An $11.3m club refurb and new build that manages to keep its cool.

Collegians Rugby League Football Club: 3A Charlotte St, Wollongong NSW

Why do small bars look cooler than big venues?
Is it because ‘that RSL’ likes to be bland, or ‘that reception centre’ wants the beige look?
Michael Wilkins, CEO of Collegians in Wollongong, reckons he has the answer: for a small bar, it’s all about looking cool; while for a large club, where building budgets run into the millions of dollars, it’s the cool stuff that’s the first to go in the initial round of cost cutting.  Instead, Michael urges his team to think beyond that: “Let’s not by default lose all the cool bits to deliver a job at a price. Let’s keep the look and feel the customers will admire.”


Collegians is in Michael’s blood. His father was CEO for 35 years. Michael cut his professional teeth in the Sydney licensed club sector then returned to Wollongong in 2010 as club CEO. The advice he received went a little along the lines of ‘don’t get any big ideas’. “I was told not to bring Sydney to Wollongong — that it wasn’t ready for it. I thought differently and the first round of renovations were designed accordingly. Turns out I was right, Wollongong was ready. In fact, not long after, the area saw the launch of dozens of small bars and venues. If you’re not careful each of those will draw 10 or 20 of your patrons away.”
Maintaining a core design and build team of New England Constructions, Nicholas Architects and Split Watermelon Design, Michael hasn’t stopped expanding ever since. The latest is a $11.3m renovation and extension which has taken Collegians from a 300-catering-seat venue to 550. Again, there’s nothing ‘safe’ about the design. It’s ambitious. It takes some cues from cutting-edge hospitality and adds its own twist. One thing’s for sure, it’s nothing like anything Wollongong has seen before.


So here was the big idea: the club would extend, housing the new Kitchen on Charlotte brasserie and a fresh, much-expanded catering kitchen. The brasserie would supersede the old pizza restaurant on the main floor which was performing only so-so. But the pizza restaurant wasn’t dead, it would be moved to a vacant lower ground-floor void, but the menu would be turbo-charged with the addition of ribs and steak. What’s more, where the old kitchen was, that would be a fish & chip shop once the new kitchen fired up. Oh, and the club obviously needed to trade throughout the demolition and build process, and the key stage would need to be completed by 2015 Melbourne Cup Day — no excuses.
When you embark on a complex demolition and building project it helps to work with long standing partners. New England Constructions has worked with Collegians for more than 20 years. It was familiar with many of the idiosyncrasies of the structure and services.
Allowing a club to trade through a significant rebuild takes considerable strategic planning. It certainly requires more than working outside the operational hours of the club (although there was a lot of that). And with non-negotiable deadlines (Melbourne Cup and Christmas) there was also a fair share of bloody-minded determination to complete the task. Despite the constraints, the level of finish throughout is exceptional.
Michael Wilkins: “Many builders are notorious in this regard: ‘you just stop trading while we knock this down and build’. The club can’t afford to do that, we need to keep going. If we’re going to pay your bill, we want to keep trading.
“New England Constructions on the other hand has been amazing. To think that they extended the building 40m to the south; turned back around and demolished 40m internally; then built through the middle while keeping us trading… well, it’s actually an outstanding feature of working with New England.”


Collegians maintains a separate relationship with the interior designers, Split Watermelon and New England Constructions — it’s certainly not your regular ‘design and construct’ approach. It works well for the club. Michael Wilkins is highly engaged in the design process, much more than your average club CEO. Michael owns the big picture.  Nicholas Architects designs the exciting and functional spaces to accommodate the big picture. Sue Jago, principal of Split Watermelon, expertly colours that vision in, while all the technicalities of the build are solved by New England Constructions.
Michael Wilkins needs to think big. To expand, he needs to think about available space — what he describes as ‘creating boxes’. “It’s about making enough space to get where we needed to be. It’s not ideal to take a restaurant from the main floor and put it down a 16-step staircase. But if you do it properly, it can work. So once the boxes are planned out, I can say to Sue Jago ‘what can we do with these boxes and how can we make it work?’.
“In the case of Factory pizza restaurant we needed a glittering jewel to coax people down the stairs. Which is why we spent so much time, money and energy on the pizza oven. And once you’re down there the industrial look with its secondhand bricks, old timber doors and quality furniture all combine to be a really pleasant place to dine. We have increased the pizza restaurant revenue by 120%.”
The new brasserie is again an amazing ‘box’. New England Constructions built a blockwork ‘building within a building’ to house the dining area. The industrial-look timber ceiling is all a stunning facade. Meanwhile, the new kitchen might be ‘all business’ but also provides some theatre. “It’s a great, expansive kitchen,” observes Michael Wilkins. “The closed areas are glazed — patrons can see what we’re doing. Of course, that means it has to be spotless and I think our chefs are really proud of what we’ve given them to operate out of.”


Most clubs have asked themselves the question “how do we expand our appeal?”. Few clubs have gone as far as Collegians to build individual destinations to cater to younger crowds and families as well as maintaining their appeal to seniors. Saying that, Michael Wilkins is unequivocal in who he designs for: “We unashamedly target our venues at 25-75 year old women. We want women to feel safe in our environment, such that they don’t necessarily need to come with their partner.”
Which brings us neatly back to where we started, namely operating cool venues that people want to be in. Michael Wilkins again:
“Anyone can build a room and any architect is qualified to design a box. Take the best casinos in the world as an example; they’re essentially a huge Besser block building, but it’s what you do with the box that matters. It’s the ‘wow’ statements.
“My advice would be to maintain the essence of your vision. You want people to say ‘wow’ rather than ‘hey, you’ve built another box’. Don’t make your discussions about ‘building a club’… I’d suggest you take that out of your vernacular. At Collegians, we’re not building a club, we’re building a destination for people who don’t necessarily affiliate themselves with a club but want to go to Collegians. They want to dine here, they want to socialise here, they want to be a part of it. Yes, we’re a club — it’s in the name — but we build different.”

— Christopher Holder

New England Constructions: (02) 9369 1241 or

Split Watermelon: (02) 9669 3381 or

Nicholas Architects: (02) 9369 3546 or