Of the many reasons Americans take meetings and incentives overseas, one of them is to give attendees the cache of having traveled to distant lands. At the same time, they don't want the destination to be too exotic. Australia is made for them: distant, exotic, yet also familiar.

On the Adams/Laux Showcase trip to Melbourne and Adelaide, timed to coincide with the AsiaPacific Incentives and Meetings Expo '97 (AIME), participants kept talking about how much like home it felt.

"Melbourne was very accessible, very clean, very friendly. Using the tram to get around made me feel almost like a native," says Susan Bellotti, manager of meetings and incentives travel for the Dallas-based independent travel group XTS.

"I felt at home in Melbourne, maybe because I was using the tram as though I lived there," adds Karen Griggs, owner of Griggs Association Management, based in Poolesville, MD.

The tram--trolley car to Americans--is free to convention attendees in Melbourne who carry a gold "delegate" card. Service is frequent, safe, and convenient, with a stop directly in front of the newly renamed Melbourne Convention Centre, where the AIME meeting took place. (For more on AIME, see the box at right).

The Adams/Laux-sponsored delegates got to know Melbourne and the surrounding area through a series of preconference activities, including a tour of the Yarra Valley wine country, a beach barbecue with motorcycle tours of the oceanside neighborhood of Brighton, and an evening at the newly refurbished Regent Theatre, where an Australian production of Sunset Boulevard was playing.

The Yarra River runs through Melbourne and then south toward the ocean. An hour and a half out of town brings visitors to one of Australia's great wine-producing regions. "Moet and Chandon was the highlight of the Yarra Valley wine tour," says Michelle McDonald, applications coordinator with Siemens Medical Systems, Iselin, NJ. "It's a beautiful location. The Heales-ville Sanctuary (also part of the tour) was great, too--I enjoyed seeing kangaroos, wombats, and wallabies all in one place, and so many animals just roaming free."

"The beach barbecue event with the Harley Davidson motorcycle rides [provided by Melbourne-based Just Cruisin'] was terrific," says Bellotti. "I wanted to go out and ride again."

The Regent Theatre, just down Collins Street from the Grand Hyatt, has been restored to its original glamorous 1930s state for Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. "The show was spectacular," says Charlotte Donn, director of administration and publications for the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons, South Miami, FL. "I'd just seen Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and this was much better."

Melbourne's New Face "Melbourne seems to be doing exceptionally well--there's a lot of energy, a lot of culture," says Cerisse Robnett, meeting planner for biomedical manufacturer Amgen, Inc., based in Los Angeles.

"It's been six years since my last visit to Melbourne, and the city has delivered on the promise it showed then. It was everything I expected and more," adds John Greenslit, chief executive officer of the Professional Plant Growers Association, based in Mason, MI.

A lot of that energy has been directed to creating new meeting venues. The Melbourne Exhibition Centre, opened in February 1996 just across the Yarra River from downtown, boasts of being the largest enclosed structure in the Southern Hemisphere, with approximately 300,000 square feet of pillarless exhibit space.

It is just across from the Melbourne Convention Centre (the former World Congress Centre, renamed during AIME '97) and the new Crown Center, an elaborate hotel/entertainment/conference facility that will eventually have 1,000 guest rooms. In fact, according to Melbourne's convention and visitor bureau (CVB) Chief Gary Grimmer, the city will have 19,000 hotel rooms by 2000--a 47 percent increase. At present, about 1,500 of those rooms are within walking distance of the Exhibition Centre and Convention Centre, which are now being jointly marketed.

The Adams/Laux contingent stayed at the Rockman's Regency Hotel on Exhibition Street in downtown Melbourne. Guests remarked on the high level of service. "I walked up to the concierge to ask about church services. They actually sent someone down the street to find out when they were," says Donn. "You remember that kind of service."

Dinner with Animals in Adelaide On the morning after the closing AIME '97 banquet, the Adams/Laux group boarded a Qantas jet for an hour-and-half flight west to Adelaide, the coastal city of South Australia. A city tour was followed by an inspection of the Adelaide Convention Centre and Exhibition Hall. The Centre's main hall has 21,630 square feet of flat floor space; the hall is divisible into five sections. There are also 11 meeting rooms on two floors that seat from 30 to 150 persons theater-style. The Exhibition Centre has about 32,600 square feet of floor space,

divisible into two separate areas.

"For its size, the Adelaide Convention Centre had a lot to offer in terms of staging and technical ability," says Bellotti. "And for a ten-year-old facility, it's really been maintained well."

The afternoon continued with a visit via vintage limousine to a brand-new venue, the aptly named Summit, with a spectacular view of the city and the ocean beyond; and to the secluded Mt. Lofty House resort and conference center.

That evening's dinner was held among the animals at the Adelaide Zoo. "Dinner at the zoo was a highlight," says Donn. "The zoo is a pretty place, and it was nice to have a chance to talk with local suppliers at dinner."

Wine Country, 'Roo Country The next day began with an inspection of the group's host property, the Adelaide Grand Hyatt, which is immediately adjacent to the convention and exhibition center on one side and the new Adelaide Casino and Adelaide Festival Hall on the other. From the hotel, it was on to a tour of the Borassa Valley, another of Australia's wine-producing regions. The trip was taken aboard Matilda, a 1949 passenger bus originally built for the Sydney-Brisbane route, lovingly restored by local ground operator Mirror Image. There were stops at the Seppeltsfield Winery, Kaesler Wines Estate (where lunch was served under a vine-laden trellis), and Yalumba Winery. Dinner was served at Red Ochre, a restaurant specializing in native Australian cuisine, including emu and kangaroo.

The last day began with a 25-minute flight to the town of Kingscote on Kangaroo Island, just off the South Australia coast. Here the group spent the day getting up close and personal with sea lions, koalas, and, of course, 'roos and wallabies, led by a knowledgeable guide from Adventure Charters of Kangaroo Island.

"The lunch setup under the tent out in the middle of nowhere was great, and seeing the sea lions and kangaroos in the wild like that was neat," says McDonald.

"Kangaroo Island was an unforgettable experience," agrees Robnett. "Walking through the bush to see kangaroos in the wild--you just can't get that experience anywhere else."