James Baillie reflects on 12 years of Luxury Lodges of Australia, the loss of Southern Ocean Lodge, optimism and opportunities on the horizon.
WORDS KENDALL HILL
IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE NOW BUT...
12 years ago, when the country’s leading properties banded together to form Luxury Lodges of Australia (LLoA), our sunburnt land wasn’t seen as a particularly sophisticated destination.
James Baillie has been at the forefront of Australia's experiential luxury transformation.
This was, after all, when the nation’s tourism slogan was, “So where the bloody hell are ya?”
In that context, selling their new breed of sophisticated stays to the world presented a challenge. But the toughest audience turned out to be on home soil.
James Baillie, the visionary hotelier who has chaired Luxury Lodges of Australia since its inception in 2010, recalls the trouble he had convincing Tourism Australia that such prestigious addresses as Southern Ocean Lodge and Saffire Freycinet were, in fact, luxurious and worthy of global attention.
“The biggest and most defining one, was one of the first meetings we had with the team at Tourism Australia. What we didn’t realise was that their perception of our product was that it wasn’t necessarily luxury.”
Experiential travel itself is now really respected and acknowledged as luxury, we’ve seen that less can be more.
— JAMES BAILLIE
Saffire Freycinet, Australian experiential luxury, emerges.
CLICK TO WATCH THE CONVERSATION WITH JAMES BAILLIE
Arkaba, Ikara-Flinders Ranges.
True North Adventures.
El Questro Homestead, The Kimberley.
Back then neither Tourism Australia nor the travel industry at large really recognised the growing potential of luxury experiential travel. More than a decade later, privileged access to rare destinations is the most covetable form of luxury money can buy. “There were so many hurdles,” he says of those early days.
“That’s how we’ve come of age,” Baillie says. “Experiential travel itself is now really respected and acknowledged as luxury, we’ve seen that less can be more.”
After a reign that repositioned lodge members at the pinnacle of Australian tourism, Ballie is set to step down as chair in January 2022. From a founding group of 11 lodge owners, LLoA represents 19 members today.
“We’re really what we set out to be, which is the reference point of experiential luxury in Australia,” Baillie says now.
“Showcasing the amazing landscapes, the incredible experiences, the great food and wine … and packaging them up in this unique Australian formula.”
After three decades in the industry, including a stint as General Manager at Silky Oaks Lodge in the 1990s, Baillie is uniquely placed to ponder how high-end travel has changed. “It was once gold taps and pink marble, and ‘Yes sir, no sir’, and very formal. Quite staid in many ways,” he says.
But more recently the concept of indulgence has shifted. Design, for example, should reflect a vivid sense of place rather than trying to copy elsewhere. Aesthetic is pared back and the focus becomes the surroundings – nowhere more so than at Longitude 131° with its Uluru views and Bamurru Plains on the crocodile-rich Mary River floodplain.
His own property portfolio Baillie Lodges, which he and wife Hayley created in 2003, is in expansion mode after partnering recently with private equity firm KSL Capital.
Bamurru Plains, Mary River floodplain.
Capella Lodge, Lord Howe Island.
In addition to Longitude 131° at Uluru in the Red Centre and Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island, they’ve recently acquired Silky Oaks Lodge in The Daintree, The Louise in the Barossa Valley and Huka Lodge in New Zealand, the antipodean prototype for lodge-based indulgence.
“For us it’s always about doing things differently. Not being a homogenous hotel product,” Baillie says of his and Hayley’s success. “I’m often asked what has set us apart and I always say three things: detail, detail and more bloody detail.”
Baillie Lodges and Luxury Lodges of Australia have been a natural fit because all have been “leading pioneers” in the industry.
“And that is in no way being arrogant,” he adds. “I think it’s been an incredible privilege for us to have had that opportunity to be able to create an incredible product and lead what has become much more than a niche in Australian tourism.
“In many ways we’re now the poster-child for a lot of the international markets.”
For us it’s always about doing things differently. Not being a homogenous hotel product.
— JAMES BAILLIE
Longitude 131°, Uluru, reimagined by Baillie Lodges.
SOUTHERN OCEAN LODGE: MARK II
Baillie’s proudest career moment was in 2008 when he and Hayley opened the doors to Southern Ocean Lodge. Almost overnight it signalled Australia’s arrival on the world stage of wonderfully indulgent adventures.
The Baillies are rebuilding and come mid-2023, something even more remarkable will rise in its place. The revamped Southern Ocean Lodge will feature a new Ocean Pavilion with four bedrooms and “a couple of swimming pools,” as well as “a few extra rooms, not too many”, a horizon pool and an expanded spa.
It will also honour the old. The Great Room, the breathtaking focal point of the original lodge, will be rebuilt faithfully – right down to the centrepiece hanging fireplace (which, being a fireplace, survived the inferno).
“I can’t wait for opening day to see people’s faces,” Baillie laughs, whereas the rest of Australia can’t wait to see the lodge.
The original Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island.