Over coffee with… Paul Beeson

The chief of Perth Convention Bureau talks about how the stars are aligned for his city to rise up in the competitive game of business events

Paul Beeson
Paul Beeson

The last time I was in Perth was 2001, as a young student there for a summer course. How has Perth evolved since?
OK, wow, Perth is completely different today. Even from when I first started with the Bureau in 2007, the city has changed dramatically since. A lot of changes happened six or seven years ago.

We want to encourage people who use Singapore as a stopover to come have a taste of Perth which offers a very different experience from the city-state.

Accessibility is great – not much time is wasted travelling within the Metropolitan Area, and even in the Margaret River wine region – which is a very popular destination. There are plans to expand Busselton Airport, in the north of Margaret River region, to take flights in from the east coast and beyond, possibly international flights by Singapore Airlines. That’s the plan for the future, but right now (the region) is still accessible by chartered flights, bus rides or motor vehicles down a dual-line causeway.

Besides the draw of the (Western Australia’s) hinterland, Perth now has also Elizabeth Quay -– much like the lively Clarke Quay in Singapore – where there is a large range of restaurants.

In the last five years, we struggled with accommodation because cost was driven up by the mining boom. The mining executives would happily pay A$600 (US$459) or A$700 a night, but leisure tourists couldn’t afford that.

We have reacted to that by building an enormous range of hotels. In the CBD we will have up to 8,000 new rooms in the next two years. The latest are 500 rooms of six-star quality in Crown Towers. The Crown Perth complex itself has over 2,000 rooms.

How will you fill those 8,000 new rooms plus existing ones?
We will have an overcapacity (once all the developments are done), and visitors will be able to access some very competitive room prices.

We are fortunate to have both a government and opposition Labor Party that recognise the value of the business events we secure. Our (Western Australia) premier Colin Barnett, who is also tourism minister, sees the potential in tourism and has granted extra funding of 30 per cent for the bureau. Of course, we don’t get as much funding as Sydney or Melbourne, but we are very efficient.

We return about A$30 per dollar invested by the Western Australia government – higher than that of what our east coast competitors do. We are poorer, but far more efficient and far more clever.

Much of the promotional materials I get on Perth’s redevelopment are about Elizabeth Quay and the Perth City Link. What other developments should business event planners watch out for?
Those materials are government data driven, so naturally you will hear a lot about the massive infrastructure developments. But the number one (new) product has got to be Crown Towers. The opening was (in November), and it is an exceptional product that you have to see to believe. I’d say it is the highest standard of accommodation in Western Australia.

Luxury barges are also being developed on the beautiful Swan River, and floating events can be held on these incredible spaces that come with pools and palm trees. There are also countless new restaurants across Perth.

It isn’t just tourism driving these developments. We have an innate population growth which ensures the viability of these many developments and additional products, and tourism benefits from that (all the new features across the state).

How can Elizabeth Quay add value to a corporate programme?
Elizabeth Quay is still in development stage, and the beauty of it is that the government is very keen and open to having all sorts of events there. We’ve had quite a few large events from Europe that would otherwise not have come to Perth if wasn’t for the big events spaces in Elizabeth Quay. For now, Elizabeth Quay is really a large open event space.

But once everything is ready in Elizabeth Quay, the district will complement the Perth Convention Centre, yes?
Yes. It will mostly be Elizabeth Quay’s accommodation – The Ritz-Carlton, some serviced apartments, and other quality hotels – and some smaller events space for boutique groups.

How about the Perth City Link?
There will be accommodation at that end of the city too. We’ve got the riverfront where Elizabeth Quay is, and what was traditionally viewed as the back of the city. The land was all railway, so what the Perth City Link project does is to sink all that underground and build accommodation, venues spaces, retail shops, and more above ground. The beauty of Perth City Link is that it allows you to walk from North Bridge, which is our cultural and dining district, through the city and to Elizabeth Quay. You are ensured of different experiences as you walk down that stretch, as opposed to merely walking on a railway bridge. The walk takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Let’s talk about changes to the bureau since you joined in 2007.
Perth Convention Bureau (PCB) has been around since 1974, and is one of the oldest convention bureaus in Australia. It started as a chamber of commerce entity, funded by all the hotels until it became part of the government.

Our focus has been on association conferences. Because our funding is from the government, we are required to keep our spending on not-for-profit organisations. Ninety per cent of our remit for the past 40 years has been on that, so (we looked at) all the professional conferences. Corporate incentive groups account for only 10 per cent of our remit.

When I joined in 2007, PCB was a low-performing bureau. But we changed that methodology completely and did very well in that space. With the amount of accommodation coming up, the range of leisure products we now have, and our proximity to South-east Asia plus wonderful regional air links, we’ve decided to change our strategy towards corporate incentives, particularly out of South-east Asia.

How about China?
We have less of a focus on China. Our view is to leverage on markets we have a heritage with and have the same business ethics, like South-east Asia.

The South-east Asian markets are also more appreciative of the types of tourism products we have in Perth. The Chinese won’t be as impressed, as we don’t have 10 Louis Vuitton stores, but we do have plenty of pristine natural attractions. South-east Asians, like the Europeans, are happy to venture out on their own and not with 10 groups of 10,000 other people. Our product is perfectly aligned with the markets we are focused on.

Moreover, there are so many destinations working on China. Why would we want to fight with all that?

Tourism Australia, as you know, has a strong focus on China. We will let Sydney and Melbourne chase after the Chinese market. They have more flights from China anyway; Perth has only one. Of course, China air links to Perth will grow over time, but for now our immediate focus for the next four years is on familiar markets in South-east Asia.

Elizabeth Quay on Perth’s waterfront will bring new tourism and event products

What are your targets?
In 2016, corporate incentive groups made up 10 per cent of our business. By the end of four years, it will grow to 40.

I had a meeting with our minister before Christmas and I told him that the stars are aligned now – our products are ready, the funding for the bureau is coming in, and developments are coming up at the right pace – and we should put cash back into the agency for them to get incentive delegates down to Perth. Once somebody comes, they get overwhelmed in a good way by how different the experiences are in Perth. So we just need to get past that first hurdle.

Do you see South-east Asia as an easier market because of all the people who had once been schooled in Perth?
Absolutely. They are familiar with Perth and are aware of how safe it is. They also desire the products we have – luxury boutique hotels, wineries, pristine environment. There is so much nature, even within the Metropolitan area.

We found that South-east Asians value natural attractions. When they live in the big cities, they crave getting away from it and into a natural environment. Perth is all that and we don’t have to position ourselves differently.

How many days on average would an incentive group spend in Perth?
Three or four days for just the Metropolitan area. It depends on what they want to do and where they want to go. If they choose to venture out to the hinterlands to see the wineries, chocolate or honey factories, they can just add a number of days.

Tourism Western Australia and PCB recently ended its contract with its promotion agency in Singapore and Malaysia. So who’s marketing the destination for business events then?
Both Tourism Western Australia and PCB used the same agency, and the contract was relinquished. For PCB, we found that it was more efficient to pay someone who’s in-market because Perth is in close proximity to South-east Asia – only a five-hour flight to Singapore. We have Melvin Chan supporting Clinton Barnes (senior business development manager, recruited in mid-2016). Clinton was from the hotel industry so he is familiar with the markets and knows all the agents. Melvin speaks the language here and in Malaysia, and he understands the market.

Let’s talk about domestic competition. Perth isn’t the only city in Australia undergoing a massive redevelopment that will improve the tourism product. How will PCB catch the attention of your desired markets?
Well, let’s look at ICC Sydney as an example. It is an exceptional product. Our convention centre isn’t as large nor as new as that. But you’ve got to look at the products surrounding the convention centre.

On my business trip to Sydney (in January), I paid A$500 a night for a room. That’s a lot of money for a small hotel room! In Perth, you could get a room at the Hyatt Regency Perth for A$180 a night or a 50m2 room at the brand-new six-star Crown Towers for A$380 a night.

Our isolation is our advantage. We’ve got pristine tourism products and the group sizes to Perth are generally smaller that those that inundate Sydney. You won’t have to join long queues or jostle for space with many others, so the experience is more pleasant.

And finally, what new activities can be expected from the bureau?
Western Australia has its own brand (Experience Western Australia) but not Perth. Premier Barnett has requested that a brand for Perth be created, and that will happen very soon.

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