July 22, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

Heading up to Cairns from Sydney in May for the BE Immersed famil was one of those prolonged moments where I was reminded all over again of how lucky I am to live in Australia – particularly during a pandemic – how lucky we all are, really. Landing in Cairns feels like awaking in a tropical, enchanted wonderland. It feels like I’m somewhere else entirely. Off come the winter woollies needed down south. It’s suddenly summer all over again, except that in Cairns, it’s this temperate all year round.

The region has impressively well-developed business events credentials, with a keen and collaborative local industry who understands the levels of service expected by MICE groups and has the talent and creativity to deliver them. For a destination that’s 19 hours’ drive from the closest capital city, it provides an authentic regional Australian experience without sacrificing any of the bells and whistles and luxurious touches event organisers look for – in fact, in many cases the destination delivers the kinds of experiences groups cannot get anywhere else in Australia – or the world.

While its blissful tropical climate and natural assets – the region is a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and home to the Daintree Rainforest, both World Heritage-listed – give the destination an incredible starting advantage, recent and current development of Cairns, particularly from a business events perspective, is elevating it to new heights for conferences and incentives.

A render of what Cairns Convention Centre will look like once the expansion is complete next year

A changing convention centre

The Cairns Convention Centre has just reopened after stage one of its $176 million refurbishment and expansion. The project is set to deliver 10,000m2 of new event space in 2022, which will include a third storey – called the Trinity Level – being added on top of the existing building, providing another space for plenaries or dinners and an outdoor terrace with stunning views of Trinity Inlet, around which Cairns is built. The terrace in particular is likely to be a place-making addition, with the kind of view that’ll stop delegates in their tracks.

The venue upgrade will build on what is already a solid offering – Cairns Convention Centre is one of only two centres in the world that has twice won the International Association of Convention Centres AIPC Apex Award, which recognises the highest client rating received by a convention centre – in other words, the award for the best convention centre in the world, as determined by the ultimate judge – the client.

The new luxury kid on the block

Another major development in Cairns – or rather a series of three – has been the establishment of the Crystalbrook Collection brand there. Now Australia’s largest independent luxury hotel group in terms of room stock, Cairns is where the brand first began to make its name. Between 2018 and 2020, Crystalbrook Collection opened three new five-star hotels in Cairns, adding over 1,000 luxury rooms to the destination which hadn’t seen a new luxury property in two decades.

All of Crystalbrook Collection’s hotels are presented as siblings within the same family and they present with a sense of joyful irreverence – for example, Flynn, where I stayed in Cairns, is known as the social butterfly of the three Far North Queensland properties, and boasts two swimming pools located beside the hotel’s restaurant and bar offerings, both of which you have to be a bit of a daredevil to go for a dip in, seeing as they have clear sides and one of them has  viewing portals from the floor beneath, making the swimmer the spectacle.

One of the daredevil swimming pools at Crystalbrook Flynn

The brand is also known for its responsible luxury ethos, which is likely to be a drawcard for associations or corporates mindful of their events’ impact on the environment. Initiatives at Crystalbrook include recycled wood key cards, coat hangers made from recycled pressed cardboard, zero waste bathroom amenities – think toothbrushes made from sugarcane and corn starch – and 80 percent of fresh produce sourced from within three hours of each hotel. The hotel group even owns a cattle station three hours inland from Cairns, called Crystalbrook Station, from which Crystalbrook Flynn alongside the two other Cairns properties, Crystalbrook Riley and Crystalbrook Bailey, source their beef.

Refurbishments galore

Crystalbrook’s arrival into Cairns – and possibly also the convention centre upgrade – appears to have prompted other developments in town as the established conference hotels up their games in response to the new kid on the block. Shangri-La The Marina, Cairns completed a $13 million refurbishment at the end of 2018. Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort also underwent a million-dollar refresh which wrapped up at the end of 2019. We saw both of these upgrades while in Cairns and both were impressive – the Novotel particularly so, for its provision of a lower cost option – pertinent for association groups – that feels fresh, polished and in-step with the tropical destination.

The Shang, as it is affectionately called, is as polished as ever and offers a huge number of conferencing and event spaces, including a new and very Australian place where we had dinner one evening called The Backyard. An intimate outdoor space overlooking the Marina strung with lights and served by a shipping container bar, it was indeed very reminiscent of an Aussie backyard, if you had the coolest one ever.

Dinner in The Backyard at Shangri-La The Marina, Cairns

The Pullman Cairns International has also just begun its most significant renovation works since the property opened over three decades ago. The first phase of the $10 million plus refurbishment will focus on nine floors of rooms while another $1 million has already been spent on upgrades to the hotel’s conferencing facilities. With the first phase of renovation set to finish in October, a second phase of the project will be announced in due course.

Positive reactions

“It’s like a different Cairns,” says Susan Greco from Destination Pacific Australia, a fellow BE Immersed attendee.

“It’s come a long way since I’ve come up here the last time. I think that up here they’re in their own little bubble – their own very exciting little bubble. I think that they are doing exceptionally well and I hope it continues.”

Cathy Wanny from The Conference Shop, another famil attendee agrees.

“Certainly, a lot more to offer than I thought,” she says.

Offsite wonders

After the famil I speak to Rosie Douglas, General Manager of Partnerships and Events at Tourism Tropical North Queensland, who oversees the business events team, and she hits the nail on the head in terms of the way the region succeeds in another very important way.

“We really pride ourselves on offsite venues that suit our environment,” says Douglas.

“There’s loads of amazing offsite venues around the country, but ours, we really try and take pride in the uniqueness – that you can’t get that anywhere else.

“I don’t know any other location around the country that’s got fuel tanks as offsite venues…[and] the cane fields are very synonymous with North Queensland, the rainforest is North Queensland, so they’re the sorts of things that we really focus on that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Drinks at Freshwater Cane Farm catered by Nu Nu Restaurant and Catering

During BE Immersed, we experienced a few of these unique venues. And experienced is particularly apt for offsites in Cairns. If you want to get delegates out of a “busines as usual” mindset, this is the place. We had drinks on the edge of a sugar cane field and it felt almost unreal to be immersed in the grandeur of the landscape – it was to feel small and amazed and like you didn’t want to tear your eyes away from the beauty of the surrounds and the slow settling of the evening. It is a place where you remember how incredible the world we live in really is. The fire twirling, taming and breathing entertainment added another element to our time in the field as did the exceptional catering from Nu Nu Restaurant and Catering.

The next stop on that evening was dinner – also superbly catered by Nu Nu in the Tanks Art Centre – three WW2 oil storage tankers, one of which, in particular, is a true blank canvas, perfect for event planners to make an impression, with capacity for 500 for dinner and circus rigging for aerial entertainment. The other two tanks are also available for events, with some infrastructure built in. Our mouth-watering – gorgeous food, beautifully presented – and visually impressive long table dinner featured acrobats and three singers from Sounds of AustraNesia, who highlighted the Indigenous singers who call the region home – probably a more diverse group than any of us realised – including those with Australian Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Melanesian and Polynesian heritage.

Acrobats take the dinner experience at Tanks Art Centre to a new level

Laura Richards from The Conference Business – another of my fellow attendees for BE Immersed – was equally enamoured with the cane sugar fields, even though we didn’t see a spectacular cane sugar burn (wrong time of year), often used as an event reveal.

“That’s just such a unique, bespoke experience that you can’t replicate anywhere else and for that alone I just think it’s a must,” says Richards.

“And it’s just a quick trip out of Cairns, so perfect for big groups or small. I thought it was a real wow thing. And Nu Nu Catering was outstanding.”

A sense of place

There were several other experiences in both Cairns and Port Douglas during BE Immersed that really showcased that uniqueness of place and geography – giving planners a reason to choose the destination over and above its ability to fulfil the basic logistics of an event and not just for financial or subvention reasons, but because it constitutes an experience that will remain with delegates long after they’ve returned home and returned to the business of business as usual.

We were taken on a Dreamtime Walk by local Indigenous guides in Mossman Gorge near Port Douglas – one of the elements of the famil I’d been most looking forward to after I had heard it spoken of with almost ethereal reverence.

The journey through the Gorge exploring its significance in Indigenous practices and knowledge didn’t disappoint. And it wasn’t only me with whom it resonated.

Our Indigenous guide leads us through Mossman Gorge on a Dreamtime Walk as part of BE Immersed

“It was authentic, highly educational, it was active and it was beautifully suited to groups,” says Susette van der Linden from HelmsBriscoe.

“The connection with the Indigenous culture in the Gorge was just beautiful and peaceful and very welcoming and lovely to actually see that land from the perspective of people who have lived and worked there and own it and appreciate it and can explain that really well,” says Elaine Grant from the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

Our Skyrail trip offered another opportunity to be immersed in the famous rainforest of the region and take in the stunning views afforded by the cable car.

And lunch amongst the brewery vessels beside the water at Hemingway’s Brewery in Cairns was delicious – not at all what one think of as brewery fare – and the different spaces within the venue lend themselves to small and large groups.

A special mention for a beguiling sense of place also goes to Thala Beach Nature Reserve in Port Douglas where we met an impressive range of business events suppliers from Port Douglas. Built up in the trees, many experiences within the accommodation offering, including the common spaces for meeting and eating, make you feel as though you’re floating above the vibrant green landscape stretching all the way out to the sea. All of their 75 cabins – 18 of which have water views – have been recently refurbished and they are currently working through renovating all of the bathrooms.

Meeting Port Douglas business events suppliers in one of the spectacular meeting places at Thala Nature Reserve

A spirit of collaboration

There are a few other things to note for those considering Cairns, Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef for a conference or incentive.

Firstly, collaboration is absolutely front and centre amongst the industry there – Douglas talks about it when we chat post-famil and it’s also brought up by Cathy Wanny from The Conference Shop when we’re reviewing our favourite parts of the trip as we head back to the airport.

“What I was impressed with is the unity between the suppliers,” says Wanny.

“Cairns suppliers, Port Douglas suppliers and Palm Cove suppliers…are now working together. They’re all, post COVID, looking at the bigger picture, the bigger region, and working together and understand that clients want a bit of diversity so they have to work together so they can create that and so it’s successful for everybody.”

Douglas’s comments also reflect this.

“One of the really nice things about our industry that we get a lot of comments on is that while we are in competition when you get into region, because of our remoteness, everyone understands the importance of selling the destination first and then the product second,” she says.

Swapping subvention for personalisation

Douglas also makes another point which feels pertinent as a myriad of subvention funds flood the domestic market due to the pandemic – those funds generally come from ratepayers within a region, which is why Cairns, with its population of around 170,000, won’t necessarily play in the same big dollar amounts as capital cities where there is a much larger pool of cash to dip into. But on the flipside, choosing Cairns also gives event planners more of a chance to support a local economy which will feel the positive impact of a single event more deeply than major capitals. Douglas also says the size of Cairns means, particularly for large conference groups, the city becomes almost an extension of the conference and the experience for delegates feels a lot more personalised.

And one final word from Douglas, which I think will ring true for all of us who attended BE Immersed. Like all the best destinations, nothing sells Cairns better than first-hand experience.

“One of the successes we always have with our marketing is if you can get somebody in region, generally you will convert a piece of business,” she says.

I think we could all see why – from the lush rainforest and the expansive beauty of Trinity Inlet and the reef further out to sea, to the obvious pride and pleasure of the industry we met in Cairns and Port Douglas and the products and experiences they deliver with endearing character, this is a place like no other for a business event.

The lobby at Crystalbrook Bailey is in keeping the hotel group’s commitment to responsible luxury