What does it take for business event planners to think outside the box and deliver something that truly inspires, and even fundamentally changes delegates? Well, it certainly takes guts. And a strong belief that conventional thinking can be challenged; and that conference outcomes can be dramatically improved. And it also takes a destination that motivates change. Welcome to amazing Alice Springs.
There’s no doubt Alice Springs will appeal to planners in search of something different. This is a town that does things very differently. It has to, given its remote location, and that unique way of working is reflected in every aspect of the city’s business event offering. Here, the normal rules don’t apply and the rewards can be immense, as 20 event planners from around the country recently experienced first-hand during the Northern Territory Convention Bureau’s Alice Stampede for 2016 – a four-day showcase of event infrastructure.
“Holding a business event in Alice Springs is really all about finding out what’s beyond four walls for your organisation,” says Nicole Jervis, manager – marketing and communications at the Northern Territory Convention Bureau (NTCB). “It’s about taking delegates away from the everyday and inspiring them to think and work differently.”
Selling that message to an organisation isn’t always easy or straightforward. At the Stampede networking event we hear from Savio D’sa, marketing and events manager at Audiology Australia, which held its annual conference in Alice Springs in 2015. In that instance, the destination selection process took more than a year of close collaboration with the NTCB.
“We will work with planners every step of the way,” says Jervis. “The NTCB is there to connect you into Alice Springs. We offer information and advice, contacts, assistance with site inspections and feasibility studies, and a wealth of marketing support.” From the moment we land in Alice Springs it’s pretty clear we are indeed in for something special. The welcome is heartfelt, nothing is too much trouble and the message from our hosts is very much one of an industry, in fact a whole community, willing to pull together to make each and every event a resounding success.
“It’s also about immersion,” says Jervis.
“Alice is a compact place and what’s unique here is that event planners have the opportunity to literally take over the town. You’ll be amazed at what’s possible. From our extensive conferencing infrastructure and hotel inventory to the range of Indigenous experiences and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and workshops that can be layered into your conference and partner programs, there is nowhere in Australia quite like it.”
For most organisations considering an event in Alice Springs, accessibility and travel costs will be key considerations. There are daily direct flights to Alice Springs from all mainland capital cities and all are within three-hours flying time. While the cost of delegate air travel is likely to be higher than to major Australian cities, that’s offset by more cost-effective accommodation and conferencing facilities. And while you are not going to find the equivalent of a 5-star inner-city Sydney hotel in Alice Springs, you certainly will find a consistently good to high standard of accommodation, across a total of 1300 rooms. The largest accommodation offering is set to undergo a major upgrade in 2017 with Lasseters Hotel, connected to the Alice Springs Convention Centre, being rebranded Crowne Plaza Alice Springs, a move which marks InterContinental Hotels Group return to the NT.
D’sa says the biggest concern at the beginning was travel cost to Alice Springs and numbers and whether they would we get the numbers they needed?
“It turned out to be the second biggest event in our history,” he says. “The destination – and pre and post touring options – actually attracted more delegates. No-one complained about flights. There was no kickback. A number of sponsors reconfirmed immediately for the following year based on the success of the event.”
The Alice Springs Convention Centre is the backbone of the city’s large scale business events venues. Suitable for up to 1200 delegates, the centre offers a full suite of event spaces and facilities. From there, a number of unique off-site venues can be layered into the program. One of the absolute highlights of the Stampede is our welcome dinner at the Old Quarry, a versatile space that can cater for from 20 to 1500 guests for a seated dinner. Here we’re completely immersed in the very essence of the outback. From complimentary Akubras to whip cracking demonstrations, native wildlife, live music and even a floodlit didge player performing high on the rocky escarpment surrounding the site, it’s one amazing surprise after another.
Alice Springs’ many historic sites also offer inspiring opportunities. The Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility provides a 72 seat theatre and a fascinating insight into the backstory of a truly iconic Australian institution, while the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, which dates back to the 1870s, is the perfect backdrop for a wide range of outdoor events (the venue plays host to stunning outdoor seated dinners for passengers of the Ghan for example).
Over at the Alice Springs Desert Park, at the foot of the majestic MacDonnell Ranges, we enjoy another memorable dinner inside the atmospheric Nocturnal House, a cave-like wildlife enclosure. Special mention also to our picnic supper in the middle of a grape farm, in the middle of the outback, complete with live music and a drumming performance by Drum Atweme – a group of at-risk Indigenous kids getting a different perspective on life through music.
With a population in Alice Springs of just 28,000, 20 per cent of whom are Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal experiences are a special, and indeed integral, part of the city’s business event offering.
“We incorporated the Indigenous community in every facet of our event, well beyond the traditional welcome to country ceremony,” says D’sa. “Right down to an original artwork by a local artist that was commissioned especially for our conference collateral.”
On day two of the Stampede we settle in for the two-hour business and networking event, which brings together a diverse range of inspiring speakers – including Sarah Brown, CEO of Western Desert Dialysis – also known as The Purple House. With the high incidence of renal failure in remote Indigenous communities, The Purple House provides life-changing mobile dialysis. Sarah’s presentation is heartwarming and gut-wrenching at the same time and I can only think that any conference lucky enough to secure her as a keynote speaker on effecting positive change will benefit beyond belief.
Lyndon Frearson, managing director of CAT Projects, an engineering firm working in the renewable energy sector in Alice Springs, gives us further food for thought on the Red Centre as a business event destination. “The desert is defined by scarcity,” says Frearson. “But as you start to understand the desert, you realise it’s that very scarcity that gives the landscape its great strength.
“This is an environment that demands a shift from the way we think in our major cities. How do you start a new conversation within your organisation? This is the place to inspire it.”
The remainder of our time in Alice Springs is spent enjoying a multitude of extraordinary experiences, many of them with a proud Indigenous element. We drift over the gentle stillness of the Red Centre at dawn in a hot air balloon; enjoy a bush-inspired feast and cultural experience with the amazing ladies at Kungkas Can Cook; marvel at the nimble fingers of the Tjampi Desert Weavers; pick out constellations in the impossibly bright night sky with Earth Sanctuary; and dance along with a glittering drag tribute to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
I doubt any of our Stampede delegates leaves the Red Centre the same person they arrived. And that’s what an unconventional approach to business events can do.