The devil’s in the details

The Australian Jockey Club Convention  Centre team: one big, happy family.

The Australian Jockey Club Convention Centre team: one big, happy family.

Hard work, flexibility, teamwork and a bit of fun along the way: these are the things that make the Australian Jockey Club truly great. Michelle Starr reports.

Fifteen years ago, the Australian Jockey Club Convention Centre was a long way from the venue that won the Caterer of the Year award. “It’s been a lot of work to take this venue from being a race course that did a few events every now and then on a smaller scale to being a service-focused, five-star food, amazing events venue,” says Hospitality and Events Manager Adam Smith. “We’ve come a long way.”

But for a company that has come so far, it still feels down-to-earth and intimate. The staff pride themselves on family-like relationships with one another and even take turns feeding Ronnie, the office cat. And Smith is quick to hand over the credit for the awards to his team, including Executive Director, Lynell Peck, and particularly Director of Sales and Marketing, Darwyn Jolly.

It was Jolly, he says, who was the driving force behind the company’s participation in the awards, putting in all the hard work while the rest of the team went about their-day-to-day business—Jolly who arranged the material and coordinated the inspections and had the vision to win the award.

Perhaps he does himself too little credit; after all, all the entry forms in the world won’t win a business a national award. But neither will putting on a big show. “We pretty much just went about our business when it came to being judged,” Smith says. “We didn’t change anything: if you know your product’s good, you don’t need to.”

With a disarming mixture of confidence and humility, he explains that they certainly had not expected to walk home with the National prize. “To have won the State award was great—we were happy to go home at that point, because we could take that back to the team as something that would give you goosebumps and make you proud,” he says. “But we honestly didn’t rate ourselves against venues such as the Perth Convention Centre and the Brisbane Convention Centre. It’s a really amazing thing. We’re absolutely elated.”

Smith started from a somewhat odd place. He had waited his way through school and was studying to be a civil engineer. However, when he realised that he, well, hated it, he went back to hospitality—running a Thai restaurant for a friend. Then, when he moved down to Sydney from Newcastle, he landed a job with Spotless, first waiting tables, then moving through the ranks from assistant manager to restaurant manager.

He landed at the AJC in 1998. However, he stayed only five years, moving on to the City of Sydney managing commercial venues. He returned in 2005 when his former boss, Lynell Peck, who had also left the company, returned and offered him a position. He jumped at it.

“I love working in a fluid environment,” he says. “It’s the sort of venue where you need to be on your toes. There’s always a new challenge. We do everything from meetings for 12 people through to corporate dinners for 5000, plus race day events and large outdoor events for thousands.”

And it’s that ability to be flexible, to be accommodating, that makes the AJC stand out. “We’ll do whatever it takes,” says Smith. “Sometimes you just seem to be doing the strangest things. If someone says, ‘Hey, I need a bicycle pump,’ we don’t say, ‘Sorry, we don’t do bicycle pumps’, we ring the HR manager and say, ‘Hey, I know you live around the corner, one of your kids is bound to have a bicycle pump—go and get it’. You just go and do whatever it is you need to do.”

People Power

You need, Smith asserts, to be able to go above and beyond—to give superb service—and you can’t do that without good staff. The message is the same from the Executive Director down through the organisation. Fun and flexible.

“We all have a common goal,” Smith says. “We say to people when we interview them, ‘You need to be passionate about the venue or it’s just not going to work’. You need to own the venue and want to care for it and make everything amazing.”

In fact, the staff at the AJC are as broadly trained as possible. Quite often the sales staff will roll up their sleeves and plate food for an evening, and the operational team will attend site inspections with potential new clients to help them share knowledge about the venue.  “It’s all about teamwork and the way we do what we do in the amazing space that we have.  We are all passionate about our product. We all love our product. We all think we’re an amazing group of people. Especially now,” says Smith. “We’ve always known we’re fantastic, but now other people are saying, ‘Hang on, they won Caterer of the Year, that is amazing’. The recognition is just wonderful for us. We’re ecstatic.”

So it would seem—between the 35,000-strong race-day crowds and the numerous corporate events—that the AJC team keeps very busy indeed. For all that, it seems quite a relaxed workplace. “We’re like a family,” says Smith. “You know how they say every family is unique, they have their own intricacies and idiosyncrasies—we’re a lot like that. We rely on each other a lot.

“It’s little things; for example, we have a rule that if anyone goes away, they must bring back a gift for the whole group. It may be something like a box of chocolates; one guy brought back a whole pumpkin and we had to make pumpkin soup with it. It just helps build that sense of team.”

Service with a smile

Experience, teamwork, flexibility. According to Smith, these are the cornerstones of what the AJC is all about: perfect service. If every customer at every event leaves nothing less than 100 per cent satisfied, then the AJC staff have done nothing more than their jobs.

“Whatever it is we do, we want to do it the best of our ability,” says Smith, “We’re a unique venue, with an amazing site, and will provide you with five-star service—that’s our target. We strive to hear our clients say, ‘Wow, I love the AJC, because I go back and they all remember my name; they all love me; they all look after me; and they go the extra mile’. It’s all part of what we need to do.”

Will they be entering again next year? “Absolutely guarantee it! Wouldn’t miss it for the world. I recommend lots of people do—I’d rather they didn’t because it’s more competition—but we’ll definitely enter again next year. The chance to try and win it for a second time will be the next challenge for us.”

The venue is also currently undergoing a massive redevelopment, so by the time next year rolls around, the AJC will be bigger and better than ever. “We’re taking our facilities to the next level, and then we’ll transfer that winning formula of staff and flexibility over to some new facilities. I think we’ll have a real winner.”

Especially if Smith’s concern for customer satisfaction is a way to judge. I stand to go, collecting my umbrella. “I’m so sorry about the weather,” he says with a self-deprecating smile.

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