Conventions & Conferences The River Lodge

A shade over 10 years ago, as then hard working 30 year old country lad, Brian Smith was settling himself and his young family onto 4000 acre sheep and cattle farm on the remote Wairarapa east coast at Pongaroa. Today he’s in the thick of Taupo’s burgeoning corporate conferencing market.
Instinctively entrepreneurial, Smith knows when to chance his arm. The young shepherd and fencing contractor from Dannevirke made his first break into the business world when he contracted to demolish an old convent in the town and made small fortune selling the bricks.
He concedes he didn’t really know what he was getting himself into when he tendered for the demolition, and there were some onerous penalty clauses if he failed to meet the deadline. But the bricks were in great shape and there was little troublesome steel to be removed from the site. So he finished ahead of time and budget and earned healthy profit into the bargain.
The project taught him his first chapter of business and management lessons. The next he would learn over the 10 years he spent working the remote farm he had bought with the proceeds of his first significant commercial venture.
Farming at Pongaroa, with himself the only permanent labourer on site and just clutch of casual musterers to help when work demanded, taught him good deal about working efficiently. “It was hard physical work but I learned heaps about myself and my management abilities,” he says reflectively.
He learned the importance of cash flow, the realities of running seasonal business and the vagaries of selling into commodity-priced marketplace. When the chance came, about 18 months ago, to sell at what he thought was “top of the market” price, he took it. “Farming is inevitably cyclical and I figured the cycle had treated me well and I wasn’t wedded to [farming] as lifestyle option.”
With an appreciated bank balance and family that now included five children, he went looking for his next opportunity. He found it on the banks of the Waikato River, in Vaile Road, five minutes off State Highway 5 and roughly half way between Taupo and Rotorua.
Smith now owns The River Lodge, one of New Zealand’s most successful and unique conference and incentive venues nestled on just 30-something acres of Waikato River bank. He doesn’t miss the hard physical labour of his Pongaroa farm, but instead uses his practical skills to help maintain the lodge and its associated buildings and facilities. “I am not the front of house man,” explains the quiet but obviously enthusiastic new Lodge owner. “I’m the gap filler. I am happy to do whatever needs to be done to support the team that really runs this place,” he adds.
The 21 room luxury River Lodge was originally corporate retreat owned by meat company Richmond. Then it became part of the growing pool of Taupo region’s corporate convention and executive outdoor experiential training destinations. Most of the Lodge’s business comes from the corporate sector. But it is also stunning private function venue and tourist destination, particularly for regularly returning group of Americans who take it over in January’s slower mid-summer weeks.
Business clients return regularly, both because it is an idyllic setting, and because the venue offers exclusive access to the Lodge and its extraordinary array of facilities. It is team builder’s dream location and Smith’s own team works with experienced and innovative facilitators to provide experiential management training programmes of every kind; from human dog trials to orienteering; assault course antics to raft building; and from combat games and archery to catapult treasure hunt.
Internally the Lodge offers spacious conference room seating up to 60 delegates and break-out areas to provide an effective and work-focused conference or meeting venue. self- contained conference office and in-house secretarial services provide all the support required to run conference working sessions.
And the cuisine is, well, simply exceptional. Five course dinners, the creation of the chef of seven years, Mario Schmidt, are presented in spacious dining/lounge area with open fire option, make this genuine all-year-round escape venue and the perfect place for swapping ideas, motivating individuals and building dreams. M

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