How Louise Ward turned a bed and breakfast cottage into $2 million accommodation business Yarra Valley Estate

Louise Ward’s business, Yarra Valley Estate, had very humble beginnings as a bed and breakfast cottage back in 1997. Today, the renowned accommodation and conferencing centre in Victoria’s Yarra Valley region turns over just under $2 million and employs around 20 staff. 

Yarra Valley Estate has also been showered with awards, including the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Sustainability Award. SmartCompany sat down with Ward to find out how she grew the family business and why she always believes in giving back to the local community. 

We started as a little bed and breakfast cottage in 1997.

We used to have a deer farm here and were allowed to have a manager’s residence. Friends of my parents came down from Sydney to visit me and they said, “why would you only have a manager’s residence? You should have a B&B”.

So we went to the local council and we said “we don’t want a manager’s residence anymore, we want to turn it into something else”. They said they’d change it, but you couldn’t do that these days!

A lot of families came to stay with kids – so we started a second cottage. Then we had a neighbour who was going to start a ropes course on his place. He said we should look at corporate events and conferences

John-Louise-260x173

Louise with her husband John. Source: Supplied.

We really needed a building but we were stretched to the max with the bank.

We just happened to stumble across someone who would be happy to finance it. We got home really happy but the next day we didn’t have the guts to go down there to pick up the cheque. But they called us and said you better pick up the cheque, because the banks will close soon.

That set us up. As we went along and got bigger bookings, the finances started to roll out of that. That’s how we built the business over the past 20 years.

What’s been the toughest thing about the business? Competition.

We are rustic but four or five years ago the trend was for people to go to the four and five-star hotels with beautiful dining. That was a trend, but I always knew the trend would change.

We just had to ride through it. 

It meant we would be undercutting our pricing. If it wasn’t a good year, it wasn’t a good year.

But now the tide is turning again and people are looking for the sort of stuff we provide.

I always treat everyone how I want to be treated. That’s what good customer service comes down to. If you walk into a building and can’t find a cup of tea, you’d expect someone to say, ‘oh, here it is – what would you like?’

In a business, it’s really important to keep your ego away; egos don’t work.

Every person in the business is important, not just the people at the top. All the staff in the business are part of a bigger puzzle – the general manager, the cleaners, the chef, the cooks – they’re all integral.

What’s the best marketing we’ve done? It’s always been word-of-mouth. We’ve never put ads in anywhere.

Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something; if you want to do it, you can do it.

You don’t need a lot a lot of money to start out, you just need to be creative.

I really wanted to grow vegetables and I wanted to do it all here. So I did a permaculture course.

The direction we’re heading in now is building a really interesting, edible forest. It will be designed so when you walk through the gate you’ll have different experiences in different areas in the forest. There’ll be about 2500 plants and trees going in there. The harvest for that will be too much for what we have here, so we’ll open that up to the public to buy from as well.

Next year, I want to build a very big wetland. People want to come here because of what we have, so we want to keep that going.

There’s always good people out there who will support you.

Don’t be greedy. A lot of people get a lot of money and spend it all on themselves.

You need a balance in life, and we’ve always said any of the profit we can give away, we’ll give away.

If you have that balance when you have a business, you’ll be successful.

Good things bring you in contact with good people.

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