No more country town

Melbourne is all grown up and shining as a business events star

If you are looking for the secret to Melbourne’s continued rise in the events industry, you will likely find it in its past, where stakeholders were prepared to play hardball from the beginning.

Marking 30 years of the Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event (AIME) this year has given its owner, the Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB), cause for a nostalgic look back at its foundations for success and key decisions that have positioned it for future growth.

Melbourne boasts stunning venues for business gatherings

And what it found when digging up the history books was pretty remarkable.

“Melbourne was really a large country town for many years,” reflected Julia Swanson, MCB’s CEO who has been in the industry for most of those three decades.

“And then in the last 20 years or so, it went through phenomenal growth; that’s everything from the airport to the hotel sector, to the development of significant precincts,” she said.

This included turning industrial or disused factory land into what is now some of Melbourne’s key business events assets, such as the vibrant South Wharf, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), Docklands, plus university and biomedical precincts.

There is also pride in the fact that Melbourne is the only city in the world that hosts both a major tennis event in the Australian Open and the Grand Prix, cementing its reputation for hosting large-scale events.

So, what decisions did Melbourne make that are still paying it forward?

“(For one), the government of that time secured land and developed a world-class convention and exhibition centre right on the waterfront and in the city centre, which made a massive difference. The considerate planning they put into that, set up the city for decades of success in the business event sector,” said Swanson.

“I (also) always regard the International AIDS Conference, held in Melbourne in 2014, as one of the proudest accomplishments for a destination. Attracting an internationally significant gathering of 14,000 people from 120 countries – ranging from grassroots advocates to politicians, royalty, celebrities, and leading science experts – this conference facilitated collaboration to address an issue that is a challenge in some parts of the world.

“As a result, amazing events and lasting legacies were created that will survive for years to come,” she continued.

Also receiving special mention were Peter King, who recently finished his 11-year CEO role at the MCEC, and Peter Jones of Peter Jones Special Events.

“(King) took the MCEC from a functional building to world-class standards, setting the bar for venue design, reinvestment in technology and sustainability, and creating amazing delegate experiences in terms of food, wine and enrichment,” noted Swanson.

“And Jones had a really impactful chapter in Melbourne’s history delivering major public and business events. The work he did at AIME’s welcome reception (at Marvel Stadium) was phenomenal. To corral over 1,000 people to form the number 30 in the middle of the grounds, and all in the middle of a networking event, was something that I wasn’t sure he’d make happen but he proved me wrong, so that was fantastic,” Swanson enthused.

This year, Melbourne is projecting to offer 42,000 hotel rooms, including additions from Australia’s tallest hotel, The Ritz Carlton. That is a long way from 4,000 rooms 30 years ago in 1993. Work has also started on a A$1.7 billion (US$1.1 billion) Melbourne arts precinct, which will be Australia’s largest arts and culture infrastructure project.

Meanwhile, the health and medical sector continues to be a force with 30 per cent of Melbourne’s confirmed business over the next three years coming from this sector. Biotechnology is also delivering some large events for Melbourne, including the International Congress of Genetics in July which will bring 3,000 delegates to the city. There is also significant growth in the business sector, with 24 association and incentive events secured for 2023.

Throughout the years, there is no doubt that AIME – a show that transacted A$120 million in business last year – has played a significant role in showcasing Melbourne to potential clients.

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