Bright sparks

Rosie Douglas has championed business events in the Cairns & Great Barrier Reef region for 13 years as the general manager of partnership and events at Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ). Even as she shifts into a consultancy role, Douglas believes that the region continues to hold immense, untapped potential for business events

You’ve had a long career promoting Northern QLD with TTNQ. What’s unique about Northern Queensland for business events?
I’ll preface this by saying that while we’re a small location, we’ve got world-class business events facilities, as some people don’t expect that in a regional location.

But literally, when you walk outside the hotel, you’re looking at the Great Barrier Reef or the rainforest so you’re immersed in it. And because of that, you can create programmes that are quite different to what you would get in a capital city.

You’ve raised some specific challenges before, like having to constantly correct mainstream media about visiting the Great Barrier Reef. What’s been the problem?
Please don’t take this as critical towards journalists or news outlets, but good news stories don’t necessarily sell publications, controversy does. And much of the media controls so much of the narrative these days. So, things like coral bleaching and the state of the Great Barrier Reef have often been misrepresented.

People think the Reef is dying and that visiting it would cause further damage but it’s probably as pristine as it’s been since I’ve even lived in Cairns for over 30 years. Visiting the Reef contributes to its conservation. Every visitor pays a ticketed marine charge which goes back to the conservation and research of the reef.

Also, all operators that have permits to take visitors to the Reef have their conservation programmes that they fund themselves. If they don’t take visitors out there, they wouldn’t be doing reef monitoring and regeneration programmes because there’s otherwise no reason for them to go out there.

The other part that people don’t understand is that the tourist section of the Reef is probably less than about five per cent of the Reef sites. It’s over 2,000km long and has about 600 coral reef systems, and there’s only a very small number that have got permits for visitors.

Are there other challenges unique to Northern Queensland?
I’d say the global challenge of aviation access since Covid, but it is an even greater challenge for a region like ours. People have no choice but to fly here, as there isn’t the option of jumping in a car and driving. We’re a two-hour flight from Brisbane, or over 2,000km from our closest capital city in Australia. Hence, aviation is critical for our destination.

It’s not just about business events or tourism either. Freight is critical for our primary producers, so that’s probably been the biggest single challenge that we’re facing at the moment, as airlines are quite rightly restoring aviation to capital cities first because that’s where the population bases are.

We’re quietly confident that we’ll see aviation return to some capacity in the next 12 months. Internationally, we’re not doing too badly with about 70 or 80 per cent of our pre-Covid capacity, just with different carriers.

Cairns has been really popular with the Chinese market, which is only now starting to rebuild after almost three years of border restrictions. How is TTNQ working to rebuild this market?
We’ve got PR agencies based in China. We’ve also just contracted somebody to focus on responding to leads and destination information, because at the moment, the aviation access directly from China is still quite prohibitive and our flights from Singapore are very heavily booked with European travellers.

Through the pandemic, we ensured agent training was kept up, so it’s about keeping engaged. We’re confident once the market opens up and aviation gets back to more normality, we’ll certainly get back into that market.

You’re about to transition into consultancy and wave goodbye to your general manager role with TTNQ. What is one thing you wish you knew on your first day leading the Bureau?
I think the biggest thing to be successful in this role is the importance of partnerships and collaborating with other stakeholders. In my role, Business Events Australia is a critical partner for us in the international market.

As a small region and bureau, we rely on them for the tradeshow activity. But they’re also the legs on the ground in the region, raising awareness for our destination. We don’t have the luxury of having staff based across different countries.

Editor’s note: Douglas is shifting into a consultancy role, building on her more than 20 years of experience in regional tourism promotion, including in roles at hotels and the Cairns Convention Centre.

What are you most proud of achieving during your time?
Probably securing Amway China for 2019, because it was a fairly long process and we had been unsuccessful in a previous bid. The great thing about that was, it was a whole-city approach. We had 6,000 people visit over about three and a half weeks.

And while we were able to lead the bid, showcase the destination and present a programme that they could work with, at the end of the day, it was our industry that understood and delivered what these clients were looking for. We showed that as a destination, we can bring groups of around a thousand, house them in five-star accommodation, conduct a range of activities and deliver off-site events successfully.

So apart from the economic contribution that it made to the city, it was so good to be able to showcase the capabilities and test the city to say, we can do this and shouldn’t be shying away from these larger events.

Cairns has been announced as Tourism Australia’s host for its signature incentives event next year, now known as Australia Next. Why is that significant for TTNQ?
It comes back to the fact that we can get people into the destination to showcase what it’s all about. Having 120 qualified international incentive buyers experience the destination and its capacities, that’s critical for us. Because we know once people get here, they’ll have a much better understanding of what we have to offer. That’s what we’re looking forward to doing.

In hindsight of your time leading the Bureau, if there was anything you would have done differently what would that be?
This is an interesting question. I’d say it’s not about what I’d do differently, but rather, it’s about managing all our stakeholders’ expectations.

We only have three full-time staff and when I started, it took me a few years to get my head around how everything worked. I had to learn how to navigate to get the best results, balancing member and funding partner expectations along with our limited resources.

One change we made is partnering with places like Port Douglas to jointly run fam programmes. We provide airfare support, and they handle programme management due to resource constraints.

We are now collaborating with our members – such as hotels and the convention centre – to support their events financially while they handle programme delivery. This is how we’re combining our strengths.

What are you most looking forward to personally when you hand over the reins?
I’m probably just having a bit of downtime. The role has been pretty full-on, particularly in the last four years. I’m getting 30 years older than what I was when I first started. The plan is to spend time with family and friends while still being in the industry. I’m confident the destination has good things to come.

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