WIZARD OF OZ

It may seem difficult to arrange a corporate event on the other side of the world but, as David Benady reports, Australia is ready, willing and able to cater for every possible requirement of the luxury conference organiser

The Australian conference industry has launched a major initiative to sell itself abroad. But it has its work cut out to persuade conference organisers that it is worth trekking half way around the world.

After all, as deposed Australian premier Paul Keating put it shortly before losing February’s elections: “Australia is at the arse-end of the world.” With flights taking 24 hours from Europe, and costing little short of 3,000 for Clubclass return, the country needs to market its attractions strongly before associations and companies will consider it for their conferences.

The jet-lag that hits travellers from Europe can take a few days out of any trip to Australia, and for a short conference, you may find yourself on your way home before you have even got used to the time difference.

On the other hand, who would not prefer to head for a sun-drenched beach 12,000 miles away than, say spend a week in rainy London or even in the frozen wastes of Canada? A trip on a Qantas jumbo jet, with more food than can be sensibly eaten and access to a choice of 15 films is all part of the experience.

All too conscious that distance is the one big turn-off for conference organisers, the Australian conference and exhibition industry is working hard to promote its positive points. Apart from being a geographically stunning country, Australia offers first-class facilities for large conferences, and can combine these with some interesting incentive trips.

This year, Melbourne hosted the AsiaPacific Incentives & Meetings Expo 96. Hundreds of delegates flooded in from around the world to test Melbourne’s conference facilities and see how the town can cope with an influx of conference delegates.

The Melbourne Convention & Marketing Bureau argues that while it may be costly and time-consuming to get to Australia, once there, a stay can work out cheaper than in other leading destinations. Space is one thing the Australians have in abundance, and consequently hotel prices are cheaper. A night in a five-star hotel, such as the Hilton on the Park in Melbourne, can cost as little as $150 (78).

This year the Melbourne Exhibition Centre opened, which has 30,000 sq m of space and can be divided by four moveable walls into numerous different modules. It is part of the new development at Southbank, the city’s arts and leisure precinct. It includes the Crown Hotel and Casino development and the World Congress Centre.

Melbourne is a good starting point for visitors to Australia. It has a wide range of cuisines, reflecting its cosmopolitan population.

There is a long tradition of rivalry between Melbourne and Australia’s biggest city, Sydney. And this rivalry is intense over conference venues with Sydney boasting two conference centres, The Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre and Centrepoint Convention & Exhibition Centre. The city also makes the most of its harbour, with the Sydney Opera House and the Darling Harbour foreshores of shops, museums, restaurants and outdoor entertainment.

Sydney is also to be home to the Olympics in 2000, and hopes to attract tourists and conferences on the back of this.

The country’s other major cities also have extensive facilities for conferences. Canberra, the country’s political capital, has its National Convention Centre and Adelaide has the Adelaide Convention Centre. Brisbane claims it has a proven track record for hosting major events such as the Commonwealth Games and the World Expo. In the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, the city claims it has the country’s most up-to-date convention facility.

Australia is investing about 50m over the next three years in a global advertising campaign to sell the country as a tourist destination. With the Olympic Games taking place in the Millennium, Australia is already gearing up its international marketing campaigns. The Games can make all the difference to a country’s image with tourists, and the Aussies are planning to exploit them to the full.

After 200 years of trying to oust native Australians, modern Aussies have now realised that the Aborigines are one of the country’s biggest cultural assets. Tourists are being encouraged to follow the Aboriginal trail in various locations around the country.

One incentive destination to offer people after a few days of hard conferencing, is the tropical north of Queensland to a town such as Cairns. It combines exquisite rainforest with close access to the the Great Barrier Reef.

One trip is to take the Kuranda Scenic Railway through the rainforest to the town of the same name, where Aboriginal art and culture are on show. The return journey can be made on the Skyrail cable car, which runs over the canopy of the rainforest providing spectacular views.

Heading the other way, you can take a boat out to one of the coral islands. One trip is on Ocean Spirit Cruises’ luxury sailing catamarans. For about 60, you get a full day’s cruise to a small island inhabited only by birds, and can go snorkelling over the coral reef. There is also lunch and tea included.

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