April 6, 2022 | By Joyce DiMascio | Image: MCB CEO Julia Swanson (centre) with Waikin Wong (left) ICCA’s regional director for Asia Pacific and Senthil Gopinath (right) ICCA’s CEO

For Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB) CEO Julia Swanson, the last two years have been a bumpy ride but the reopening of domestic and international borders has seen business events coming back to Melbourne.

With event organiser partner Talk2Media & Events, Swanson’s team has just delivered the return of the Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event after its cancellation in 2021.

She spoke to micenet in Melbourne during the event and expressed her hope that AIME would contribute to a new sense of optimism.

Swanson had just been appointed to the top job at MCB when the industry was shut down by the pandemic. Although she has had a long career at the bureau, including as acting CEO from April 2019, she had only been appointed to the CEO role in her own right a matter of months before everything changed in the world of business events.

But her steady hand has helped to bring the organisation through tough times. Her team is intact and she says they maintained their strong client and supplier relationships throughout the pandemic.

Interviewing her provides an insight into her calm and focussed demeanour. Swanson is very aware of the importance of rebuilding Melbourne’s pipeline of events. It’s her mission – to set Melbourne on the recovery course.

Congratulations on AIME. Could you give us a sense for what feedback you’re getting, particularly from the sellers on the show floor?
First and foremost, there’s a lot of excitement. We’ve had strong interest from exhibitors. There are around 225 exhibitors from across Australia and some other destinations outside Australia. The strong interest was probably more than we anticipated – it just shows that everyone is keen to get back to business.

Everyone saw AIME as an opportunity to do business, a pivotal moment linked to the reopening of the sector.

If the sellers walk away and feel that they’ve done some business, they’ve built some new contacts [and] they’ve got a new sense of optimism, then we’ve done our job.

From the 800 or so people at the welcome reception at the new CENTREPIECE [at] Melbourne Park, the mood was upbeat and optimistic. Everyone was out having fun and genuinely happy to be back at the show – it’s fantastic.

The music has been the standout feature in creating atmosphere on the show floor and at the other events. Yesterday, we talked about the importance of creativity in the Knowledge Program. What was the brief to Song Division, the company which produced the music and entertainment overlay?
First and foremost, everyone wants to get value for their investment at AIME. People really wanted it to be a fun environment and to show the best of Melbourne. We’re a very creative city. We’re a cultural city. We wanted to have a good vibe on the show floor. That was something that came out in the feedback from the previous AIME. We took that on board and said, what can we do to make it fun while also doing business and creating a really good event at the same time?

We do surveys with participants and stakeholders. Buyers and sellers want strong B2B outcomes. The important thing is that everyone wants to get value on their investment. They also want the event to be a fun environment and to show the best of Melbourne. That’s what we have tried to achieve.

I know you can’t play favourites, but there’s a lot of new product around Melbourne – can you name the three that you think are really dazzling? What are the three top experiences that you think surprise and delight?
Oh that’s like picking your favourite child! How do you do that?

I think The LUME Melbourne, the digital art experience at MCEC would have to be our signature product for Melbourne this year. It’s unconventional for a convention centre to have a cultural attraction of that nature.

It really adds another dimension. Convention centres don’t traditionally have a reputation for innovative social events. The LUME is just another tool in the toolkit for Melbourne and it shows that we can do things differently. The LUME is getting some really good traction for social events.

We’ve also got Melbourne Skyfarm opening later this year. It focuses on sustainability and wellness and the social impact of being able to grow food on a city rooftop. What is grown at Skyfarm will support OzHarvest and other charity programs.  Skyfarm will add another dimension to be our offering. To host events on a rooftop overlooking a city with all its natural produce grown on location will be a great experience.

The other new and exciting addition is CENTREPIECE at Melbourne Park, the venue for the AIME welcome event. It’s a versatile space and adds another world-class venue to Melbourne.

We have a broad range of venues from boutique small venues and mid-range venues to major convention centres. The addition of CENTREPIECE at Melbourne Park adds another outstanding venue to our city.

Part two of Swanson’s exclusive sit-down with micenet coming tomorrow.