Look around at Buckley’s Entertainment Centre and it’s clear that chief executive Michael Tonks doesn’t do anything by halves. 

The centre’s recently refurbished private dining rooms, for instance, include feature walls covered in commissioned artwork, plush royal blue banquette seating, and a stunning one-off designed chandelier that appears like illuminated pasta bowls glued together. 

Speaking to Club Management, Tonks explained how the old function spaces were looking stale and the intention of the revamp was to give the rooms a “wow factor”.

“We’re not about being a cookie-cutter,” he said. “Whatever we do, we don’t put a budget on anything. I want it to be the best and in front of the rest of the field. 

“You’ll see we’re not just the average corner club.”

Tonks acknowledged the club has been, however, fortunate enough to be in a position where it can splurge $20,000 on artwork. 

“We are very financially successful. We don’t owe any money and we’re very well cashed up.” 

Keeping it fresh 

Buckley’s is in Breakwater, a south-south-east suburb of Geelong, Victoria. Officially known as the Geelong Combined Leagues Club, it’s owned by the Geelong Football Umpires League and three local football leagues – Geelong Football League, Bellarine Football League, and Geelong and District Football League. It first opened in 1993 and has grown into one of the largest and most popular clubs in Victoria. 

Tonks has been leading the club for the last 20 years. Before this, he was with the Victorian Hospitality Management Services, which until recently owned clubs including the Dandenong Club and Knox Club. 

“I came from a real corporate structure, and I was a general manager and troubleshooter for them in Melbourne for a couple of years. Their whole key to success in those big Melbourne clubs was to consistently do something to keep the patrons interested.”

Tonks has since brought this same philosophy to Buckleys. 

“I’m always conscious of the back of house issues: the market share, the turnover, the revenue, the net machine revenue, and I’m trying to always grab just that little one per cent extra of market share,” he said. 

“To do that, your venue needs to be outstanding, and it needs to have more bells and whistles than the place up the road.”

One of the more unique features of the club, which also underwent recent renovations, is Uncle Buck’s Ice Creamery. Described as the “ultimate dessert experience”, it offers patrons a selection of soft serve and frozen yoghurt plus dozens of toppings. It’s been refreshed with a new lolly wall inspired by the M&M’s store in New York and a Willy Wonka-inspired fitout to match the playful design of Uncle Buck’s Play Parlour. 

For Tonks, renovating the ice creamery was a no-brainer given it sells between $8,000 to $10,000 of ice-cream a week.

He explained to stay ahead, it’s important to keep the venue looking fresh. For the last 20 years, Tonks draws up a 12-month master plan every May.

“The gaming room gets done every five years. We always rotate our furniture,” he said. 

“We’ve actually got new bar furniture going in at the end of April. It’ll get a little revamp at the end of June. We’re consistently spending money – my whole philosophy is you’ve got to spend it to make it.”

Value-based research

When Tonks isn’t knee-deep in renovation design plans, he’s off travelling – whether it’s for business or leisure – with hopes he’ll come across inspiration he can bring back to the club. 

“I do a lot of overseas travel, even on annual leave. I’ve been to Vegas about seven times, New York, and Disneyland to look at their offer, and how they look after people, as customer service is huge in Disneyland, just to pick up some little ‘one percenters’ to bring back,” he said.

“When I go to Sydney, I’ll take a full day or two and visit all the clubs that have done renovations or have been taken over or there’s something flagged for me to look at, and then I’ll come back and work on what they’ve done. 

“We’re nowhere as big as Penrith Panthers but I’ll pull the jewels out of it, chop and change it, and come up with the results you’ve seen.”

The work that Tonks has led over his tenure at Buckleys has not gone unnoticed in the industry either. The club has received 27 awards over the 20 years, including the 2023 Community Clubs Victoria Best Community Refurbishment and Best Hospitality Team awards. 

“I like to see success and I like to see staff morale and more so, I love when we’ve done something and to hear the members’ and patrons’ feedback – that’s the reward.”

This article first appeared in Club Management Autumn 2024. Read the magazine in full below.

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