Choice is yours in conferencing

Chris Pritchard discovers whether it’s purpose-built complexes, quiet hideaways or luxurious cruise liners, the choice of venues for a conference has never been better

THE LONE LIGHT of a faraway fishing boat bobs in pitch darkness. Two conference delegates take a midnight stroll on the deck of a cruise liner, under the stars, they discuss the day’s conference session and what contributions they’ll make tomorrow. They pause at the rail, pointing excitedly at the distant fishing vessel. It was, they agree, a stroke of genius to hold the conference on a ship – and the general consensus seems to be the same.

The choice of where to hold a conference is enormous these days – and Australia’s booming cruise industry is getting a good slice of the action. Royal Caribbean and other major liners have revealed a sharp increase in conference bookings and enquiries, particularly from EAs. Some cruise companies even have dedicated staff to help plan at-sea conferences.

On-board routines are much like those at other conferences. Ships mostly have the latest technological equipment. If you’re using a reputable event planner, that should have been checked. The advantage, however, of shipboard conferences is that, away from conference sessions, delegates have the run of the ship and its leisure activities – they can laze by the pool, indulge in long menus of diversions, network with other delegates or spend time with their families if they are in tow.

This fantastic growth in shipboard conferencing hasn’t hurt the land-based business either. These survived the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 to bounce back rapidly, becoming a corporate success story. Now all our major cities battle for slices of conference spending. Late last year, Sydney unveiled brand-new conference facilities in the Darling Harbour area – an easy stroll from the CBD. The city’s main rival for big gatherings is Melbourne. Both cities slug it out for major events.

While Sydney and Melbourne conference centres can host conferences for as many as 25,000 people (if they limit access to “gala” events), smaller bread-and-butter meetings of a few hundred or even as few as 12 – are also welcomed, and now encouraged.

Cities across the country are well supplied with purpose-built facilities. Canberra’s National Convention Centre is currently being given a makeover, which will boost its security and upgrade its technological equipment. The Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre caters to as many as 800 or as few as eight in 44 meeting rooms. Sales director Alison Gardiner says conference delegates regard as a bonus their easy pedestrian access to Southbank’s “more than 70 riverside restaurants and cafes” as well as art galleries, museums and theatres.

Hotels are increasingly focusing on the conference niche – particularly if they can accommodate almost all delegates in-house. Hotel conference facilities typically take several hundred people configured in everything from theatre-style to cocktails or dinner.

TFE Hotels is adding 18 hotels to its portfolio in the next five years – 13 of which will be in Australia with a renewed focus on the conference market.

CEO Rachel Argaman says the hotel industry has the benefit of being able to offer full service offerings, services and products not just conferencing and event facilities.

“We have breakout areas, accommodation rooms, pool areas, gardens. It’s a one-stop shop. It’s about offering the option to stay, often in a beautiful location or a very convenient city location anywhere in Australia where convention centres tend to be only in major capitals and central to the CBD.

“You also have flexibility to adapt the event to what you’re doing, we can tailor make the event to suit what the client is expecting from a small boardroom to a product launch to formal sit down dinner.”

Regional centres chase conference business, too. Among the most successful are a pair positioned across the country from each other: New South Wales’ Coffs Harbour and Western Australia’s Broome. Both towns aggressively market their facilities and the natural attractions propelling their popularity.

In Geelong and The Bellarine, about an hour from Melbourne’s CBD, it’s about offering a diverse range of options from conferencing on a pier in the city centre to a winery.

Geelong conference centre Marketing & Business Development Coordinator Glenn Jones says the unique venues in Geelong and the Bellarine make you feel like you are a million miles away, yet you’re so close to everything.

“The boutique style venues of the region offer a very personal level of service. All the venues work together to make the whole planning experience of holding your event in Geelong as simple to organise as possible.”

New South Wales’ Hunter Valley and South Australia’s Barossa Valley along with Western Australia’s Swan Valley (which can be reached by boat trip along the Swan River) and the Margaret River region are also popular options, as is Tasmania’s upmarket Tamar Valley where a long-established wine trail visits a succession of cellar doors. These days there’s also a Tasmanian “whisky trail” stopping at a string of mini-distilleries. Small conferences have included this “whisky trail” – passing through some of the state’s most gorgeous countryside – as an away-from-conference option.

EAs tasked with inviting foreign delegates to Australia should note recent comments by the country’s trade, tourism and investment minister, Steven Ciobo: “New international research on business events has found Australia is the most exciting destination for conferences. Australia also ranked first for scenery, sightseeing, and being a destination worth travelling to.” The research, he adds, found most attendees want a balance between business and leisure. Australia ticks the boxes.

One factor easing pressure on Australian EAs responsible for enticing foreign delegates: air schedules to and from the country have been much improved in the past two years – more flights and improved timings.

The handiest offshore destination for Australian conferences is New Zealand where Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown all pitch aggressively for business events. Australian companies often give delegates a holiday option – several days exploring leisure destinations (at their own cost) before or after conferences. Foreign visitors are heading increasingly to New Zealand’s regional areas rather than just the main cities, according to associate tourism minister Paula Bennett who says statistics to last September indicate a 6.4 per cent increase in sold room nights over the previous year.

Australian conferences have also been increasing in other South Pacific holiday destinations such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Australian administered Norfolk Island.

But Southeast Asia still attracts much of Australia’s offshore conference business. Often this results from informal advance polling of likely delegates: should the next conference be held onshore or overseas? Combining conferences with family holidays is a growing niche. Australians are particularly fond of Singapore, Thailand (generally Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai), Malaysia, Indonesia (usually Bali) and Vietnam. All have excellent facilities for big or small meetings with plentiful options to see more of the country – or opt to laze by resort pools.

It often falls to a senior executive’s EA, usually liaising with experienced events companies, to organise conferences. It helps if attractions are close by and easily accessed – as are Bangkok’s Royal Palace or Sydney’s historic Rocks precinct and harbour.

However, once the destination is decided it’s very rare to hear complaints and delegates almost always have no regrets once attending a well-run conference.