Canberra grows up

With a long-standing reputation as a political playground, Canberra has grown up in recent years, and is now offering a very good argument to meet beyond its bureaucratic roots.

There’s a buzz in Canberra right now and it’s not coming from the political ructions in Parliament House.
In recent years the city has undergone what can only be described as a metamorphosis, with the introduction of new hotels, and major refurbishments of older ones, giving it a sophistication unseen before.
It is definitely a destination that has undergone great change. Celebrating its centenary this year, Canberra is no longer the sleepy hollow many have believed it to be.

As Canberra Convention Bureau CEO Robyn Hendry explains, the centenary, with related events continuing throughout the remainder of 2013, has been a time of reflection.
“Certainly the knowledge and influence of Canberra has been here for some time, but interestingly it’s also a case that the sophistication of Canberra has increased dramatically,” she said.
“Someone said to me a while ago that Canberra always felt like a boy wearing his dad’s suit to the wedding. Now he’s grown into the suit. And it does feel like that to me. There is a maturity to Canberra that hasn’t always been here. The entertainment, the vibe, has increased quite dramatically.”
Many have already recognised the changes, with more meetings business being held in the nation’s capital than ever before.
“We’re midway through a strategic plan we released in 2012 and our stretch goal was increasing the business the bureau confirmed by 25 per cent by 2014. Since then we’re exactly on track – we’re midway through that strategic plan and have just confirmed our fourth consecutive year of growth.
“We’ve increased activity dramatically in what we’ve been doing. Four per cent growth, year on year. There’s no reason that this won’t continue. We feel we’re on track to achieve that goal. It’s quite exciting.”

Centenary Celebrations

Throughout 2013 Canberra has held a range of events for its Centenary (see story page XX). With the tag-line: “Revisit and re-imagine your national capital and discover the story of our country’s freedom, spirit and achievements and aspirations” Canberra has seen a growth in visitation, with many conference groups tapping into what’s available.
Indeed, a 25 per cent increase in national meetings business can be attributed to the Centenary of Canberra and the initiatives, events and opportunities the year-long celebration has fostered.
As Ms Hendry explains, the centenary had an impact for the bureau about three years ago at which time they were promoting it.
“Essentially we’ve come into the centenary year with 25 per cent more confirmed meetings business than we would have ordinarily expected. It has definitely had a pull factor on business events.
“I think people have really been less concerned about individual programs that are occurring throughout the year and have been more concerned about marking the occasion by meeting in Canberra during the centenary year.”

Photos: Museum of Australian Democracy, artwork created by The Electric Canvas, ENLIGHTEN 2012. Image courtesy Australian Capital Tourism

Business, she says, is almost all association based and “everything from the Bonsai Association to the Planning Institute”.
“The National Arboretum opened this year and part of that includes the national bonsai collection and so we secured the Bonsai Association to coincide with the opening of that.”

Hotels and venues

Much of the resurgence and reinvigoration in Canberra has been in the accommodation sector in recent years.
Ms Hendry said there was a period in Canberra where there hadn’t been a lot of reinvestment in hotels.
“Suddenly, about three or four years ago there was sustained growth which in turn attracted investment from owners. We’ve had new hotels come online and we’ve had refreshed existing product.
“Every hotel across the city has been refurbished, and then we’ve had new hotels coming online – East Hotel, Hotel Hotel, Diamant, Hotel Realm, The Burbury, which is building a new one as well. We’re really in good shape as far as accommodation goes.
“At times we lack accommodation in the city. There is no doubt that often demand outstrips supply so we would like to see more stock down the track, but certainly what we have now is very new; even the older hotels like Rydges Lakeside have had massive investment in them.”

Knowledge centres

Clearly one of the attractions of conferencing in Canberra is the opportunity for planners to tap into local expertise. The Canberra Convention Bureau’s THINK CANBERRA initiative aims to connect conference groups with those working in its world-class research institutions, of which there are 16.
“We see that as a major strength in Canberra. The three pillars that we’re always referring to are: culture, knowledge and influence,” Ms Hendry said.
“The culture is clearly the national institutions, for example, the War Memorial and the national galleries, and visitors can still avail themselves of these [during their meeting].

“The knowledge is really tapping into the research institutions we have here. And as we have good relationships with these institutions now – we’ve been doing it for quite some time – that’s flowing seamlessly. We’re working very heavily with the academics. It’s a lovely win win model there.”
The influence, she said, was the ability to touch base with those working in bureaucracies within Canberra.
“We often talk to our association clients about shaping policy and not reacting to it. By having their conference here associations can invite the policy makers and really get them involved so they understand the challenges and opportunities within their industry.
“We recommend to them to come here and widen their net – get more people in their area involved [with the conference] so they understand what you are doing, invite them to the keynote address, and really their whole conversation opens up. It reframes the conversation.”
What any successful meeting comes down to, Ms Hendry says, is content and networking.

“What we say is that in Canberra we can help you build a program that is more solid or as solid as anywhere else in the country. If people think about Canberra and take advantage of what is available in Canberra then their meetings will be far more valuable.”