairman Geoff Dixon, this has led to major growth in air links with the rest of the world, and that is crucial for the longer-term development of the inbound industry.

“While we are sad that Andrew will leave the organisation, his successor will have the benefit of his hard work and foresight. Tourism is in excellent hands as a result of his dedication to the role.”

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

It's official - no one does markets better than the Sunshine Coast
Queensland’s Sunshine Coast region has been voted by Trip Advisor reviewers as the premier Australian region for markets, with the Noosa Farmers Market voted number one and Eumundi Market voted number four.
The Noosa Farmers Market has been running for 11 years every Sunday morning from 0700 – 1200. Over 100 stalls showcase the best of local produce and artisan products including a wide range of organics, freshly squeezed lime drinks, marinades and sauces, aromatic skin care products, nuts and seeds, olives and tasty tapenades, herbs and just-caught seafood, freshly baked bread and creamy cheeses.
The Noosa Farmer Markets offer live entertainment each Sunday and special events are held throughout the year.
I personally know the fourth-placed Eumundi Markets far better, as do millions of Australians and international visitors who’ve breathed in the exotic (and some not so exotic) scents during its 34 years in operation.
It started in 1979, when ceramic artist Christa Barton and her friend Gail Perry-Somers came up with the idea of holding a European style “artisans and farmers” market in the sleepy village of Eumundi. The area had become a haven for artists and “alternatives” who had escaped suburbia for a more community-focused, simpler way of life.
Eumundi Markets in the 1980s, budgie smugglers, dreadlocks and all
The first ‘market’ outside the Christian Woman’s Association (CWA) Hall attracted a grand total of three stalls and eight customers with a turnover of $30. But within a year it was a major success, with the Market’s focus on handmade products, and the ethos of “make it, bake it, grow it, sew it” setting it apart from rivals. By 1985, The Eumundi Markets had 97 stalls and 143,000 people for the year, and by 1990, it had grown to 203 stalls, with some 260,000 visitors for the year. Today, the Eumundi Markets is the biggest art and craft market in Australia, with 550 stalls, attracting over 1.6 million visitors annually.
The market has evolved but the philosophy of localism and hand-made remains strong, as is the aim to create a genuinely sustainable shopping experience by introducing green credentials such as creating – with Eumundi’s local school – a worm farm to process all compostable waste generated by the market and for the school to resell the organic fluids and castings to raise much-needed funds. The market is now plastic bag free and all packaging materials used are fully compostable. In the future, Eumundi markets plans to install solar power generation and water harvesting to become energy self-sufficient, with the long-term aim of exporting any surplus energy within the community.
Other popular Sunshine Coast markets include: the Peregian Beach Market, Cotton Tree Market and Markets on Bulcock in Caloundra which is always vibrant and buzzing with live music and entertainment.
More information about Sunshine Coast and its markets:
For the record, the top 10 markets in Australia according to Trip Advisor are: 1. Noosa Farmers Market – Sunshine Coast 2. Adelaide Centre Market – Adelaide 3. South Melbourne Market – Melbourne 4. Eumundi Market – Sunshine Coast 5. Prahran Market – Melbourne 6. Salamanca Market – Hobart 7. Sunday Market Port Douglas – Port Douglas 8. Queen Victoria Market – Melbourne 9. Parap Market – Darwin 10. Sydney Fish Market - Sydney

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Long time between drinks as Hunter Valley Wine Festival revived after 30 years

It’s been a long time between drinks for the Hunter Valley Wine Festival, but hotel owner and entrepreneur, Dr Jerry Schwartz, will celebrate the purchase of his first vineyard – the former McWilliams Middle Creek vineyard – by reviving the Hunter Valley Wine Festival on 12 October.
The last Festival was apparently held (well, they say, if you can remember it, you weren't there...) in 1983, at the Cessnock Showgrounds, but it ended up a rather traumatic event for organiser John Fordham, the usually indefatigable wine promoter. As he recalls: "There was an ugly drama late in the afternoon when a team of bikies descended on the venue. Brian McGuigan, for one, was the subject of threats and some pushing when he refused them service." Clearly they weren't chardonnay bikies!

That festival was largely organised by Tyrrell's, who are once again involved with the new Hunter Valley Wine Festival, along with 30 other large and boutique wineries, such as Gartelmann Wines (whose Cabernet was recently highly rated by Huon Hooke) and Macquariedale Organic Wines. Local boutique ciders and beers will also be on offer, all complemented by gourmet fresh produce and entertainment from the region.

Attendees will have the opportunity to blend their own Hunter Classic, and there will be key note speakers to add a touch of education to the day.

The difference between 1983 and 2013, is that the Festival will be held in the picturesque grounds of the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, and will be a very family-friendly event (executives riding their weekend Harleys will be allowed entry as long as they are accompanied by a family following in a Volvo).

The Festival comes as a result of Dr Jerry Schwartz’s passion for the Hunter Valley (he owns three hotels there) and the region’s wines.

He has just completed the purchase of the Middle Creek vineyard, which covers 71 acres, and has 55 acres of semillon and chardonnay vines dating back to 1974, that have been used in the production of McWilliams’ famous Mt Pleasant wines.  
Dr. Schwartz is planning to establish his own winery and processing facility, but until that was completed the premium grapes would be harvested and processed by Hope Estate under the new name Jade Estate Winery.

“These vintage vines have produced outstanding wines in the past and we look forward to creating a new premium wine range that shows off the best of Hunter Valley produce,” said Dr Schwartz.

“I am passionate about wine and the Hunter Valley, and we will celebrate that by holding the first Hunter Valley Wine Festival in 30 years in the grounds of the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley wine community has come out in force and it will be a great celebration of the region’s wine and food culture.”

The festival, which will be held on the hotel’s sprawling grassy lawns and in the stately new marquee, will also be alive with entertainment throughout the day, including guest speakers, live music and a program of family-friendly activities.

Unlike other Hunter wine events that require transport from vineyard to vineyard, the Hunter Valley Wine Festival will be held in the one place, allowing festival-goers the opportunity to relax and enjoy the day at their own pace, between 11:00am-5:00pm. For the ultimate wine festival experience, stay on-site in a deluxe room or self-contained two- or three-bedroom villa at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley.

Hotel guests can break from the festival any time to enjoy the range of facilities around the grounds, including an 18-hole golf course, day spa, outdoor pool, tennis and basketball courts, oversized chess set, two restaurants and two bars -including Vista Lounge, renowned for having one of Australia’s largest whisky collections.

Wine lovers who don’t want to share the day with the ‘whine’ of young children can stay at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley and take advantage of resort’s Water Dragons Kids Club, the only complimentary fully supervised hotel kids’ club in the region.
Tickets to the festival are $30 pre-sale and $40 on the day (if available) and include 10 tastings. Children under 18 years receive free entry.

Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley is offering a special Hunter Valley Wine Festival package, including two-night stay, breakfast for two and festival tickets for two, starting from $450 per night for a deluxe room*. For more information or to make a booking, visit or call the hotel on (02) 4991 0970. *Minimum 2 nights stay. Terms and conditions apply and are subject to availability.

For more information, or to book tickets, visit

Twitter: @CrownePlazaHun  

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Putting wine back where it belongs – on the table with food

Have you ever attended a judging session for a major wine show? Literally hundreds of glasses stretching endlessly down a long trestle table with wine judges sniffing and sipping their way through an ocean of wines.

I have been involved with smaller wine judging events for the Mercure Grands Vins wine selection, and even 120 wines in an afternoon was taxing. There is a point where the palate simply can’t take or appreciate much more, though good wine judges do extraordinarily well to maintain their taste buds during these marathon sessions.

But what it has done to wine judging is encourage wineries to submit “big” wines in an effort to attract the attention of understandably-jaded judges. This created the big chardonnays and shiraz wines of the past that were offering massive oak and alcohol levels in excess of 15%, which – not surprisingly – consumers began to eschew after the novelty wore off. Chardonnay, to this day, is still trying to recover from that massive over-kill, which might have led to many awards, and might have attracted attention in the USA, but in the end tainted a very noble grape variety.

Today, I look very carefully at the medals festooned around wine bottles. The only one that really has any impact with me is the Sydney International Wine Competition TOP 100 medal ( because I know the wine has been judged with food.

It seems so obvious, but because of the pace and traditional style of wine judging, that rarely happens. What the Sydney International Wine Competition does is to judge the wines firstly by themselves, then with food – and, not surprisingly, many wines that shine on their own, do not perform as well with food that should, technically, be ideal for that variety.

The SIWC looks for food-friendly wines from Australia, New Zealand and many other countries around the world. It is into its 32nd year, which is an achievement in its own right, and entries for the 2014 Show are about to close, so wineries who think they have wines that are ideal for complementing food should look to enter the competition.

The competition’s entry is capped to 2000 wines, with the limit expected to be reached within the next month. Judging of the wines will take place in October, with all Award winners, including the prestigious TOP 1OO wine selection and the 26 trophy winners, announced at a glittering event at the Sydney Shangri-La hotel in March, 2014.

Already, over 1400 wines have been submitted, a record response for the competition at such an early stage. While predominantly from Australia and New Zealand, wines have also been submitted from South America, Europe and America.
www.top100wines.comConvener of the Sydney International Wine Competition, Warren Mason, said the show is looking for wines of balance and harmony that are food friendly alongside specific food styles.

“Each year we have new wineries entering the Competition who understand that, ultimately, wine is designed to complement food,” he said.“Because of the nature of traditional wine shows they may have been reluctant to enter such shows, but once they understand the principles of the Sydney International Wine Competition, they appreciate that their wines will have the opportunity to show their true qualities,” said Mr Mason.

"A wine that is successful in traditional wine shows might taste quite different when judged with food, and the point of the Sydney International Wine Competition is to help consumers select wine more confidently and more appropriate to every day dining.

“Wines that make the cut in the SIWC are treble tasted –initially on their own, but then with appropriate food. This way we are able to taste a wine the way most consumers will, and quite often wines that stand out initially don’t perform quite as well with food and vice versa. Held over five days, it is an exhaustive process, but it attracts an esteemed panel of local and international judges who endorse the approach.”

Chairman of Judges, Kym Mylne, highlighted the relevance of the approach when unveiling the 2013 award winners: “Instead of being seduced by the power and richness of the bigger wines, as sometimes can happen when wines are judged in purely varietal classes, many of the high-quality lighter-bodied wines can compete on their own terms when supporting the more subtle dishes and, indeed, show themselves in many cases to be superior food wines with such dishes.

“And, surely, compatibility with food is really at the very heart of enjoying wine? We must be sure that these wines are adequately represented.”

Kym Mylne will again be Chairman of Judges of an outstanding international panel comprising judges from Australia, New Zealand, The UK, USA and Taiwan.

Wineries seeking to enter can find Entry Forms along with full details of the competition and its background at:

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Hotel franchising – is it working in Australia?

If 80% of hotels in the US are franchised, why are only 30% in Australia?

While undoubtedly a growth sector in the Australian hotel environment – with over 750 hotels under franchise currently – industry experts at the Hotel Franchise World conference in Sydney suggested there was still a long way to go before Australia matched America and Europe.
Tony Ryan, Principal of Ryan Lawyers, recalled that in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was growing up in Wagga Wagga, he travelled past a motel with prominent Quality Inn signage on a regular basis, only to discover subsequently that the motel hadn’t actually been in the Quality Inn network for 15 years. At the time, however, there was little interest in – and even less regulation of – the franchise sector, because management companies ruled the hotel roost.

The arrival of online travel agencies (OTAs), making distribution easier for smaller and independent hotels, meant that the franchise model became more attractive for hotel owners, who didn’t have to rely so heavily on the established management companies to build business for their hotels.
The key issue for most franchisors and franchisees at the Hotel Franchise World conference appeared to be brand integrity. How do franchisors ensure that their franchisees maintain the brand standards that are more easily imposed on hotels under management contracts?

Penny Eccleston, a multi franchisee of Best Western hotels, said that brand aspects such as signage were crucial if a franchisee is to maximise the potential of a franchise arrangement. She estimated that a third of her business came from the Best Western connection, and there were still plenty who simply stopped on their way through a town because of Best Western’s brand reputation.
But it wasn’t always that way. Robert Anderson, CEO of Best Western, said that in 2007, the company parted ways with some 1000 properties because they weren’t up to standard. Since then Best Western’s Net pPomoter Score (of satisfaction) had doubled.

Panellists all agreed that it was up to both parties – franchisors and franchisees – to maintain standards.
Franchising had been far more successful in America because banks generally didn’t fund hotels unless they were aligned to one of the major companies, and many of the franchisees owned multiple properties. That is rarer in Australia, where motels are often owned by “dad and mum” operators who don’t have the capital and resources to constantly upgrade their properties.

Tony Ryan highlighted that in America institutional investors were firmly involved in the franchise sector, but they had largely ignored the Australian industry.
One of the reasons cited for this was the low returns for franchisors. While there was disagreement about what franchisors were able to charge their franchisee, StayWell’s Simon Wan suggested it was as little as 2 – 3% per revenue generated (in America it is up 10%), which made many franchise contracts unviable.

This had led companies such as Quest to look at different funding models to build their networks, with Quest having the advantage of developing most of their properties from ground up, which also ensured more uniform standards.
Where as franchised hotels were a feature of most American city CBDs, in Australia franchised hotels have largely been restricted to regional and suburban areas. However, Roland Jegge, VP Asia Pacific of Worldhotels, believed that there was a place for high-end independently operated city hotels joining a franchise network because consumers increasingly want hotels with individual style and character. However, it was essential that franchisors provide training and constant auditing through processes such as mystery shopping to ensure standards were maintained.  

The inaugural Hotel Franchise World conference ended with general optimism about the sector, though recognising that the drivers that had made franchising so popular in America still needed to be developed further and refined in Australia.