‘The Engine Room’ aims to build the profile of Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) staff members and provide interesting insights into what it is like to be part of the team working on two iconic international events, the Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix in Phillip Island.
Claudine Collins - Manager - Hospitality Services
1. You’re a self-confessed foodie, where did this passion for F&B stem from and how did you come to work at AGPC?
My love affair of food and beverage stems from the fact that I’ve been really fortunate my family has always celebrated special occasions at lovely restaurants in Melbourne – and we have so many to choose from! The association with a special event and sharing food with good friends and family really resonates; it’s part of the reason we go out and enjoy food and beverage. It’s all about spending time with those you’re closest to and sharing special moments and creating those lasting memories. It’s one of the things I miss the most during Iso – sharing these special moments with friends and family.
I have a group of friends who all have a love of food, we call ourselves ‘the culinary delights’ and we go quarterly to restaurants and connect over great food. It can be anything from fine dining to a cheap and cheerful meal on Victoria Street. My husband and I love going to places where you turn around to the waiter and ask what does the chef recommend and you get a bunch of dishes on a menu that you might not pick yourself. We’ve always walked away with big smiles on our faces having tried something new.
Food and restaurants have always had a special place in my heart, so I guess it was a natural move for me to start working in hospitality – initially as a side gig while I was studying. In fact, while at Peter Rowland Catering I actually worked at the very first Grand Prix in Melbourne in 1996!
In 1997, I worked in food and beverage at a number of major events and venues in Melbourne, including working at the MCG regularly for O’Briens, at the Australian Open for AVS Catering, and for Peter Rowland Catering at the Spring Racing Carnival, as well as private functions at the National Gallery of Victoria. I notched up 13 group certificates that year, so I worked everywhere! I was even an extra on Neighbours!
When I left school, I didn’t really have a lot of direction, so as a result I started an Arts degree at La Trobe University. It was around the time of my 21st birthday that my love of events was born, I really liked planning my party, a black-tie event, all quite fancy. This experience, plus the broad range of casual work I was already undertaking within the hospitality industry, redirected me to change my studies and complete a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (Hospitality Management) at RMIT University.
That got me on the road to a new career path in Hospitality, rather than just doing it on the side to make money. Over the years, I’ve worked at a number of venues including Crown Melbourne for 10 years (across three separate stints) with roles including F&B Attendant, Group Reservations Agent, Event Manager, Executive Conference and Event Manager, and Manager – Venue Events at the Melbourne Showgrounds (Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria) as well as a period overseas working at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London.
During my last stint at Crown, my stepfather became very ill, I separated from my husband, and a lot of stuff was happening for me personally. During this time, I was struggling to maintain a leadership role with a team of 15 direct reports and having to be on my ‘A-Game’ every day. I found being the boss was quite isolating as I had always socialised quite heavily through work. This shift in my life really made me re-evaluate my career – I thought I’ve always been working in venues and I needed to do something different. So, I resigned and took a few months off, including pursuing my love of animals, travelling to South Africa to volunteer at a lion park. Upon my return, I decided I would undertake some contract work which started with a short period at Etihad Stadium, and then I commenced a six-month contract at AGPC in 2013 just before the MotoGP™. I remember getting a phone call on the Tuesday of event week offering me the job, and the next day I was at Phillip Island. Not long after, the person I reported to resigned and it felt natural to apply for the full-time role.
2. Melbourne is renowned as Australia’s culinary capital, does this add extra pressure to your role?
Absolutely it does, but it’s a challenge that I relish. Melbourne is not only the culinary capital, it’s also the events capital.
The food and beverage industries in general have changed a lot over the past five to 10 years, including people’s expectations. I think that when MasterChef burst onto the scene, it really made fine dining accessible, bringing it into people’s loungerooms.
That has then set a new standard of expectation when we go out to a restaurant and has carried over into the event experience, particularly in the corporate space. When you marry that with an extremely robust and competitive world-class major events industry in Melbourne, it adds to the challenge to ensure we elevate our offering year after year.
It’s really important to me to maintain awareness of all our audiences and the diverse range of demographics we cater to, which ranges from our top-tier corporate customers, our mid-tier and entry level corporate segments, as well as our General Admission patrons. In the Formula 1 Paddock Club™ for example, where many of the guests travel the world, we are constantly striving to provide a truly unique Melbourne experience for them. Whilst our customers excitement for new food and beverage experiences continues to grow and evolve, you’ll always have people that want a burger and fries, so it’s literally about being able to cater for everyone, and ensure that the experience is enjoyable and tailored to their needs.
3. The hospitality and events industries are fast-paced, what does a regular week look like for you?
A regular week for me is quite diverse and will typically involve working on our strategic goals such as product research, customer experience and product development for both corporate hospitality and public catering. On the other hand, my week can involve a more operational focus such as overseeing our liquor licensing requirements, site layout planning, staff catering requirements, supply orders and financial management. Some current project focus areas for me include contributing to our sustainability planning and working closely with our partnerships team to continue to grow and evolve the event for our fans.
This year has been quite different, and I think stakeholder engagement has underpinned most of my days since the Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix cancellation. I have relationships with businesses that we are in partnership with and we’re in unchartered territory with what the next 12 months looks like, so ensuring that we continue to engage and keep close contact with our key stakeholders has been really critical this year and will be ongoing.
The collaboration within our business is stronger than ever as we focus on being able to deliver outstanding and innovative customer experiences in the current environment. That’s the lens that we need to have; essentially ensuring that in every decision that we make, we start by asking ourselves ‘what does the customer experience look like?’
As the events and hospitality industries adapt to the Covid environment, our relationships and partners across the industry are more important than ever.
A recent initiative that I have introduced was reaching out to my industry peers to create a hospitality assembly where we share ideas and challenges and build a network of expertise that people can tap into in a more formalised manner, rather than just picking up the phone.
4. Major sporting events have evolved to be about more than just the sport, what are the latest trends you’ve seen in event hospitality?
The restaurant experience has really come to the forefront at major events, where we’re seeing full activation of restaurant brands. In addition, celebrity chef engagement, particularly in corporate hospitality, has been huge over the last few years.
In recent times, we’ve had hugely successful partnerships with a high calibre of Melbourne celebrity chefs including Shane Delia, Guy Grossi, Darren Purchese, Adam D'Sylva, Lee Ho Fook and Jacques Reymond, who have provided a bespoke, interactive and engaging presence in our corporate suites. Seeing these chefs in their element, slicing up prosciutto and serving up bespoke menu items and custom desserts, while watching world-class motorsport racing, adds something pretty special to the event experience.
While our fans weren’t able to experience the Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix in its entirety this year, the M-Lane precinct had undergone a complete theming overhaul and was a fantastic showcase of bringing the restaurant experience to the public, with the likes of Drumplings, 400 Gradi, Sun Kitchen, and Gelato Messina all on show.
Buffets remain a key part of the corporate hospitality event offering, however, we’re seeing a real shift in what this looks like. It used to be all about chafing dishes, however it has evolved to encompass a more premium dining experience to ensure the menus meet the ever-increasing standard of food service at events.
Then you throw in the public food truck phenomenon, which took the food and beverage industry by storm a few years ago. Restaurants then jumped on board and saw this as a tangible way to reach the public, making the dining experience and different cuisines more accessible.
The emergence of social media has also changed events as well. It’s about being able to say you were there and capturing the full event experience, and food and beverage has become a big part of those ‘Instagramable’ moments. When I started at AGPC, that wasn’t even a consideration, so we’ve had to innovate and adapt to be at the forefront of this new market.
5. In 2018, AGPC announced the appointment of three new catering partners - Atlantic Group, food&desire and GEMA Group, tell us about how the event hospitality experience has been redefined to be about more than just food.
The whole approach leading up to the appointment of our catering partners, was to really look at redefining our hospitality products with a particular focus on the long-term food and beverage strategy and the customer experience.
Creating clear identities for the different hospitality tiers and packages and engaging caterers that had specific expertise in those areas has been key to providing a bespoke offering, rather than delivering all things to everyone.
Hospitality has grown to be about more than just the food; it’s about the look and feel of the room, the bar, the styling, the way the catering staff are dressed and the manner in which they welcome guests. Suite hosts are now more like a maître d’ and really own that space like they would if you went to a restaurant.
Victorians are proud of our homegrown produce and we strive to ensure that our hospitality experience at both of our events has always had an ethos around putting ‘Victoria on your plate’. 2020 marked the second year of our partnerships with Atlantic Group, food&desire and GEMA Group, with all three caterers making a conscious commitment to source and showcase produce from regional bushfire affected communities. Throwing their support behind those communities and businesses experiencing hardship, there was dairy, seafood, meats, vegetables, breads, and wines all sourced from impacted regions throughout Victoria’s south-east and into New South Wales.
On what would have been day two of the event (the Friday of event week), it was a bittersweet moment to see all three caterers band together as the first priority after the event cancellation to disseminate surplus food to numerous charities in need across Melbourne.
6. You’ve been at AGPC for almost seven years, do you have a favourite event experience?
Where do I start?! One of my biggest career highlights at AGPC was the launch of our three new hospitality providers, which also signified a new era in hospitality for the Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix. It was a fantastic way to celebrate a long tender project and see it all come to life. It was a standout not only because it was a project that I owned from an event delivery perspective, but it was wonderful to bring the caterers together and deliver an exciting, high-end function with all the glamour and entertainment that guests expect at our events.
Another moment that also really stands out to me was walking around the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit on the Thursday of event week this year – it was so exciting to see the venue build come together and take a step back and see all the incredible M-Lane food activations we had on show. I truly feel we excelled this year, and it does make me sad we weren’t able to share this with our fans across the four days.
I have three personal highlights! The first is having the incredible opportunity to do a pillion ride down at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. It was exhilarating and scary as hell, but it honestly gave me a completely different perspective of both the circuit and the unbelievable talent the MotoGP™ riders have.
The second personal highlight was standing on the Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix grid right before the start of the main race in 2019. It was such a surreal experience and it cemented why I love working on big international major events.
And lastly, being able to celebrate the 2014 Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix contract extension with Ron Walker at his house is something that I will cherish forever.
7. What is your favourite dining experience to date and why?
I had the unforgettable opportunity to dine at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck when it was here in Melbourne in 2015. I missed out on the ballot, so I never thought it would happen, but I ended up being lucky enough to go on the very last day. It wasn’t just fine dining, it was an all-out sensory experience – every course had some magic.
I have had plenty of amazing experiences, but there’s nothing that can top it. It was just phenomenal. The restaurant, including the menu was Alice in Wonderland themed, with one of the standout dishes being the Mad Hatters Tea. It was served in an unassuming mug, but you sipped one side and it was cold, and the other side it was hot. Mind-blowing.