Tag Archives: Queensland

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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The Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre opened ten years ago, and has helped ensure southeast Queensland punches above its weight in the scale and quality of events it attracts. In an interview with The Siteseer, Adrienne Readings, the first woman to be appointed general manager of a convention centre in Australia, looks back on a tumultuous decade and reveals how her facility provides the kind of value that keeps clients coming back.

Adrienne Readings current head shotThe Siteseer: Adrienne, you’ve hosted more than 2,000 events in ten years. What’s the secret of your success?

Adrienne Readings: Five-star-quality service. We’re the biggest venue for business events on the coast but being biggest hasn’t made us complacent; quite the opposite. We’re in a competitive hospitality region and know our service has to be world-class so, as a business, we challenge ourselves daily and focus on continuously improving the venue. I believe that’s why we’ve established a strong reputation and developed a solid repeat portfolio. To put it into perspective, two of the past three years have been our best in profitability and cost control.

Our state as a whole performs well against some better-known locations or bigger cities. The fact that we can attract world conferences and win conference bids against some of them tells me we’re doing something right. Indeed we’ve emerged as a serious business events destination and venue that attracts thousands of delegates and delivers an ingredient that sets us apart. Twenty-seven of the original 130 team members, myself included, have been here since opening.

SS: How many visitors have you hosted?

AR: More than two million, who’ve injected about $1.6 billion into the local economy. We average more than 160 business events a year, generating 350,000 delegate days. And we’ve got a broad audience market – from conferences, banquets, consumer shows and concerts through to televised sporting events.

We’ve had the likes of UB40, Pink, Rihanna, the National Final Rodeo, ASP World Surfing Awards and the Supanova Pop Culture Expo that attracts close to 30,000 fans a year. The Centre is also home to big expos including those of Mitre 10, Subway and Bakers Delight, as well as Microsoft.

GCCEC 27m Audio Visual ScreenSS: What impact has the centre had on Queensland and its events industry?

AR: There was a lot of excitement when the state’s third convention centre was built! It increased the region’s event capacity sixfold and opened up opportunities, and of course the community welcomed us with open arms. There’s no doubt it’s aided the Gold Coast in attracting conferences that would have otherwise gone elsewhere.

The centre also brought a lot of employment to the region, not just to itself but to businesses that have benefited from the visitors and events we attract. We work collaboratively with industry and the Broadbeach precinct to market the whole destination. What’s good for the Gold Coast is good for us.

SS: Any event recently about which you and your colleagues are especially proud?

AR: They all differ but some are more complex or pose more challenges logistically. Transitioning from a conference to multiple concurrent sessions, from a trade exhibition to a basketball court overnight or from rodeo to a special event are things we do every day. For me our greatest achievement is receiving the trust and respect of large corporations and the people we work with closely.

But take the annual IGA-Metcash Supermarket Expo. It attracts 3,000 delegates and the client uses up every square metre of our exhibition space by turning it into a supermarket. It grows in size each year. Many of our team, from IT to AV and operations, work on it months in advance to make it a success. It was our first major client and we’re proud they’ve kept coming back for 10 years.

SS: You’ve been quoted in the past as saying events organisers seek high-end technology and a specially tailored product. How are you meeting those requirements?

AR: Staying relevant and fresh is key. It’s obviously vital to keep abreast of the latest trends and provide the best infrastructure and technology. So we regularly audit our resources to ensure we can meet the demands of an ever-changing market.

Our current priority is to ensure we reinvest in the product so everything including our service stays at a benchmarked level. We’ve upgraded our bandwidth and wi-fi capabilities in recent years, and our next priority is to ensure our technology is ahead of its time. That will allow us to think ahead strategically about future events, because IT and AV are essential components in this process. We receive great feedback on our food and service which tells me we’re meeting our clients’ needs here.

Front view day03SS: How does the centre compare with competitors in offering value for money?

AR: There are some things that can’t be quantified. Some of our longstanding clients say the reason they come back time and time again is, of course, value for money but, more importantly, [they say] it’s for tailored service money can’t buy.

What does that mean in practical terms? One simple rule is we ask clients what their goals are and how we can contribute to their success. In addition our team members say hello to everyone they meet, they help clients feel at home, research how we can make a meal exceptional, and really pay attention to the finest details so customers feel looked after like nowhere else. Our current tagline is ‘love is in the details,’ and the little things make all the difference. We take a similar approach with suppliers. We work well together because our goals are similar.

Value is also embodied in services that event organisers love, like free wi-fi for more than 2,000 concurrent internet users, although this is becoming more and more standard now. When we introduced this two years ago we were one of the first convention centres to do it. We were the first facility of its kind in the world to offer EarthCheck Gold certification, which ensures we operate to the highest environmental standard. Again this can’t be quantified but it’s a contributing factor to why some prefer our venue.

SS: Tell us about your ‘linkage’ program.

AR: We piloted the Linkage Grant Program which aims to support academics and professionals who are prepared to participate in their trade or professional association and nurture future convention hosts who will bid for conventions for the Gold Coast. The program serves a twofold purpose – to attract more international business events to the centre while benefiting six potential grant recipients who each get $5,000 to fund expenses. The program attracted double the number of applications this year, and we awarded four grants. International conferences have long lead times, of up to five years or more, so the recipients may be working on attracting events years away. The program is an investment in the future, and our community.

Conrad daySS: What are the biggest challenges facing your centre and industry, in your view, and how will you overcome them?

AR: Competition is our biggest challenge. There’s a lot more of it because people over the years have come to realise the value of business events. Our best strategy is to continue working with national industry bodies and regionally with partners like Gold Coast Business Events to raise our profile. We must also attract international market opportunities through joint trade shows and business exchange sessions in the Asia Pacific.

The ever-increasing trend for larger space and concurrent sessions for conventions means that as a venue we’ll need to become larger. Big events require a lot of concurrent spaces; we need more space because we’re losing those. There’s definitely a growing need, once again, to expand but that’s up to the owners, the state government. Expanding would be a great legacy for the Gold Coast on the back of securing the Commonwealth Games.

SS: What must be done by the industry and regulators to ensure a bright future?

AR: Funding for business events and a better understanding in the greater community and government of the immense of value of business events are essential. But the Business Events Council of Australia does a great job helping persuade the Commonwealth Government to increase its support for attracting international conventions and exhibitions.

Reporting on the benefits and flow-on effect that business events generally have for destinations is important in raising our profile and creating awareness. If we can continue to prove our case we can use our industry position to further increase support and ensure a bright future.

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A colleague, a single gent aged 40, has just come back from a long weekend, four-day, break, escaping Sydney’s chill for the warmth of northern Queensland.

While the beach was terrific, and he has fond memories of strolling along the strand in 27-degree sunshine on his last morning at the resort, he appreciates now more than ever why more and more Australians are choosing to holiday in Asia.

When he arrived at the five-star hotel, no one greeted him at the front door, the reception generally was indifferent, and no one offered to help him with his bags.

His room, while adequate, was nowhere near the five-star standard he’d experienced in Asia, and set him back more than $300 a night. The restaurant was overpriced, and the cost of breakfast, which was ordinary, exceeded thirty dollars. When he was looking to have a relaxing drink outside on the Sunday evening, he discovered that the poolside bar was closed at 5pm.

When, by five o’clock one day, his room hadn’t been made up, he called housekeeping to ask if they’d forgotten him. A hotel staff member replied snippily, “we’ll get to you, we’re short-staffed.”

My colleague believes his experience of five-star, or luxury resort accommodation (ie, under $500 per night) points to a bigger issue: one of Australia’s inability to be competitive with its Asian and Pacific tourism destination counterparts in high-end accommodation.

The Australian properties, especially in non-urban centres, he says, are at best poor cousins of their competitors. “I find they’re understaffed, services and facilities are perfunctory and governed by strict safety rules and regulations, rooms are clinical [read low-maintenance], and furnishings are spartan and/or ageing and outdated.”

His experience, frankly, is not unusual. That may be why, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Australian residents travelling overseas for trips of less than a year has grown at an unprecedented rate in recent years. In the 12 months to June 2010, 6.8 million overseas trips were made by Australians, up from 2.1 million two decades earlier. And in 2012-13, numbers had grown again, with 8.4 million Australian residents departing short-term.

Emotional considerations aside – such as the officiousness of some Australian staff who dress down non-complying or ‘whingeing’ guests, and the apparent unease that Australian hospitality service staff at times demonstrate towards serving other Australians – my colleague acknowledges the problem is linked to intractable economic issues. These include the strong dollar, falling foreign tourism numbers, a serious skilled labour shortage and the high cost of labour.

“I don’t believe there’s an easy answer, or that indeed it’s just a matter of Australia ‘pulling its socks up’,” he adds. “Without huge structural change in the economic make-up of the high-end tourism accommodation offering, there’s little prospect of this changing any time soon.”

Nevertheless, the first step in addressing any problem, always, is to acknowledge that it exists.

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