Looking to promote Alice Springs as a destination for health conferences, Northern Territory Convention Bureau hosted PCOs and executives of health-related organisations to gain an understanding of local health issues, many of them related to Indigenous health.

Having previously covered Alice Springs as a conference destination, you never tire of flying into the vibrant red centre, ghost gums shimmering white against the ochre hues of the MacDonnell Ranges backed by the bluest skies – as an opening scene it is a showstopper every time.

And as Northern Territory Convention Bureau showcases unique local offerings from Australian Aboriginal art, stories of the dreaming, a camel tour through the red dirt, followed by dinner at the old Telegraph Station, there are surprises at almost every turn.

The cool of the late afternoon sets in and a group of Indigenous youth appear at the Telegraph Station and begin to warm themselves around the braziers. They are a troupe of performers – Drum Atweme – which translates to “hit the drum” in the local Arrernte language. And on a cold desert night they soon warm up the party. The backstory told by their coach/mentor, Peter Lowson OAM, is that the drum group of 6-19 year-olds was formed in February 2004 to provide an option for “at-risk” youth from the Alice Springs Aboriginal town camp. He tells us proudly “none of these kids have been in trouble since”. Their enthusiasm for percussion soon had the delegates joining in.

Next morning the delegates, who have been accommodated in some of the 66 new rooms built at Lasseters Hotel in 2014, board the coach for a quick morning tea at The Residency, formerly home to the town’s top government official. It is available for events and offers a unique slice of early 20th century outback architecture, complete with a manual punkah ceiling fan, but no sign of the punkahwallah who would have been tasked with flapping the thing.

Next we visit another local icon, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), which was born in this town 87 years ago, the dream of Rev John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission in the 1920s. General manager Michael Toomey shows us into the newly redeveloped visitors’ centre which cost $3 million and comes complete with a full size model of their Pilatus PC12 aircraft, a new 70-seat theatrette and the latest holographic technology to bring Flynn’s vision and the man himself to life for visitors. To a delegate, the group regards this as a compelling tourism destination and a must see for any delegates who convene in the Alice. The RFDS relies upon donations for much of its funding.

After a photo opportunity atop Anzac Hill overlooking the town we are taken to the Purple House where a dose of health reality is dispensed in full measure. Here the inequalities of Australia’s health system are on full display. A dozen elders and committee members of the Purple House Wellbeing Project have come into town from the western desert communities in the Territory and some from across the border in Western Australia to highlight a significant issue that shocked many of us.

We learn from the project coordinator, Christy Van Den Heyden that many of the communities spread thousands of kilometres across the western desert have such inadequate health services that families are either forced to split up or they all pack their bags and come to Alice Springs when one of them needs treatment, such as kidney dialysis three times a week that the Purple House provides.

We later learn during a briefing at Alice Springs Hospital that it treats Indigenous patients for a variety of lifestyle diseases at a younger age and at a rate significantly higher than other medical facilities in Australia – many find the statistics quite confronting and believe they should be shared with other health professionals through meetings and events in The Alice.

“Governments are saying they want to close some of these communities, but that will devastate families who have generations of close connection to traditional lands where their forefathers are buried. They believe there’s an obligation to look after these graves,” Christy says.

One of Purple House’s major initiatives is to get members of these communities back home to their land and to their roles as teachers of their children and grandchildren. Christy explains a major initiative is to provide Purple Trucks equipped with dialysis machines that visit the remote communities. Herein lies a serious corporate social responsibility opportunity.

Alice is accommodating

Alice Springs is well equipped with accommodation, meeting facilities, and services, such as the convention centre that has eight flexible meeting spaces catering for up to 1200; the adjoining Lasseters Hotel has a 180-seat restaurant for events, accommodation in six different room types, a large well-equipped health club and a stunning outdoor pool for leisure or laps.

Nearby Doubletree by Hilton has five dedicated meeting spaces, including a grand ballroom for 400, outdoor event spaces plus renowned fine dining restaurant, Hanuman.

Quest Alice Springs is perfect for small meetings and offers a range of studio, one, two, and three-bedroom apartments with self-catering or local restaurant chargeback facilities. It has a dedicated meeting space for up to 25.

Offsite venues abound in Alice Springs, from a disused quarry that delivers magnificent sunset colours over its vast rockface, to the Old Telegraph Station, or Alice Springs Desert Park where you can enjoy a raptor show or group dinners in a nocturnal animal display. At Star of Alice restaurant we’re all handed a didgeridoo and get a laugh-filled lesson in playing, followed by fine dining.

Interesting delegate experiences include: a Segway tour of the town; a sunrise balloon ride with Outback Ballooning, floating gently on the breeze above the red dirt and acacia scrub, which from 500 feet up looks like a huge Indigenous art canvas; or learn traditional hunter gatherer skills from Indigenous guide, Jungala on a walk in Simpsons Gap.

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