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The CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau is well-known in her field for a variety of reasons, not least her knowledge and experience and pleasant, good-humoured approach to doing business. In this interview with The Siteseer, Karen Bolinger shares views and advice on the industry, the world, Australia, Melbourne, the Chinese market, CSR and much else.

Siteseer: What are some of the big issues facing your business?

Karen Bolinger: The world is changing, as is the speed with which we’re doing business. I’ve been in this industry for some time and it’s much more competitive than it ever was, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. There are a variety of reasons for this. New infrastructure is being built and governments are investing more in the industry. It really is the pillar of many economies now.

The state of the global economy is always a concern  of course, as is the terrorism threat.

The Asian region is in a rotation pattern for international association business and if I think about who we compete with, I realise just how aggressive it’s all become. Singapore has a long-established convention centre and brand. So has Seoul, which is very aggressive. Kuala Lumpur and Thailand have invested heavily in infrastructure recent years. China will continue to do so of course, and I don’t think we can forget India. Also, in my view, in the next ten years you’ll see more African competition.

An interesting trend is local participation. Buyers and decision-makers, particularly for association conferences, are seeking interaction and participation in the destinations they take their conferences to. That’s their give-back if you like. They want to make sure they’re helping local people get educated from the entry level up, to look after the local communities. They’re often seeking to do it in Africa and certainly the Asian region. It’s about leaving a legacy behind for the future.

Photo - Karen Portrait_web smlWhat does it all mean? It means we must really keep in mind the associations’ objectives and adapt our offering to be in line with their outcomes. Australia is an advanced business event destination in many respects and we are well positioned and competitive, in many ways, to deliver on this.

SS: Are you happy with the levels of support your industry gets?

KB: I always think it could be improved. I sit on the Business Events Council of Australia board which is a collective of the key business event bodies in Australia and a lot of what we do is lobbying and profiling the value of this sector at a federal level, and demonstrating the value that business events deliver to the economy. It’s not just about hotels and the tourism products that do well out of it. It’s the networking, knowledge-exchange and the trade and investment linked to our business that’s critically important. We must make sure we get federal support, and then at a state level we must tap into that support further.

A big challenge is gaining more widespread recognition and understanding of the value of the industry – and the trade and investment it represents that reaches well beyond tourism. We’re working towards a broad set of principles to raise the profile of our sector further, and so it’s seen as a good investment by government.

Australia doesn’t do a particularly good job as far as that’s concerned. There’s a tendency here still to see business events as a tourism outcome, while we see it as related to economic development.

[Visitors] don’t just come because we’ve got hotels, they come because they’re going to a conference at which they can be educated and where they can network, collaborate and exchange ideas. That affects their reason for attendance far more than what we offer as a leisure destination.

And once organisations like ourselves can procure these events, and once people have arrived at our destination, we need to have the right assets in place to support them.

KB: So what do you believe successful operators will be doing differently in future?

SS: Really understanding customers and the customer journey. I don’t think you can keep rolling out the same thing all the time and expect to grow. Whether you’re a supplier or an operator, people are looking for a more personalised approach, and it involves many channels and modes of content management.

You have to keep thinking about your audience and what you’re actually saying to them. When I check into a hotel do I want the generic “Hi welcome back,” or do I want the “Welcome back Karen, I know you like English breakfast loose-leaf tea with a pot in your room because that’s your thing”? There’s a massive difference, and successful operators of the future will pick up on it.

It’s all most of us really want, to feel rewarded and cared for, and we’re prepared to go back for it. Technology enables this kind of service. You can get a lot of intel by looking at purchasing habits – to understand customers better, build a product, welcome people differently or create an event that’s better tailored.

SS: Do Australian venues represent value generally?

KB: Yes. Our model is different here obviously because of our wage and salary structures. But if you think about the quality of service, the food and beverage we provide and our standards in general, we do offer value.

MPVOrganisers from different cultures are accustomed to different offerings and have diverse standards. When they come to a convention centre, North Americans, for example, expect to pay for a shell. When they come to Australia they buy security, chairs, basic AV and so on. It represents good value when you stack up the offerings.

SS: What else makes Australia special?

KB: Its mystique. It’s an aspirational destination, and a lot of that is to do with our personality. Yes we have great landscapes, food and wine and wonderful experiences, but what people most often go away and talk about is the Australians and their friendliness. If you do business here, while you realise we’re fairly serious about business and operate in a respectful manner, you can see we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

For many years Australia has exported its event talent because we’ve had to work a little bit harder and we’ve been creative and innovative. As a result we’ve got highly skilled professionals in our business who have global experience. Melbourne does it particularly well.

SS: What’s Melbourne’s advantage compared with other centres?

KB: What we refer to as intellectual capital sets us apart, though other cities have started to say that too. Another factor is our collaborative approach. We don’t just say it, we demonstrate it in the way we behave; we bring the city together when we’re bidding, and when a conference [is underway].

The AIDS conference in 2014 [that brought 13,000 people to Melbourne] is a good example. We set up a Melbourne planning group beforehand and had all the key stakeholders at the table. Together we decided how to bring that event to life, because we understood that the objectives of the conference were to broaden awareness of AIDS and to get messages to a wide community, not just medical and scientific experts.

To that end we worked closely with the City of Melbourne and put on 60 cultural events for delegates while they were here. There were a ton of things going. I don’t believe this would have happened to the same degree in most other cities. We even had large signage up on bridges in the CBD. This can only happen if you bring everyone together, championing the same thing. Melbourne embraces that kind of collaboration.

SS: Has Melbourne benefited from the Sydney Convention Centre being out of action while it was rebuilt?

KB: No, we’ve been operating at capacity for quite some time. I’d think other cities, like Brisbane and Adelaide, might have benefited more.

SS: Looking to the future, do you see any significant domestic component to your business?

KB: We do some domestic conferences but it’s not the core. We’re not really into “double-handling” some of the business our suppliers would chase. Our task is to identify new opportunities that would never have come to Australia unless we’d bid for them actively.

SS: What can others learn from your experience?

KB: I’m not giving away all of our secrets! It’s about understanding your customer and listening to them, making sure your city’s connected with your decision making and not underestimating the power or value stakeholders can deliver for a successful event. Making use of everyone’s expertise.

Photo - Karen Portrait 2SS: The CSR issue: how well are you doing it, and where’s this trend heading?

KB: We’re lucky in Melbourne to have the first convention centre in the world to be awarded a six-star, green star environmental rating. Beyond that, the city really does live and breathe CSR. We’ve won the world Ecocity conference [July 2017] and it would only have gone to a city that was leading the way.

In our bids we must demonstrate that we continue to embrace CSR, walk the talk and make improvements continually. It’s one of those evolving things. The younger generation, the millennials, are very much in tune with environmental issues because they’d like to inherit a world they want to pass on to their children. As they come up through the ranks they’ll increasingly influence and demand what’s right in this space.


SS: Chinese millennials seem to be equally concerned. How big an attraction is the mainland Chinese market for you?

KB: Much of our incentive business at the moment is coming out of China. It’s interesting to see how their purchasing has changed. It’s moved from the traditional big, controlled group idea to smaller groups, and many of them are demanding some kind of CSR component along with off-the-beaten-track, money-can’t-buy experiences. They’re travelling more, so they’re more experienced on a personal and business level. Incentive groups, especially, want a different experience from what they may have looked for ten or even five years ago.

For example direct sales companies have what they call their elite groups, high achievers. We had 70 Amway delegates in this category come to Melbourne. They took a day at the Grand Prix, where we hired a corporate suite for them. They inspected the cars and had a driver come to talk to them. Then they went on helicopter flights to the Great Ocean Road and had a lunch at a private estate in the Yarra Valley. As a general tourist you couldn’t buy that, and even if you did it would cost you an arm or a leg. They wanted those bragging rights.

The idea behind it of course is to let other people know they should sell more so they can also join the elite program. That’s why direct sales people in some countries are millionaires.

SS: How are you enjoying the job?

KB: Well I’m busy, that’s for sure. [Laughs] I love it because what we do is so diverse. Yesterday I was looking at a press release about a chemical congress we won which is very technical, then there’s an Amway Taiwan incentive program, and all kinds of other events. And I get to meet some of the world’s leaders in their fields which is pretty special.

Another thing I appreciate is what I refer to as the simple complexity of what we do. The idea of organising a conference may be simple, but the complexity of the network we have to build to secure it for the event to be a success is vast. That’s partly what floats my boat – the fact that nothing’s ever the same or cut and dried. Sometimes we’ll have four partners at the table, sometimes there’ll be 80.

And of course there’s the thrill of getting the big wins. We do like to win.


Karen Bolinger joined the Melbourne Convention Bureau as CEO in 2011, bringing more than 20 years’ experience to the role. She was previously General Manager of Strategy and Marketing at the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales (RAS). Before that she held positions at Staging Connections, the Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sheraton on the Park Sydney and Renaissance Sydney Hotel. She is Chair of the BestCities Global Alliance, and sits on the Board of the Association of Australian Convention Bureaux (AACB) and the Victorian Advisory Board for the Starlight Foundation.





In a world in which clients expect more and more, events industry professionals must stay connected to gain the insights they need to feed a winning strategy, says the General Manager of Business Events Australia. In this interview with the Siteseer, Penny Lion discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in selling Australia, the rise of China and the need, now more than ever, for meaningful communication.

Siteseer: How do you differentiate your marketing strategies from the rest of the world’s?

Penny Lion: It’s what brings us to work every day! We’re always trying to do something different. In this day and age the tourism business is so competitive, and within the business events sector it’s even more so because it’s high-yield and everybody wants their share. It’s also quite a fast-paced industry.

KI shot smallerSo if you bring out a brand-ad campaign or embark on a particular trade or marketing strategy, it’s not long before it gets noticed and followed. How do you manage that? For Tourism Australia the focus is always on what will make a difference for the customer, about thinking and knowing what it’s like to be an events planner, or a corporate or association congress decision maker. You’ve got to keep your ear to the ground and stay connected, and always deliver to their needs.

SS: Do you do that better than the opposition?

PL: I believe so, though we can always do better. Tourism Australia is widely seen as punching above its weight, and that applies to Australia in general. Our competitors at big trade shows come up to us and say they watch what we’re doing and think we do it extremely well, which is a great compliment.

Our work isn’t rocket science; we apply good old-fashioned business sense to what we do and in positioning Australia. Also, Australia is unique, though that word is often over-used. It has an incredible array of attractions.

Much of our job is to convert latent demand, because we pitch in at number one or two on everyone’s bucket list. From a corporate incentive point of view, coming to a long-haul destination is perceived to be problematic, and [there are factors like] lack of annual leave or other perceptions that make people wonder whether coming to Australia is the right thing.

SS: So how do you overcome the perception Australia is a long-haul destination, and an expensive one?

small bennelongPL: When you think about barriers to entry, time difference and cost are the things people obviously look at when they’ve got budgets and time frames to manage. But the key is always proving the business case, and we know Australia delivers and adds tremendous value. When events visitors get on the aircraft they may realise it’s not as onerous a journey as they’d first imagined. And once they’re here the experience is great. No one ever leaves Australia saying it was so far away. They go home saying it was the most memorable experience they’ve had.

That’s what we’re trying to deliver on, the emotional connect we’re looking for. We can’t change where we are.

SS: Do you think Australia unfailingly delivers a great experience?

PL: I do, across the board. It’s stating the obvious perhaps, but it’s a multi-destination country. People might come as first-time visitors to an event in Sydney, and connect with the Whitsundays. The next time they might go to Perth and Darwin. There are so many experiences, and they can have variety, time and again.

People are incredibly important in this equation, and Australians generally are down to earth, and we don’t over-promise and under-deliver. When business tourists get here they find we’re also people who don’t say no very often. We make it happen. Decision makers and competitors in the business events industry around the world see that, and it’s a big tick.

SS: You don’t believe there’s a perception that its infrastructure and hotels sometimes don’t match what Asia has to offer, for example?

09 Great Hall half modePL: I think what’s happening across China, in particular, is incredible. The size of their infrastructure – how can anybody really compete with that? But in Australia there’s been strong investment over the past few years. Hotels have been popping up, and they’re differentiated. They’re not all five-star. Some are quite unusual in the boutique experiences they offer. In Brisbane, for example, some of the new hotels are quirky, with beautiful artworks from local artists. It’s a different experience.

Beyond that every capital city has been building new infrastructure as part of our Tourism 2020 strategy, ensuring that, with the industry, we’re introducing additional dollar investment, more hotels and more air capacity. That’s been happening across the board. The convention centres, too, have been undergoing big improvements.

SS: Well nearly every major Asian city has or is building a congress centre. How challenging is it for Australia to lure business to our own?

PL: It’s not just every Asian city, it’s every city in the world. It’s seen as a high-yield sector. In Nigeria recently an incredible convention centre opened. Just about everybody now has one, and new infrastructure is constantly being created. Where I believe Australia does incredibly well is in the fact that we have outstanding convention facilities that are mostly within walking distance of city centres. Think about Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne; the facilities are in the heart of the city.

Darwin Convention CentreOne of my colleagues in America recently had to commute between a hotel in a city and its closest convention centre, and it took two hours each way. We don’t have that problem. Also, the food and beverage offering we have in our convention centres is outstanding, as are the AV and other services. You don’t get the same holistic services in many others around the world.

SS: Are you happy with the new Sydney convention centre that’s taking shape?

PL: Absolutely. It has attractions like open-air-events spaces, and again from a proximity-to-the-city aspect, it provides so many options.

SS: How can industry assist Tourism Australia in creating more awareness of the key selling points of our destination?

PL: Our job as a national tourism organisation is to promote Australia overseas, to increase consideration of the destination. But in the business-events space, decision makers need a lot more detail than those, for example, who might just be planning a holiday. The latter tend to do much of their own research. Decision makers and events planners are time-poor, so they need to be inspired and informed on a regular basis about what they can do in Australia.

Our job is to try to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. We assist by providing a lot of information on our website, digital comms and more.

What we need industry to do is feed us information. We’re always asking for what we call new news. If there’s a hotel that has a new rooftop space or brilliant new F&B menu, an event agency that’s come up with a new theme, or a production agency that has new AV technology that can be on-sold, or there’s a new city walking tour, we need to know.

Sydney ICC Hero shotWe’re encouraging industry to send such news to us regularly. It can be just news bites, a few sentences; it doesn’t always need to be well-crafted PR releases. Then we can pick up the phone and talk to people, and if it’s appropriate, push out to the international market. It’s a free PR service really!

SS: Is it hard to get that kind of communication happening?

PL: Yes, industry is busy. The tourism game is infamous for working hard. It’s not front of mind for them to consider new ideas for Tourism Australia. However some are very good about contacting us, and we have a member of our team who’s out and about and meets with industry and reminds them about what we’re looking for. And our newsletters remind people to stay in touch. It’s our job to make sure Australian industry know what we’re doing and how we can help them and their businesses if they are ready to market themselves internationally.

So that’s a takeout: contact us with information! Email me direct at plion@tourism.australia.com and my colleagues and I can follow up.

SS: Have you witnessed any significant change in business since the Australian dollar was closer in value to the US$?

PL: Our lead time for events is quite long, but if people want to come here, and they did this even when our dollar was stronger, they make it happen. If they had ten thousand dollars to spend, they’d come to Australia with that amount. They mightn’t have done all they wanted, but they still came. Now their ten thousand dollars goes further.

It’s not within our control though. There’s nothing we can do about [fluctuating currency]. We’ve just got to sell the emotional side of the experience.

Cape Tribulation 2SS: Is Tourism Australia focusing more on China as a prime source of business for the short and long term?

PL: It’s not the only focus but it is a key one. We’re working towards our target of delivering more than $115 billion in international tourism expenditure by the year 2020, and China will contribute $13 billion of that. When you think about all the countries whose people travel here, it’s a major chunk. You have the rise of the middle class in China, we’re the closest Western destination, and there’s hardly a time difference. Yet it’s our landscape, fresh air and blue skies they love most.

Bear in mind though that it’s not just Australia that’s looking to China. Every other destination now has offices there. We have a great team of experts who work in that market, and good research on the customer to inform our activity.

SS: That clean and green aspect, how important is it?

PL: If you travel to Shanghai or Beijing, what can look to be a foggy day is often smog. We had a group from China in Sydney recently and hosted them for lunch at a venue with a city aspect. They couldn’t believe it was winter; it was a balmy nineteen degrees, the sun was shining and they couldn’t get over how clear the air was. They loved it.

I should add that the maturity of Chinese business events travellers today is remarkable. I remember sitting down some years ago with a group when they first came to Australia. They didn’t have much English and didn’t really understand our country. Fast forward and they’re all speaking English, and they “get” us. The connection seems to have happened fast, and it represents a fabulous opportunity.

IHCSun 111SS: Do Chinese business events visitors increasingly have expectations about services tailored to their needs, like menus in their own language?

PL: This is something Australian businesses should be thinking about. It’s going to be a key market, and therefore a key consideration is providing information in language. Visitors want to turn on the TV in their hotel room and get Mandarin or Cantonese programs, or simply have a Chinese option on the breakfast buffet. Having said that, I don’t think the Chinese expect quite as much as they used to. They seem to be more accepting of Western ideas, accepting that in Australia you’re not going to get much of a true Chinese experience. That’s why they travel.

Language is key to culture, however, and while Tourism Australia works in so many markets, we knew we needed a dedicated website written in Mandarin and hosted within China to ensure an excellent user experience. This is key to communicating effectively with the Chinese market; we’ve even factored in how they digest and navigate web pages.

SS: What other significant changes are happening in the industry in your view?

PL: I speak to a lot of people on a regular basis, and they’re telling me how different the landscape is. It used to be that a convention bureau might put together a simple proposal about what hotel product might be available and what the centre space might be. Now, clients expect more, much more. We have to factor in, for example, what priority sectors are important, or how associations overseas can align with experts in science or health.

Four Mile Beach Pt DouglasThere’s more emphasis today on connecting people. We have strong pillars for Australia in our people, products and places. That’s so important for industry, to make sure it isn’t just about offering logistics. Increasingly, research shows that, from an events perspective, business people want to connect and understand more about Australia.

That means when they come here they don’t want to be stuck in conference rooms all the time, they want to go out and experience the country and its people. Our industry has to get better at putting together programs that do that. The point is, how do they go a step above and differentiate themselves from New Zealand, Singapore, Fiji and elsewhere?

Moreover part our job [in relation to] industry is to be able to say, if you’re unsure, particularly if you’re delving into the international marketplace, get in contact, because we have insights into what works and what doesn’t, and how you can nuance messaging for international markets.

Even if they’re doing a test-and-learn into a market they’re thinking about working in, we can provide platforms for industry to attend as participants, such as our showcases, or events like the IMEX trade shows. That’s really important too.


As General Manager of Business Events Australia, a division of Tourism Australia, Penny Lion is responsible for raising awareness of her country as a business events destination and helping persuade decision makers to visit it. In her previous role she was General Manager for UK/Europe at corporate events management agency CI Events. She has been in her current position at Tourism Australia – a government authority tasked with the promotion of the country as an international tourism destination – since 2010.

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