Laid-back Gold Coast
It’s the first day of autumn in Australia’s favourite getaway destination – the Gold Coast in sunny southeastern Queensland. Not that autumn means much here – it’s just summer or not summer. But things have changed – in fact, things always change here, which is one reason for its popularity with holidaymakers, event planners and worshipers of eternal sun. The Gold Coast has never taken a back seat on the tourism bus and keeps adding to its collection of attractions, hotels and experiences. Every visit packs a new punch.
Jacqui Taylor, director of business events at the Gold Coast Convention Bureau, explains why the destination is such a hot spot for business events: “We’re constantly developing our product mix on the Gold Coast. The options now for incentive groups are at an all-time high, from the all-inclusive theme park experience to more intimate and tailored events.”
Getting their act together
It feels like some sort of rehabilitation is happening on the Gold Coast, with well-known properties such as the Hotel Grand Chancellor and Marriott undergoing extensive refurbishments.
The Sheraton Mirage, the only five-star property built right on the gleaming white beach, has also just bought a new wardrobe. This grand old dame of the coast has been sitting in her dowdy clothes since the day she opened her doors during the glitz and glamour of the 1980s. The trademark water features, expansive gardens and whispering sea breezes still welcome guests, but the new owners of Sheraton Mirage have dug deep and found a spare A$20 million (US$21 million) to invest in serious reconstructive surgery.
While the Sheraton still smells of fresh paint, directly across the road the unique aroma of Palazzo Versace draws in well-heeled guests. This is a palace of signatures – signature restaurants, signature fragrances, signature décor. And the overall signature, of course, is Gianni Versace – late creator of the fashion brand that features throughout the luxury hotel. Palazzo Versace hospitality features uniqueness and individualism combined with unparalleled strata of style and flamboyance, squarely focusing this property in the eye of planners who need to rise to an extra level of style. No additional event themes are required on this property as the elaborate ballroom and restaurants are dressed to the nines already… no, make that dressed to the tens.
Nothing could contrast with the city style more than McLarens Landing on South Stradbroke Island – a 30-minute transfer by tall ship. Casual, relaxed, unpretentious and distinctly Australian, the venue on the beach is an architectural and culinary mash-up of the best the great Australian outdoors has to offer. Bali meets the South Pacific with a hint of Polynesia – McLarens Landing expertly delivers large functions to order. Only on the Gold Coast could you escape from town so quickly and efficiently; dine, dance and slap it up with your feet in the sand and your eyes on the stars.
Breaking with convention
The Gold Coast’s old faithfuls – Seaworld, Movieworld and Jupiters Casino – still have their appeal and deliver an extraordinary experience, but there’s a new kid on the block in the hotel scene – QT, which has gone out of its way to smash the old hotel conventions. Previously the hotel was known as the Gold Coast International – a tired old curmudgeon that never budged from its plum position on the beach. Thankfully, its grandchild, the precocious QT, hasn’t inherited the family genes.
QT has become the hottest, funkiest must-be-seen-at, must-stay-at, must-do-business-at hotel in town. Conventions at QT are anything but, with superb facilities that have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. QT has set the bar for accommodation and business events at a seriously high level – high enough to keep its competitors around Australia jumping.
Taking the altitude metaphor further, as if cocktails in the function space on the 78th floor of the tallest tower on the Gold Coast isn’t enough of a challenge, the owners of Skypoint Observation Deck have thrown down the gauntlet: “Hey, let’s go for a walk outside”. Strapped in high-tech harnesses, groups of 10 push their personal boundaries to scale the outside of the building nearly 280 metres above the waves of Surfers Paradise beach below. Now, that’s what I call team building – or at the very least character building. The Skypoint Climb has already proven a hit with locals and visitors; now the corporates are clamouring to swing into Spiderman mode.
Another left-field adventure combines unusual travel and wildlife. Arriving at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on the back of a Harley Davidson motorbike makes for a dramatic entrance, but the thrill of the ride is quickly calmed by the cute and cuddly koalas waiting to be held in the arms of guests. Mixing with Australian wildlife is a special experience that tugs at the heartstrings. But breakfast among the animals is only the prelude to a day of jaw-dropping views as you chop up the skies in a helicopter, for an aerial swoop over the city.
Dodging sky-piercing buildings of cutting-edge architecture and sailing over the more natural stretches of seemingly endless white sand, the Gold Coast reveals its double identity – the juxtaposition of nature’s blessing and man’s creativity.
A flight of less than two hours will bring you to Melbourne, where you can explore the other side of Australia’s split personality. Melbourne has a huge Asian community – Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Singaporean, Malaysian – just about every nationality makes up Melbourne’s cosmopolitan population. That’s why it feels like home for visiting Asians, who come to the city in great numbers for both business and leisure.
Karen Bolinger is the new chief executive of the Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau (MCVB), and she believes her strategy for making the city accessible as a business events destination is strong. “MCVB has established offices throughout Asia with local staff who understand the region. They also understand what buyers want and will work tirelessly in securing business for Melbourne,” she says.
A capital place
Driving through the tree-lined streets instantly tells you that this is a foodie’s town. Melbournians are obsessed with food – but only good food. There’s hot real-estate competition at street level between great eateries, and the diverse retail offerings reflect that Melbourne is considered Australia’s shopping and fashion capital. Actually, it’s also the country’s sports capital, culture capital and capital of just about anything that requires a touch of class.
The Waterfront restaurant at Station Pier provides the first evidence of Melbourne’s food passion. Cascading towers of the freshest seafood imaginable are quickly devoured, until all that’s left is a pile of empty shells. The meal, of course, is a triumph but a second obsession has to be served: shopping.
Dropped right in the centre of town courtesy of a paparazzi-attracting ride in Harley sidecars, our group warms up their credit cards and is let loose in the thousands of shops that line the wide city streets and funky laneways. In the last 12 months, Melbourne’s leading department stores have tried to out-do each other by building bigger, newer, brighter and showier stores. Very tempting.
Crown Metropol – the latest five-star jewel in the Crown hotel group – is still shiny and new, sitting like a piece of curved designer glassware on the Southbank skyline and delivering an edgy version of the familiar Crown style and quality.
Melbourne washes down its obsession for food with great wine. Less than an hour from downtown, the fruits of the vines of Rochford Wines in the drop-dead gorgeous Yarra Valley can be sipped to the heart’s content. The estate – home to a star-studded billboard of international concerts – is also a hot destination for a spot of team building.
Big Stick Adventures are on hand to dish out the fun with a fleet of Toyota Prados, spinning delegates around the winery on a purpose-designed 4WD course. If the big cars don’t impress then another fleet, this time Segways, has you working a slalom course in teams on the lawns of the winery. Lunch, of course, is a must at Rochford. Lobster tails, Wagu beef and petit fours, all washed down with an appropriate tipple, keeps the necessary strength levels up.
From town hall to country estate
The portico of Melbourne Town Hall is an open-air venue smack dead in the centre of town on the first level of the magnificent building. An off-the-wall place for group dinners, it is quintessential Melbourne. Trams, traffic and tourists congregate on the street below, the incandescence of street lights flickers all around, and a busy city soundtrack acts as background entertainment to a round of show tunes, opera pieces and classic Sinatra ballads belted out by top-rated performer David Malek.
Getting around Melbourne easily and quickly is a snap; conference delegates love the iconic trams which rattle up and down the street grid. But getting out of town to explore some of the farther flung places is just as easy.
While the drive along the Great Ocean Road leaves a memory card full of screensaver-quality images, it takes time, and business event folk like a fast pace – “as much as we can see please”. The answer is a 12-seater Piper Navajo aircraft; in about 45 minutes the famous 12 Apostles along the Great Ocean Road are in sight below us. The flights and sights are classic experiences, along with a gourmet picnic lunch on the shores of a quiet lagoon in Victoria’s southwestern countryside.
Back on solid ground a final delight can be had at the historical Mansion at Werribee Park, just far enough out of town to provide a true country estate feel. Holding court on 11 hectares of preened gardens, the authentic Italianate mansion is home to high-class accommodation, and the conference facilities are perfect for events with a difference.
Boasting open spaces, fresh air, a winery next door and oodles of charm, the property inspires one of our group’s delegates – Agnes Loh, manager of operations with Sunway Travel in Malaysia – to create a Downton Abbey-style themed event. “This is the sort of place that lends itself to that type of theme,” she says.
In the Pavilion overlooking the greener-than-green polo field at Werribee Mansion, a true class act graces our final meal; the hearts of the group members are stolen by the charm, poise, beauty and sheer unbridled talent of Australia’s hottest new act: Divalicious. Violinists Kathryn Crossing and Nan Heo string together a range of current hits with glamour and brilliant showmanship, while singer Jessica Lingotti has the audience swooning with her amazing vocals.
From the easygoing charm of the Gold Coast to the culture capital of Melbourne, experiencing Australia’s delightfully disarming dual personality should definitely be on any business event bucket list.
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LAZY SUNDAE AFTERNOON
The Gold Coast Convention Centre has a novel way of breaking up the humdrum of conferencing and supplying the necessary afternoon sugar fix for delegates. It lays out delicious rainbows of hyper-activity inducing lollies, chocolates and other candies for delegates to make their own ice-cream sundaes. Sweet!
Access: The Gold Coast is serviced by two international airports – Brisbane and Coolangatta (Gold Coast). Tullamarine International Airport in Melbourne is 20 minutes from town.
Climate: The Gold Coast has a mild subtropical climate, enjoying eight hours of sunshine 300 days a year. Average temperatures are 16–28°C throughout the year. Melbourne’s climate is temperate with warm to hot summers, mild springs and autumns and cool winters.
Visa: All visitors entering Australia require a valid passport and an Australian visa or Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) if not an Australian citizen. For further information visit www.immi.gov.au
Language: Australia is an English-speaking nation. However, many other languages are spoken in major cities.
Gold Coast Convention Bureau
Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau