On the flight up the Australian coast from Sydney to Brisbane, the view is remarkable, just one giant crescent of sand after another for the entire 75-minute trip. The east coast's endless beaches were just the beginning of the extraordinary sites in store for the board of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners (NCBMP), which visited Queensland in August as guests of the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation (QTTC).
"It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me personally and the members of Coalition," says Howard Mills, NCBMP's chairman emeritus. "I've been to many, many countries but this is the first that I've immediately said, 'I could live here.' It was the combination of mountains and water, cleanliness, and a great climate. . . . And the people were very friendly, hospitable, and genuine."
Official Welcome After one cool, clear day exploring Darling Harbor and other sights of Sydney, the 35 members and guests of the Coalition headed north on Qantas Airways for a week in the warmth of Queensland, Australia's Great Barrier Reef state. Landing in Brisbane, the meeting planners found a friendly, growing city on the banks of the winding Brisbane River, and a welcome that could hardly have been more impressive.
Brisbane's Lord Mayor Jim Soorley and Neville Bonner, statesman for Australia's indigenous people, were among the Brisbane notables who turned out to greet the Coalition at a welcome reception in its honor. In his address to the group, Soorley urged the group to look at Brisbane as a gateway to Asia. "As we move into the century of the Asia-Pacific," he said. "it's important for us to work together in order to maximize the opportunities before us."
Facility Boom If any of the Coalition members had considered Queensland a destination only for smaller meetings and incentives, their thinking was quickly turned around. With brand new convention centers open in Brisbane and Cairns, the meeting outlook in Queensland has changed considerably in the past two years.
Coalition members toured the new Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, which came on line in 1995 with four exhibition halls totaling 216,000 square feet, a Great Hall for up to 4,000 people, 15 meeting rooms, and a ballroom with a panoramic view of the city. A tribute to the center's extensive technological capabilities, the seven-day, 2,500-delegate World Wide Web Conference in April 1998 is among Brisbane's future bookings.
"Once you get there, the facilities are excellent," says Ozzie Jenkins, NCBMP's executive director. "It was a surprise to find state-of-the-art convention centers. Whoever designed the Brisbane Convention Centre thought of everything. I'd guess meeting planners were involved."
Equally impressive is the infrastructure around the center that includes the adjacent 305-room, four-star Rydges Hotel, which opened 18 months ago and served as host to Coalition members during their stay. The center and the hotel are part of South Bank Parklands, a 40-acre development located just across the river from the city center on land originally used for World Expo '88. Converted into the Parklands, the area is now an ideal recreational area for convention groups. Attractions include the Gondwana Wildlife Sanctuary, a butterfly museum, a man-made beach, walking paths, and restaurants. Brisbane's Performing Arts Complex, Museum, and State Library are also adjacent to the Centre and available for group functions.
Before flying north to see Queensland's second new convention center in Cairns, the group drove an hour south of Brisbane to Australia's Gold Coast region. Staying in the beachside city of Surfers Paradise, the group spent two nights at Marriott's Surfers Paradise Resort, a relaxing, well-appointed, 330-room property one block back from the 44 miles of sand and surf that draw vacationers from across the Asia-Pacific region.
NCBMP's Jenkins planned a board meeting for her group at the Marriott and was impressed. "There wasn't anything we could ask for that they didn't have," she said, noting that the hotel was even up-to-date with Microsoft Office '97 software in the business center. "They didn't miss a beat. They are 'there,' with meetings." During their stay, Coalition members experienced several of the Gold Coast's top restaurants, including Mango's, with its innovative presentation; the revolving restaurant atop the Parkroyal Surfers Paradise hotel; and the Hope Island Golf Club.
It's Pronounced "Cans" Greeted by members of the Tropical North Queensland Promotion Board waving American flags, Coalition members landed in Cairns on the fifth day of their Australia experience. With its lush hills, palm trees, and balmy breezes, comparisons to Hawaii were the meeting planners' initial observations, but the Coalition was to discover much more.
"When North Americans visit Australia," says QTTC's Gilmore, "they expect to enjoy the unique Australian experiences: beach, reef, rain forest, and outback. Most Queensland destinations have several of these elements, and the Cairns/Port Douglas area has them all. I'm glad the Coalition members were able to experience most of them."
The group's first experience was an overview, so to speak. They traveled by bus up mountain roads to the town of Kuranda, where they boarded six-person Skyrail gondolas for a four-and-a-half-mile ride over the treetops of the tropical rain forest. The two-year-old attraction includes a stop at a midstation where the meeting executives made a short walking excursion below the rainforest canopy.
The cablecar ride ends less than nine miles from Cairns, and right next door to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, where the Coalition group spent a stirring afternoon learning about the history, culture, and dance of the local Tjapukai people.
Early the next morning, Quicksilver Connections rounded up the group from host hotels in Cairns--The Oasis Resort, Matson Plaza Hotel, and the Holiday Inn Cairns--and took them aboard the high-speed catamaran that would motor them to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Quicksilver maintains a large floating platform on the reef, where the catamaran docks for three and a half hours so guests can dive, snorkel, or simply observe the beauty of the reef.
Hug an Emu The Coalition planners' last day in Tropical North Queensland was a busy one, chock-full with tours of some of the region's best meeting facilities. Planners headed north early toward Port Douglas but on their way stopped in Palm Cove, an enclave of waterfront restaurants and resorts about 25 minutes from Cairns center. A group of local hoteliers hosted a breakfast to show off their quiet alternative. Among the Palm Cove properties are Novotel Palm Cove Resort, with nine holes of golf, and the four-star Ramada Great Barrier Reef Resort.
Following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton and the First Lady, who visited the area last November, the Coalition next visited the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Port Douglas. Like the Clintons, the Coalition fed the kangaroos and wallabies, cooed over the koalas, met face-to-beak with an emu, and came away amazed at the sanctuary's 70 species of birds and animals. Later the group toured the property where the Clintons stayed: Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, the only five-star resort on the beach in Tropical North Queensland. The property offers 294 rooms, plus villas, an 18-hole golf course, tennis, and five meeting rooms for up to 380 people.
The group's other hotel tour that day was the four-star Radisson Treetops, with its Australiana styling that uses lots of wood, corrugated tin roofs, and an open-air, close-to-the-rainforest feel. Opened in January 1996 and a Radisson only since early this summer, the property is just down the road from its sister property, Radisson Reef Resort. Together the properties offer 784 rooms.
The day, and the trip, ended back in Cairns at the Cairns Convention Center. While the year-old facility is relatively small, hosting a maximum of 2,500 in the Great Hall, it's well proportioned to its city and embodies its spirit, as well. Bold color choices--blue, orange, and yellow--reflect the tropical flavor of Queensland and create a warm and appealing space.
It was an impressive ending to a remarkable trip, a trip that could have left no one surprised that Conde Nast Traveler magazine recognized Australia's citizens with a Hall of Fame Award for being "the most good-natured, generous hosts on the planet." They earned it without even trying.