16 Aug 2018
Instinct For Excellence - Lancemore Group
Long before the terms ‘boutique hotel’ or ‘lifestyle hotel’ entered the modern hospitality lexicon, an enterprising Melbourne couple risked all to pursue a market they instinctively knew was there. Born of an entrepreneurial spirit and a deep appreciation for quality, Lancemore Group was a fine hotel operator before its time.
Today the name Lancemore, derived from the group’s very first property, is synonymous with six of Australia’s leading boutique hotels and conference and event destinations, along with an award-winning winery, critically acclaimed restaurants and indulgent spas.
Yet before the pioneering company began in the mid-1980s, tourism and hospitality were not part of its founders’ business plan. Peter Clark ran a substantial management consulting firm, and his wife Jan had been in fashion and design.
Theirs is an entrepreneurial story that started with what some warned was a foolhardy idea. Add the heartbreaking loss of family homes to fire, and their tale becomes all the more powerful and poignant.
Peter and Jan believed in their instincts, rolled up their sleeves and made in happen. Son Julian, now CEO of the industry-leading Lancemore Group takes up the story.
“They actually came to it from a customer perspective,” he reflects. “As facilitators, they did a lot of training, but there really were no suitable facilities then.
“Conferencing had emerged as part of the hotel industry, but usually just in basic meeting rooms with no natural light. So they saw an opening and started looking for a property to create a purpose-built venue.”
Then, while holidaying abroad, disaster struck. A bushfire destroyed their house and that of their parents on the family’s 111ha property at Kilmore, north of Melbourne. From that tragedy sprang the next chapter.
“They realised the family property actually fulfilled many of the criteria they were hoping for: a charming destination close to Melbourne and close to Tullamarine airport,” Julian said. “So they decided to build there.”
What rose from the ashes was Lancemore Hill, a stunning regional conference and wedding destination carefully and expertly designed for the purpose. Launched in 1986, it was the genesis of the Lancemore collection of boutique hotels and lifestyle facilities.
Consider the timing, though. Interest rates were 18 per cent, regional tourism was little understood, and the 1987 stock market crash and early 90s recession were soon to follow.
“I remember Dad saying, ‘I can’t believe we succeeded, but I never thought we’d fail’,” Julian reveals. Succeed it did. Lancemore Hill generated “stunning returns” throughout the 80s and 90s, expanding from 50 to 71 rooms in 1991.
So, thoughts turned to opening a second property. Again Peter and Jan’s astute market instincts kicked in. They noted a trend in the UK and Europe for grand country houses to be turned into boutique hotels, augmented by great food and wine experiences.
They could blend what they’d done at Lancemore Hill with the boutique hotel concept. Again, Julian says, they walked that fine line between ‘visionary’ and ‘crazy’.
In 1996, despite no real hotel sector experience, they bought a stunning 12ha property with established gardens and a vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula. There they built Lindenderry at Red Hill.
The classic country house hotel, surrounded by spectacular coastal landscapes and celebrated food and wine producers, captured the emerging experiential tourism market.
The next addition to the collection came about in 2001 when winemaker Brown Brothers approached the Clarks to establish luxury accommodation across the road from their Milawa vineyards in Victoria’s north-eastern high country.
Immediately seeing the potential of a location surrounded by dozens of vineyards and wineries, they bought the land and established Lindenwarrah at Milawa, a chic boutique hotel at the heart of a region famed for breathtaking landscapes and fine produce.
By now, the Lancemore Group was well and truly in command of the regional boutique hotel space. And, with their passion for hospitality, they’d also begun instinctively to satisfy the market’s growing appetite for culinary and sensory experiences.
That first 20 years, driven by Peter and Jan, laid the foundation for what would become an intergenerational company. Enter Julian who, to that point, “never had any intention nor desire to work in the business.”
He’d forged a career in corporate strategy and financial services, mostly with big multi-nationals. But, after living in London and observing global tourism industry trends, his interest grew.
“Let’s face it, if you can’t be passionate about what we do, especially at the high end, there’s something wrong. It has its challenges, but it has great rewards.”
Julian and his parents agreed he’d join the company for a 12-month trial period. It worked and, by age 28, he was CEO. Fatefully though, again the timing was tough. The GFC hit. “It was a baptism of fire, but I came through all the stronger for it,” he says.
Julian reviewed the Lancemore operation and knew he’d need to pursue a different growth strategy. To this point, the business had run its own race, expanding opportunistically and investing heavily in bricks and mortar.
“To grow further, we needed to go asset light. As a family business, there’s a limit to how much you can grow owning freehold. My strategy was to pick up management agreements to select properties to grow the operation.”
The Mansion Hotel & Spa at Werribee Park joined the collection in 2010 by way of a long-term lease. Just 30 minutes from Melbourne CBD, grand guest rooms set in 19th century estate gardens are paired splendidly with fine dining and lavish spa facilities.
Next came Alamanda Palm Cove in 2014, the as yet Victoria-focused group’s first foray into Queensland. The only hotel in Palm Cove (just north of Cairns) with uninterrupted beach frontage, Alamanda is set for a $3 million makeover to ensure it continues to offer the ultimate in ‘barefoot luxury’.
Soon to follow, in 2015, was Larmont Sydney by Lancemore, which would undergo an extensive refurbishment and 27-room extension. A landmark of avant-garde Potts Point, it’s a stylish CBD fringe haven for corporates and travellers alike.
With its roots in conferencing and events, and now a leader in luxury regional tourism, Lancemore Group has also put exceptional F&B at the heart of everything they do.
Acclaimed restaurants – Merlot (Lindenwarrah at Milawa) Joseph’s (Mansion Hotel & Spa), Nu Nu (Alamanda at Palm Cove) and Linden Tree (Lindenderry at Red Hill) add to their bottom line. But more importantly, they are part of the bigger package – the unique, personalised experience lavished on guests.
So too are the vineyards, café’s and cellar doors, including the 5-star James Halliday-rated Lindenderry Wines, and their premium pampering spas.
The family’s upscale Lancemore Collection continues to renew. Recently, Lindenderry relaunched after a multi-million refurbishment. Now a similar makeover of Lancemore Hill nears completion.
There’s also been another pioneering move, this time into asset management. Julian is growing the business as a ‘white label’ hotel management company, operating properties under either an independent brand or in conjunction with a franchise.
He negotiated agreements with Choice Hotels’ CKS Sydney Airport Hotel in 2015 and the privately-owned Yarra Valley Lodge in 2016. More are in the pipeline.
“The model is extremely successful in the US, which is the world’s most mature hotel market,” Julian says. “But it’s not really happening here in a formal way.
“The Australian market is starting to understand the benefits to franchise owners of expert management. When we started, we were told it wouldn’t work, but we think it will, particularly as we demonstrate runs on the board.”
Ten years after joining the family enterprise, Julian Clark is one of the industry’s most active advocates, holding numerous leadership and board positions on peak bodies including Tourism Australia and the Accommodation Association of Australia.
Though not yet 40, he is now the consummate hotelier. But still with the family’s characteristic entrepreneurial flair and gutsy determination.
That means a two-fold commitment involving ‘head’ and ‘heart’: “to run a successful business, and also to make it one we are proud of. Family is important. It explains why we run the sort of business we do, one where caring about detail and quality really matters.”
That may also explain why the Lancemore Group is one of the most awarded boutique hotel operators in Australia, particularly as voted by past guests, from readers of Luxury Travel magazine to users of TripAdvisor.
And, as they looks ahead, always with an eye to opportunity, they also celebrate their past. The original property, Lancemore Hill, is known to them simply as “The Farm”. Held with great affection, and enjoyed by four generations of the family, it remains a special gathering place.