Tropical Queensland is increasingly popular for conferences, as delegates and their families demand combinations of business with leisure. Chris Pritchard reports
All Australian state capitals are well equipped to host conferences – and the cities with the biggest and best facilities, Sydney and Melbourne, slug it out to win key events for their recently built facilities and consequent economic benefits.
Not content to be on the sidelines in this highly competitive struggle, Brisbane is increasingly touting itself as a not-be-be-sneezed-at alternative.
But what sets the city apart from rivals is the large number of secondary destinations in the state competing for convention business. What’s more, these options promote themselves as fun-in-the-sun holiday destinations – highlighting beachside, Pacific-edge locations.
Brisbane’s Lord Mayor, Graham Quirk, describes his patch as a New World City, alluding to modernity and multiculturalism. Indeed, the latter is one advantage the Queensland state capital has over other Australian states’ number-one conurbations: it’s home to people from 220 countries and six of its suburbs boast a majority of residents born overseas, with China – also the top source of Brisbane’s (and Queensland’s) foreign tourists – the most common birthplace.
Increasingly, Brisbane perceives itself as an outpost of Asia. And why not? Among large cities along Australia’s eastern seaboard, it’s closest to the three leading trading partners: China, Japan and South Korea. This marketing pitch is much used by the city’s port to entice exporters and importers.
Brisbane hasn’t yet totally shrugged off an outdated image as a big country town – but it’s almost there. Some commentators suggest doing so is rendered more difficult because of the city’s role as capital of a major agricultural state.
The city’s renaissance began in the lead-up to its hosting of 1988’s World Expo. This was the cue for a flurry of construction and remodelling. It was much like what’s happening now with cranes hovering above unfinished hotels, office towers and riverfront apartment high-rises.
Brisbane is changing. As one hotel industry leader, Starwood Hotels’ regional vice-president Sean Hunt, notes: “The line between business and leisure is becoming blurred.” Starwood includes the Westin and Four Points chains both of which are poised to open Brisbane properties.
In fact, the Westin is part of Brisbane’s biggest infrastructure project, the $3 billion Queen’s Wharf redevelopment. The hotel will pitch itself firmly at the business, leisure and conference markets – “a corporate hotel with a twist” is how Sean describes it. Besides the hotel, the project will have a casino, restaurants and shops. It aims to be a major after hours precinct.
While other Australian cities have a growing fondness for highlighting historic attributes, Brisbane (population: 2.2 million) basks in newness. Most buildings – even entire precincts are relatively recent, often exhibiting adventurous architecture.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the hotel scene. As Mayor Quirk notes, 17 new five- and four-star hotels have been built in the past five years. Some – like international chain Frasers Hospitality’s Capri by Fraser – are in the heart of the city. Even the smallest tend to have the latest in audiovisual and other technological equipment, recognising the importance, in particular, of the growing convention/conference niche. Nonetheless, PAs checking potential conference bases should check because every rule has its exceptions.
Hotel occupancy was up six per cent last year, supply grew nine per cent and prices are widely forecast to drop slightly.
Brisbane’s larger gatherings tend to be Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre (accommodating 8,000 delegates and winner of a World’s Best Convention Centre award) on the edge of the South Bank cultural precinct. This is where the futuristic Gallery of Modern Art dominates an area overlooking a spruced-up Brisbane River and also houses the Queensland Art Gallery, State Library and other cultural anchors.
There’s even a beach at South Bank.
Brisbane, 14km upriver, managed without, but a new emphasis on leisure meant Streets Beach was built. It’s a 2,000sq m lagoon boasting swaying palms and lifeguards – but no crocodiles or venomous jellyfish. Sprawled on powdery white sand are a mix of locals
(a steel-and-glass backdrop reminds them they’re close to the office) and out-of-towners.
PAs tasked with lining up meetings quickly discover that, while the biggest events are usually at the BCEC, hotels are an attractive option for small-to medium conferences, with the advantage of housing many delegates in-house at discounts. Many other dedicated meetings venues include the historic and opulent-looking Customs House, overlooking the Brisbane River.
Brisbane slots between two tourist strips: the Gold Coast, to its south and Sunshine Coast, to the north. Increasingly, the Gold Coast is becoming outer suburbia. More distant from Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast’s Noosa is a 90-minute drive.
While the city traditionally ignored tourism, this is no longer true: it’s now marketed as a destination in itself, close to many attractions and with splendid infrastructure.
A SUNNY STATE
Secondary destinations aggressively chase chunks of the meetings action as they showcase their appeal as holiday destinations. The conference-holiday link is a growing phenomenon.
Gold Coast: No options are closer than the Gold Coast. The freeway tells its own story: many people live on the Gold Coast (anchored by Surfers Paradise) but work in Brisbane. The high-rise strip of apartments, restaurants and hotels edging white sandy beach is wooing conferences of up to 6,000 people (billing itself as Australia’s largest-capacity regional conference centre) while not downplaying an ability to cater for gatherings of fewer than 10. The Gold Coast, hosting the Commonwealth Games next year from April 4 to 15, makes much of its family-friendly image. Attractions include a multiplicity of theme parks – and, of course, those gorgeous beaches.
Sunshine Coast: Centred on Noosa, the Sunshine Coast – which boasts its own airport and ever-expanding air links – is a less frenetic fun-fun-fun alternative than the Gold Coast. However, hotels and restaurants are numerous here and the beaches are superb. As many an efficient PA would confirm, the Sunshine Coast is an excellent choice for small-to-medium corporate get-togethers catering for up to 1,000 delegates. As on the Gold Coast there are also plenty of family-friendly holiday diversions for out-of-hours entertainment options or extending a corporate stay to include some leisure time.
Fraser Island: Off the eastern coast, the world’s largest sand isle, Fraser Island, beckons. Drive on dirt roads through rainforests, swim in perched lakes – so-called because they’re in hilltop dunes filled over centuries by rainwater – and watch whales from the edge of a 123km-long isle with its own unique strain of Australian dingoes among wildlife. “Fraser Island is on the radar for event planners looking for something extra special – with wow-factor experiences and a destination like no other place on the planet, while still being conveniently accessible,” explains Sarah Smith, Sales Manager – Conference and Events, Kingfisher Bay Resort. “Fraser Island has everything – from beaches, to rainforests to freshwater lakes and sand dunes, which are not just wonderful venues for eco-themed special events like dining under the stars, but also provide exceptional backdrops for team building activities and delegate engagement. We are also blessed with congenial climate and weather conditions, especially in ‘winter’ – which delegates from southern states really appreciate.”
Whitsundays: While the beautiful Whitsundays was significantly impacted by Cyclone Debbie, most businesses are now back up and running again and the tropical holiday vibe that the Whitsundays is well renowned for has returned. Whitsundays Business Events, a division of Tourism Whitsundays, is now busy implementing campaigns to ensure that both domestic and international event buyers are fully aware that the popular tropical (Australian) business events destination is back in business; it’s still beautiful; its venues are still amazing; there’s plenty of fantastic incentive activities/delegate tours available; access to the Whitsundays is so much easier, with more direct flights and special deals on offer, and its experienced events personnel are always going to go out of their way to ensure your event is a huge success. The Whitsundays really is an event destination you’ll fall in love with.
Mackay: The Mackay Entertainment and Convention Centre describes itself as the largest venue between Brisbane and Cairns. Its meetings have a solid record of attracting families who tag holidays onto the beginning or end. The centre accommodates up to 1,000 delegates.
Gladstone: Popular for small-to-medium conferences (250 or fewer), Gladstone is the jumping-off point for Great Barrier Reef destinations such as Heron Island. It’s best known for its giant bauxite smelter, itself an attraction with tours.
Townsville: Billabong Sanctuary justifiably calls itself one of Australia’s best interactive wildlife experiences. Among these is koala-cuddling (legal only in Queensland and South Australia as laws tighten). The sanctuary also offers crocodile and turtle feeding – plus opportunities to wrap writhing pythons round yourself. Well-worth visiting is the Museum of Tropical Queensland, which emphasises natural history, archaeology, colonial history and the Great Barrier Reef. In the same complex is Reef HQ Aquarium, the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. Townsville, long regarded as a poor relation of northern neighbour Cairns, has had a makeover, particularly along and near The Esplanade. It is well-supplied with hotels but aims mainly at the small-to-medium market (up to around 100 delegates).
Cairns: Cairns Convention Centre has nine meeting rooms and a Great Hall accommodating 2,330 people. Cairns feels like a city, albeit a tourist-oriented one – with many resort-themed hotels and a casino. Day-trip cruises visit the Great Barrier Reef’s Green Island where snorkelling is a major lure. Great Barrier Reef meetings even further north? Forty-room Lizard Island, 240 km north of Cairns and 27 km off the coast, boasts 24 beaches and is a top-of-the-market option attracting many small brainstorming groups.