By Brad Foster

Meetings & Events Australia’s annual conference in Brisbane in March scored a big tick from the 600+ attendees. But is there still room for improvement?

Thank goodness Mark Bouris wasn’t the only keynote speaker at MEA’s newly branded “EVOLVE” national conference.

Mr Bouris took to the stage to talk on `Accepting the Challenge… Strategies for Success in Tough, Competitive Markets’. He quickly dropped that topic, instead focusing on the underrated value of small business in Australia.

With not a super high percentage of small business owners in the room, his preso didn’t go down all that well.

Despite this blip, the near-record number of delegates – 679 delegates, speakers and exhibitors (compared to 498 in Adelaide in 2018) – gave the conference a very high satisfaction rating. Everyone, we hear, was happy with the venue, the program and speakers, and the social activities.

Here’s my take on the event…

The venue

The Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre is one of Australia’s best and it didn’t disappoint.

Due to the size of this conference, around 600 attendees, its need for exhibition space and break-out rooms, EVOLVE was held in the BCEC on Grey Street section of the centre which is far enough away from the main foyer and larger conference facilities that delegates felt like they owned it.

At the end of this area is a wonderfully sunny outdoor space that delegates could use during morning, tea and lunch breaks. Oh, and it was nice of the BCEC to open the bar to attendees later each day.

But more than that, the BCEC should be commended for its quality food. The team of chefs really do pride themselves on high-quality, seasonal produce, with a definite focus on healthy eating. I doubt anybody would’ve been disappointed with what was on offer.

The main theatre used for keynotes was big but not too big while workshop and break-out sessions were held in rooms that catered well to more intimate discussions between speakers and delegates and were adjacent to the exhibition space where morning and afternoon teas were taken – allowing delegates to mingle with exhibitors, and vice versa.

The gala dinner and awards nights again displayed why events in conference centres can be slick and stylish.

The BCEC has to be one of the best convention centres in the country, and probably the world!

The program and speakers

Let’s start from the top dog… the one who can set the tone for an entire conference. This year’s MC, Kerry `Nigel’ Domann, was a breath of fresh air. Provided by Onstage Entertainment, he was quick witted, could hold a crowd, and did incredibly well to keep the often noisy business event group quiet during the awards ceremony dinner.

If he doesn’t get more work from this gig then I’ll eat my lectern.

Early birds who arrived on the Sunday got to see Nigel Collin and UK live marketing business facilitator, Richard Foulkes, tag team on stage to discuss creativity and ideas. It was a good, fun session.

Other sessions that day included the First Timers’ Welcome, a discussion on Women in AV, facilitated by Toni McAllister, and a super conference welcome at the Queensland Museum, a five minute walk from the BCEC.

It was nice to see here too – like the BCEC for the duration of the conference – that there was plenty of food to go around.

Those who wanted to kick on afterwards did so at the Soleil Pool Bar at Rydges South Bank.

On Day 1 proper, it was nice to see once more the generosity of Ungerboeck Software International which has been a long-time supporter of MEA. Each year they elect to pay for a group of young people to attend this year’s conference. From all around Australia their names were called out and they got up on stage where they were given a rousing applause and welcomed into the MEA fold.

The first keynote of the day was from Steve Sammartino, a futurist sponsored by ICMI Speakers and Entertainers.

Steve was good value. Slick. Funny. Involving. Engaged. Whether he provided any take home value it’s hard to say. Perhaps he did for some people.

Steve was followed by Mark Bouris. I think I’ve said enough already on that presentation.

Delegates then went into a series of concurrent workshops. It’s always so hard to choose one over the other. I did the City Forecasts one with Brisbane Marketing’s Juliet Alabaster, BE Sydney’s Kristian Nicholls, and the Melbourne Convention Bureau’s Beverley Williamson.

A reported “hot one” was done via videoconference with three up-and-coming Aussies working in events in New York. The topic – Future Leaders – Taking on the city that never sleeps – included director of strategy and creative at cievents, Dave Leong, freelance senior event producer, Jennifer Langgons, and LDJ Productions production coordinator, Alexandra Nagle.

Other sessions were on leveraging LinkedIn (Kylie Chown), and a case study on L’Etape Australia by le Tour de France (Simon Baggs and Florent Malezieux from Lateral Event Management).

Workshops were rounded out with a session on The Future of HR and Extended Reality Technology which was in the Tech Talks stream.

That was something that was different at this year’s conference. Workshops followed streams:

  • Future Leaders
  • Sales & Marketing
  • Best Practice Case Studies
  • Event Management
  • Event Business
  • Tech Talks

The aim was to cater for the variety of attendees who work in so many different fields within the business events sector.

There really were too many workshops and sessions to list here. If you’re really interested you can have a look at (before it gets taken down).

Most were pretty great. Some not so. A session I attended on procurement – one of the biggest topics in the business event sector here and globally now – was poorly attended and could have been a whole lot better.

Richard Foulkes’ presentation on “commoditizing creativity” was so relevant that I have expanded on it in this issue (see page XX).

Back to the keynotes, the presentation by CEO of the St Patrick’s Festival in Ireland, Susan Kirby, was interesting in many ways but particularly because, as Ms Kirby explained, St Patrick’s Day festivities were being held in many countries around the world except in Ireland until the St Patrick’s Festival was founded. Today there are 1.6 million participants (110,000 overseas visitors) and it returns to the economy 73 million euro.

Journalist Professor Peter Greste’s tale of arrest and incarceration in Egypt was focused on resilience. His onstage interview with arinex’s Ros McLeod on AV1’s Keith Wootton was equally as engaging as they talked about the challenges and resilience required in business.

Ros McLeod’s comment that any business is just six months away from bankruptcy was a sobering reminder to all in the room.

CEO and founder of Leadership HQ, Sonia McDonald, who spoke on the topic Leadership Is an Attitude, and Australian explorer James Castrission’s tale of his expedition to the South Pole were both well received.

The social program

A good conference will tell you that aside from the speakers there needs to be a strong social program, and EVOLVE definitely delivered in this department.

The welcome function at Queensland Museum and hosted by The Fresh Collective was held in an indoor/outdoor space that ensured plenty of opportunities for catching up with colleagues and meeting new people. Great Brisbane weather didn’t hurt either.

The casual night event was at Howard Smith Wharves, just a short bus ride from the BCEC and the city. This is Brisbane’s new darling of the business event sector and didn’t disappoint. Howard Smith Wharves takes advantage of its riverside location near to the Story Bridge and like Queensland Museum offers indoor and outdoor spaces. Great food and fireworks capped off another good night where, if you didn’t like the music too loud, you could escape it.

The final night gala dinner and awards night was held at the BCEC where there was this time a sit-down meal to enjoy. Spanner crab and avocado, Noosa prawns, roasted corn, black bean and finger lime salsa, Moreton Bay bug, wasabi and ice plant wasn’t a bad entrée to kick things off.

A choice of roasted eye fillet and grilled barramundi for main was equally as tasty.

Morning, lunch and afternoon tea breaks at the BCEC were held in and around the all-important exhibitor zone to allow those who were exhibiting to interact with delegates. There was plenty of chatter which means that hopefully all the exhibitors were happy with their investment.

Oh, and the app

I’m in two minds about event apps. Put simply, are they really necessary or is the old paper version just as good?

Maybe I’m old school but to me I’m not sure whether they are needed or not, and the same goes for this one, designed and sponsored by Cvent.

Yes, it did everything it said it was going to do. No, I didn’t use it a great deal. Like an old dude I printed out the program before I headed to Brisbane and found my paper program worked just fine. I didn’t have to find a charge bar to charge my phone either!

Certainly the ability to ask a question of a speaker is a good feature. But then you can do that by raising your hand when you’re in the audience.

And what of people uploading images and making comments on the app? Did that add value to the conference as a whole? I get that social media is a great tool for extending the reach of a conference – maybe somebody who didn’t attend this year will go next year after seeing lovely images and interesting speakers from the conference – but I’m not sure how photos of early morning Brisbane sunrises and photos of speakers on stage with a fairly banal comment to people who are also at the conference adds value to anything.

But like I said, that could just be me. Give me my paper program any day!

The 2020 MEA Evolve conference will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley from May 3-5. See you there!