Melbourne: Australia’s Fashionable ‘Other City’

Melbourne has long been in the shadow of big sister Sydney. But as the style and cultural capital of Australia, Melbourne sparkles in the midst of those shadows, offering distinctive venues, world-class accommodations and diverse experiences for every kind of group.

The Asian-Pacific Incentive & Meetings Expo (AIME) runs every year in Melbourne during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. Drawing senior buyers from all over the globe, the 3-day tradeshow framed by pre- and post-trips is a respite from the snow and winds of winter in the North.

Leaving a chilly rain behind in Los Angeles, I escaped to Melbourne to cover AIME and to explore why it has become the top city in Australia for MICE business. I met Pauline Crowder, owner of the global DMC Encore Business Tourism, who summed up the magic of Melbourne this way: “Melbourne is really a unique destination. It has sophistication, lots of style, and is the home to most of Australia’s top fashion and decor designers. There is something special about the tiny little laneways, and the shops and cafes that line them…. Over the past years Melbourne has become the major event capital of the South Pacific.”

Melbourne stretches around the shores of Port Phillip Bay and is split by the Yarra River before pouring into Victoria Harbor. Like any city surrounded by water, the river and bay are major players with plentiful waterside promenades, boating activities and water sports. And many of the old waterfront warehouses and wharves have been resurrected into vibrant hubs of social activity that reflect the river’s impact on the city.

On the north shore of the Yarra, Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD) lies in a neat grid of blocks cut by wide streets and parkways perfect for group walking and shopping tours. Charming Victorian-era trams run throughout the wide shopping boulevards, allowing for hop-on/hop-off access to explore the haute couture, eclectic boutiques and delectable cafes.

Across the river in South Wharf, the new Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC) reigns as the first of its kind to achieve a 6-Star Green Star environmental rating. The convention center offers 32 meeting rooms of various sizes, a grand banquet room and a state-of-the-art plenary that can be divided into self-contained, acoustically separate theatres. The exhibition area offers 323,000 sf of clear span floor space and can transform into smaller sections. A variety of meeting rooms, organizer offices, hospitality suites and a 493-seat auditorium complement the exhibition space.

Two of Melbourne’s most vibrant offsite event venues thrive near the river’s edge. AIME held its welcome reception at the Goods Shed South in the Docklands. This vast indoor space with a former transportation building easily accommodated more than 2,000 AIME attendees. Cuisine from Melbourne’s microcosm of cultures blended admirably with design elements such as outdoor garden spots typical of Melbourne’s famous rooftop bars, while the industrial decor, DJ and urban dance areas reflected the city’s streetwise edge.

AIME hosted buyers and media representatives for an evening of musical samplers and culinary surprises on the river’s edge at Waterfront Venues. Only minutes from most hotels within the CBD and overlooking Victoria Harbor, this indoor/outdoor facility includes two multi-function meeting rooms, a bar, and the signature Kobe Jones Melbourne Japanese restaurant.

Smaller groups have options for offsite events all over the city, including the new Melbourne Recital Centre, the Melbourne Aquarium and various museums within the city.

“Another venue really good to work with is the Melbourne Museum,” says Claire Winn, operations manager with the DMC ID Australia, which frequently works in Melbourne. “There are so many different venues within the complex. One area looks out onto a living forest and has an atrium that makes a very impressive setting. With all of the different exhibits, every time you do an event there it’s always different.”

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

Glowing with grandeur as much today as the day it opened in 1891, InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto is the grande dame of Melbourne hotels. A stunning melding of old and new, The Rialto’s 253 rooms reflect the elegance of bygone days, while embracing the latest in comfort and technology. Eleven meeting rooms, including the Rialto Ballroom, allow much flexibility and provide state-of-the-art A/V equipment. A fitness center and spa further ground The Rialto in the 21st century.

“They did a really great job during the renovation,” says Rich Wise, president of Wise Incentives. “It’s really two buildings; one is the historic building, where they kept the facade and the interior. They incorporated a newer building next to it and drew them together with an atrium. They did a great job of retaining the original character.”

In contrast to design, but not in luxury, Melbourne boasts a myriad of 5-star properties well suited for groups. Set along the river in Southbank, the vastCrown Entertainment Complex features a casino, cinema, shopping center, two spas, abundant choices in dining and nightlife, and three hotels.

Crown Towers is the high-end luxury property with a capital L, featuring large marble bathrooms, a host of opulent amenities and impeccable service. The 658-room Crown Metropol just opened in April with posh rooms and a spectacular sky-bar on the 28th floor. Crown Metropol is also home to Gordon Ramsay’s first Australian restaurants, maze and maze Grill.

Meeting planners appreciate the complete scope of function areas available within the Crown Entertainment Complex, including an exhibition center, ballrooms, meeting rooms, promenade spaces, and areas for just about any event that mixes people with ideas, education and entertainment.

Just down the street from the Crown Entertainment Complex stands the new Hilton South Wharf. Opened in spring 2009, the property is directly connected to the MCEC. Its array of room choices, from standard twin to executive king to sleek suites, have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river or the bay, plus a roomy bathroom with separate shower and tub. The top two tower floors step up the game with two-bedroom apartments tricked out with kitchenettes to make longer stays more comfortable.

South Wharf’s three dining choices include Nuevo 37 offering Australian dishes with a Spanish flair and Sotano Wine & Tapas Bar which recently drew the 2010 Best Bar Award from the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) State Awards for Excellence. Hilton South Wharf’s 32 meeting rooms, combined with convenient access to the larger convention facilities at the MCEC have already carved out a coveted slice of the MICE pie. And did I mention that Hilton South Wharf is adjacent to the Direct Factory Outlet shopping mall?

Australians agree that Melbourne is the place to go for the best shopping, dining and nightlife in all of Australia. Within the grid of Melbourne’s CBD are laneways of discovery, where shops and cafes provide excellent opportunities for group activities.

“Melbourne is really the cultural and fashion capital and a great food city,” says Wise. “There are many outside activities. Melbourne is known for its chocolate. There’s a tour. You could do a chocolate day, which would be really fun…. And a city event using the trams to explore Melbourne is a natural.”

Exceptional dinearound options include The Flower Drum, renowned for its Cantonese cuisine and exceptional service. A wall of awards attest to its 36-year history of traditional favorites like Peking duck, as well as innovative unpublished specials prepared by chef Anthony Lui. The duck is the big seller but recommend the fresh wild barramundi fillets in noodles with finely diced Chinese pork sausage and shiitake mushrooms.

Awash in lucky red, the elegant dining room with its soft lighting and tasteful Chinese decor can easily accommodate large groups, while two rooms of equal elegance for 20/40 pax are available for private dining.

Melbourne’s hottest new restaurant is Coda. Set in a basement with industrial ceilings, the interior is polished and sexy, reflecting chef Adam D’Silva’s spin on Asian cuisine with a nod to the French. Expect your people to share offerings here, where menu choices are broken into “bigger” and “smaller,” the latter of which includes blackened quail in a daikon and shiso salad. Group capacity is 50.

Over in the Crown Entertainment Complex, you’ll find Rockpool Bar & Grill, a steakhouse featuring grass-fed, hormone/antibiotic-free, Aussie beef, dry-aged on the premises. Live seafood selections, dry filleted fish, lavish salads and even vegetarian options provide choices for any palate.

The wine list features more than 700 wines from Europe and Australia. A private dining area with attached terrace is perfect for cocktail receptions prior to seated dinners for 200 pax.

Just 45 minutes outside Melbourne city limits are experiences your groups will treasure forever. I woke up my first morning at the Sebel Heritage Yarra Valley Hotel to see kangaroos nibbling the rough around the championship golf course. During my early morning walk, a flock of sulfur crested cockatoos swept down from the towering eucalyptus trees, squawking in unison as I snapped pictures.

Sebel Heritage is an ideal location for intimate groups and retreats with 96 rooms, six suites and varied meeting spaces totalling over 18,000 sf. The overall tone is genteel yet decidedly modern, with guestroom terraces and balconies overlooking the pastoral lawns. Really enjoyed the Conservatory of Bella Restaurant for a fun chocolate-themed afternoon tea buffet, with freshly baked scones, homemade jam and fresh cream.

Golf is plentiful in sport-loving Melbourne, but the mood is truly magical away from the city among the rolling hills. Sebel Heritage boasts two championship courses—the St. John Course designed by the legendary Jack Nicholas and the Henley Course designed by Tony Cashmore.

Our group dined on sumptuous cuisine on the vintage steam train Puffing Billy, while the verdant fern gulleys of the Dandenong Ranges rose and fell outside the windows. The next day we hit the trail for wine tasting and more gastronomic pleasures in Yarra Valley. Only an hour by car or coach, Yarra Valley rolls into view with low hills covered with untouched bush, farmland and geometrically delightful vineyards.

Groups are welcome at Domaine Chandon, where grapes are grown and wines are made in the traditional method for sparkling wine. Guided and self-directed tours are free, while groups can arrange expanded tours to include wine tastings and tidbits in the Greenpoint Brasserie Tasting Bar.

A major producer, Rochford Wines operates a lifestyle facility with a winery on site. Grapes are grown in the surrounding vineyards with additional varieties grown in the nearby Macedon Ranges. Tastings are available in the Cellar Door, while groups can do private tastings in one of the two private rooms. Larger groups can set up in the restaurant or the outdoor event space on the lawn, and a sound shell across the grass provides staging for concerts or al fresco presentations.

Two other day trips within an hour or two of Melbourne feature exceptional wildlife experiences and visual splendor. According to Crowder, helicopters flying groups in formation over the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne is one of their most requested activities. The Road is famous for the Twelve Apostles limestone stack formations rising dramatically up from the sea.

She also says a day trip to Phillip Island is another must-see for visiting groups. Begin with a daytime outing to the Koala Conservation Centre, where the shy marsupials hang out in plain sight among the surrounding eucalyptus trees. As the sun sets, groups move over to the Penguin Parade wildlife attraction to watch the adorable fairy penguins return from the sea to their nesting areas around the craggy beach and cliff sides.

“Melbourne is superb,” says Michael Estwanik, manager of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, “while Phillip Island and the little penguins there is one of the truly unique wildlife experiences I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Viewing the wildlife of the area made it worth the time and it’s a perfect side trip for any group.”