Chris Deny – The Observatory

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Susie settles in to share a steak, salad and shiraz with a ‘passionate’businessman and community enthusiast who’s taken Port to his heart.

How ungracious of me! I’m sitting across the table from our top local hotel’s top man, The Observatory’s Chris Denny, but dreaming of George Clooney. Denny’s mentioned the word passionate a few times and I’m distracted, thinking of my favourite TV hottie, Judge John Deed, and real-life passionate identities like Nelson Mandela or Jessica Watson. Despite a modest interest in the Observatory that sees me mix occasionally with Denny and wife Trish, passionate’s not the first word that occurs to describe my lunch companion. With his strikingly fair skin, I’d guess Denny fights a losing battle against the sun and elements – not my idea of an outdoors hero. But outdoors he is, he tells me, every morning, his parchment complexion and pale blue eyes protected by a crumpled Akubra and wraparound sunnies. He strides the breakwall near his waterfront apartment, driven by the first of his daily passions: determined to keep fit, watch his diet – no chips past his lips – and get a good daily dose of exercise. On the walk he mulls over, invents and orders his other passions … which, I learn, take many forms. Centre of all is The Observatory (“Port’s best address”) imposingly located on Town Beach. The Dennys run the hotel with 20 staff providing 85,000 guest nights a year – a huge complement. By comparison, New Zealand’s popular Queenstown with its skiing, fiord cruises and summer trekking caters to fewer than three times as many over all its resorts and lodges, with dozens of managers.

An engineer before entering the hospitality industry, Denny has operated The Observatory from the start, six years ago. It’s his ‘baby’ and, yep, he’s passionate about it.  “We were looking for opportunities, saw The Observatory and got straight onto the developers,” he recalls. “Even then its curved façade pushed the envelope design-wise, typical of Port: at the forefront as a place to live and as a destination. To manage this resort on the beach: to set up business in the best country in the world, in the best town in Australia, in the best position (he waves a hand at the ocean) … everything lined up!” Among things he’s particular about are staff inclusiveness: he’s evolved incentive programs to help them feel part of a close-knit family with ownership of the hotel’s performance. Customer service is “another one of our passions”. Denny arranges a rigorous annual audit by the Customer Service Institute against some 30 criteria to meet a self-imposed demand to measure up to formal international standards. Last year the hotel won the national award for customer service. But the hotel’s awards are legendary, anyway, its entry hall lined with myriad certificates of tourism and business excellence, a glass cabinet crammed with trophies. Probably no other regional hotel holds as many achievement accolades. Denny’s workplace passions won The Observatory an unprecedented four awards as the coast’s best deluxe hotel: recently, the judges quarantined it in the Hall of Fame (another first) to give others a go at the title. But Denny sees the credentials mainly as benchmarking, to keep the business on its game, using site inspections and operational analyses needed to qualify for judging as gauges to ensure the hotel stays on its toes.

The passion extends more widely. Instrumental in establishing a peak industry association, ARAMA, he holds national, State and regional offices for the group. At home, he works closely with onsite facilities servicing his guests: Endota Spa, Milk Bar café and The Breakwall restaurant. Ditto with our host today, Lou Perri and the Mullet: the trio of dining spots are a beachside eating enclave Denny nurtures avidly. He instituted, with TAFE, sponsorships and internships for its Hospitality students. He’s a board member and past president of Port Tourism. To highlight the region’s natural beauty as a drawcard for tourists, he’s converting The Observatory to carbon-neutral and encourages guests to fund tree-planting, to give back to the environment. Far from jealous of competition, he’s happy if other hotels copy him. (“You can’t be a leader unless someone follows”.) Indeed, Denny contributes generously to the town’s overall tourism promotion effort, giving prizes to attract visitors, hosting TV travel-show crews who take our tourism message to the world. Recently, he joined Sydney Weekender’s Mike Whitney on the beach as the star agreed to plant the first of the hotel guests’ gifted trees. Denny’s expenditure on branding is discretionary (a bigger ask for this independent than for hotels belonging to a chain) but he sees it helping Port as a whole: “Bring everyone here first, then we can fight over the spoils!” Denny supports Port News’s Employee of the Year and the small operators’ 52+ Things To Do in PMQ campaign. Keen to see the Glasshouse maximise its potential, he’s a leading sponsor giving substantial behind-the-scenes support as well as offering a major ‘fancy dress’ prize to attract audiences to ABBA Mania this month; next month, he and Trish host Bell Shakespeare. The Glasshouse is a key plank of the region’s economic future and social fabric, he believes, and poses a persuasive case (too long to explore here): “If people want to live here, they’ll want to visit, too!” Then there are other community endeavours, bringing his professional skills to serve a foreshore group and council Opportunities Board. Many Denny brushes shoulders with on Port’s commercial scene praise his generous spirit and business acumen – but he’s not as surefooted on the dance floor, I hear. When the couple’s son was getting married last year they took dancing lessons – rumba, salsa, waltz and swing – which they’ve continued for fun, to mix with different people, and in an enduring passion for pursuit of excellence – still elusive, apparently. Like the Glasshouse seeking its peak, he’s not there yet, he confesses. Denny sees himself as competitive, but I think it’s more a case of challenging himself than others. A modest character, he’s close to family: “family’s everything” – the couple has parents and his sister, Marg, here – yet he boasts happily about his children, Kerina, 23, and Jason, 22. Reticent to talk about himself, he’s unstoppable on the kids, both high achievers by any assessment, eminent PhD students on the way to medical degrees. (Passionate, like their parents!) As Denny remarked earlier of The Observatory: “We’d like to be world’s best”.  Really?! “OK, it’s a pretty extreme desire,” he allows.

“But why not aim for the stars?”

> Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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