26 Feb 2019
Words Catie Langdon
Business Of Creating Emotional Connections
It is only fitting the latest luxury offering by Tasmania’s Federal Group, MACq 01 on Hobart’s waterfront, should distinguish itself as Australia’s first ‘storytelling hotel’. Its creators have quite the story too. Dating to 1885 and the famed 450-room Federal Coffee Palace in Melbourne, the Federal Group is the oldest operating hotel group in Australia.
Fitting too that Federal Group should now be so heavily invested in Tasmania, a state for which heritage is tourism gold. As MACq 01’s master storyteller Justin Johnstone puts it, “you just have to scratch the surface and it bleeds history.”
Federal Group is a private family company that operates significant tourism, hospitality retail, casino and gaming assets statewide.
Their accommodation pedigree includes some of Australia’s finest hotels of days past, The Menzies, Savoy Plaza, Hotel Australia and Lennon’s Sydney. The same can be said for their portfolio of modern-day offerings. But first, their story.
It is many decades since Federal Group, owned and operated by the Farrell family, first invested in Tasmania, instigated by the late Greg Farrell Snr, father of the current owners.
In the 1940s, he and his wife Delores honeymooned at a prestigious and much-loved Hobart institution, the Wrest Point Riviera Hotel. Farrell declared it “the greatest hotel site in the world – right on the shore of the beautiful Derwent Estuary with the backdrop of Mount Wellington.”
In 1956, Federal Hotels bought that iconic establishment and, at an historic 1968 state referendum, Tasmania said ‘yes’ to hosting Australia’s first legal casino. On February 10, 1973, Federal Group catapulted Tasmania onto the national stage with the gala opening of Wrest Point Hotel and Casino, featuring a landmark 17-storey dodecagonal prism tower.
Since those days, the company has continued its pioneering ways, opening Country Club Casino & Resort on Launceston’s rural fringe in 1982 (Australia’s first integrated resort-style casino development) and, in 1984, the first purpose-built conference and convention centre at Wrest Point.
Both remain in the group’s accommodation and hospitality stable, but are today operated under their casino division. Instigated by CEO and managing director, Greg Farrell (son of the former chairman), a dedicated Tourism Division now focuses on the premium visitor market.
General Manager Tourism, Matt Casey, explains: “The units are differentiated according to customer base. Our Tourism Division is all about how we add value to our customers, and that is really through unique and memorable experiences.”
The 5-star Henry Jones Art Hotel launched in 2007 on one of Hobart’s most significant industrial heritage sites, H. Jones & Co. Pty Ltd ILX. And in a super luxury category on its own, the globally acclaimed Saffire Freycinet has operated since 2010.
Federal’s Tourism Division once had a more diverse portfolio, including businesses run under the ‘Pure Tasmania’ brand - Cradle Mountain Chateau, Freycinet Lodge, Gordon River Cruises, Strahan Village accommodation, and the West Coast Wilderness Railway from Strahan to Queenstown. But these were divested.
The more family-oriented properties were sold to motoring company, the RACT, a satisfying deal that kept them in local hands and secured jobs for existing staff.
“Given the success of Henry Jones and Saffire, we decided our greatest capability lay at the premium end of the market,” Matt says. “Our expertise meant we were better placed to grow that segment, and our studies showed that’s where the greatest long-term potential was. These are nationally and internationally recognised properties.”
So what lies behind that success? “We don’t see our hotels as ‘properties’ or ‘developments’,” Matt explains. “We view them more in terms of emotional connections with customers, what value we can bring that is deeply connected to our guests’ experience of place.”
That approach manifests in Federal Group’s significant investment in what might broadly be termed ‘the arts’ – visual and fine arts, architecture and design, storytelling, and the celebration of the landscape.
They understand that expressions borne of skill and imagination are powerful emotional triggers. Even building and interior design is less about ‘the look’ and more about how guests experience their destinations, and Tasmania more broadly.
“This is Tasmania,” Matt says with obvious pride. “It is a different destination – its environment, culture, people. This is a quirky island, steeped in history and conflict.
“We need to differentiate, and if those things are the drivers that bring people here, and if we are to be the best in Tasmania, we need to be part of that experience.”
Such is their passion for heightening the visitor experience, key personnel at Henry Jones Art Hotel include full-time art and history curators. The hotel is a working gallery.
Up to 500 original and contemporary artworks are exhibited at any one time, showcasing Tasmania’s artists in every room and space. Intriguing, sometimes provocative, they depict history, cultural identity and place.
Housed within the nineteenth century sandstone walls of Henry Jones’ IXL jam factory and warehouses, Australia’s first dedicated ‘art hotel’ features 52 rooms and suites, signature Landscape Restaurant & Grill, more relaxed Peacock and Jones restaurant, a soaring glass atrium public space, and the IXL Long Bar, a classic but edgy cocktail bar.
The Packing Room presents exhibitions in a high-end gallery environment, while the award-winning Landscape Restaurant showcases the iconic art of John Glover alongside a selection of winning contemporary landscapes from the John Glover Prize.
Recently, the group also launched the Henry Jones Art Prize, building on 21 years of the Wrest Point Art Awards, offering a $20,000 prize to support early career artists.
Cross to the other side of historic Hunter Street, and the experience moves from the figurative to the narrative.
Here, in June 2017, Federal opened MACq 01 on the docks of Hobart’s Macquarie Wharf. GM Matt Casey tells its story.
“The typical visitor to Tasmania seeks so much more than cocktails and selfies; instead drawn by adventure, learning, authentic experience and genuine connection. So we have created a new category of hotel, a ‘storytelling hotel’, that goes well beyond mere historical interpretation to become an immersive storytelling experience.
“Our guests are engaged in the historical narrative at every touch point through our architecture, interiors, multimedia, food and beverage and, most importantly, our people.”
Key personnel here include the Master Storyteller and his team of full-time storytellers who bring the adventure to life. And all around are materials and artefacts, selected by antiques curator, Warwick Oakman, to tangibly connect visitors to the stories.
Tasmania’s people, they say, embody distinct character traits: Colourful & Quirky, Hearty & Resilient, Curious & Creative, Grounded Yet Exceptional, and the Fighting Believer. Each is represented throughout MACq 01.
On 114 doors, the stories of 114 characters are told, each one with an original illustration. They are native Tasmanians, inventors, explorers, convicts, heroes and others. At check-in, guests learn which trait their room reflects, but they don’t discover their unique character story until they arrive at the door.
This is also a hotel of striking architectural form with breathtaking direct waterfront position. On the ground floor are The Story Bar (what else?), the Old Wharf Restaurant and an atmospheric lounge.
Speaking of striking architecture, however, it’s hard to go past Saffire Freycinet, a luxury lodge on the Freycinet Peninsula that seeks to reflect the beauty and depth of nature in all its facets.
Designed by Tasmanian architect Robert Morris Nunn and associates Circa Architecture, the buildings evoke a connection to the sea through references to waves, sea creatures, sand dunes and a flowing, organic form. It looks for all the world like a giant, graceful ray.
Here, it is the connection with its environment that generates the authentic, enriching, rejuvenating and uplifting experience. It is also set apart by its tailored, personal experiences and services – indulgent, inspiring and unforgettable.
With rates that start at $2,100 per suite per night, it does stand alone for ‘super luxury’. An ever-growing list of national and international awards acknowledges Saffire’s excellence, too many to name.
As for the future, Federal Group Tourism has two more exceptional destinations in the pipeline, at Port Arthur and Cradle Mountain. But they will take their time to get them right. “To deliver exceptional experiences, particularly on sites that are so iconic, we have to be very considered and careful. They are just too important,” Matt says.
He says the Port Arthur plan is in the advanced concept development stage. It will be a luxury sister resort to Saffire to be developed on the site of the current Comfort Inn, which looks across the historic Port Arthur site.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Extensive customer testing is being undertaken, sensitive to myriad environmental, social, heritage, aesthetic and regulatory imperatives. Where Saffire is a building like no other, the feeling is the Port Arthur design needs to defer to its landmark surroundings.
“We’re not yet sure how it will resolve,” says Matt. Although he hints at a huge opportunity linked to the original gardens of the settlement where heirloom vegetable varieties and an array of produce might suggest an agrarian or epicurean experience is on the cards.
The Cradle Mountain site is further down the track. This land is immersed in the wilderness, with a view of the cradle, so it holds incredible promise.
“For now the focus is on bedding down MACq 01 and some other restaurants and bars in the precinct, and next will come Port Arthur.”
Meanwhile, as visitor numbers to Tasmania grow, so too is the hotel room pipeline. Matt estimates there may be 1000 rooms coming on line in the premium category alone in the next three to four years. But he’s not concerned.
“To some extent, Tasmania has been hamstrung for some time by lack of room supply. And competition is healthy. We all lift our game and the destination becomes more appealing. From a business point of view, it’s about differentiation and value proposition and knowing your customer. If you do, you’ll be fine.
“Experiential development is very important – new products, new experiences. Look at Mona. The triggers to travel have to grow, and that’s exciting.”