Dreaming of Australia

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AustraliaSince COVID-19 rocked the world and international travel was forced to hit the “Pause” button, I’ve had a great deal of time to reflect on my last overseas adventure that took me to Australia.

Dreamtime Australia, Tourism Australia’s business events incentive familiarization trip was an utterly unforgettable experience and I look forward to returning one day to once again immerse myself in the country’s natural beauty, unique wildlife, breathtaking scenery, brilliant coastal experiences, compelling indigenous history, and cosmopolitan cities.

An exuberant “Owzitgoing?” greeting from locals made me feel so welcome. “There are many destinations with miles of sandy beaches, superb food, and wine experiences, but Australia boasts all these things, plus a welcoming spirit that makes it unique. The irreverence of the locals and their upbeat personality sets the country apart,” said Mary Ann McDonald, business events manager, Americas, Tourism Australia, as we sat on a yacht in the Whitsundays, taking in a sunset that painted the sky in golds, coppers and reds. (More about the Whitsundays to come.)

The magical Dreamtime 2019 experience started in Perth, an emerging tourist destination, with a group of 120 international business event planners and Australian and international media who had gathered for the first two days of this incentive showcase.

“Perth is going through a period of change,” explains Penny Lion, Executive General Manager, Events at Tourism Australia. “Western Australia, a big mining resources area, now has an impressive business events offering. The time for Perth is now.”

Dreamtime gives Australia a chance to shine and shine it does. “Dreamtime Australia has been fantastic because Tourism Australia really takes the time and effort to bring together truly qualified incentive providers in one place so you can get the meetings you need with the people you need when you need them,” says Catherine Jones, owner and CEO, The Edventines Group, a boutique incentive house based in Dallas, and a Dreamtime 2019 attendee. 

A Heartfelt Welcome

A Welcome to Country chant offered by “Uncle Walter,” a descendant of several Aboriginal tribal clans of Western Australia, tribal war paint adorning his face and chest, set the tone for what was to come. Christine Anu, an Australian singer, songwriter, and storyteller, joined him, belting out her song, My Island Home, to provide a welcome with passion.

“We are an island nation; our wisdom and culture define us as a destination. Our unofficial anthem is about the desert, ocean, culture, beauty, connectedness, and beauty,” she explains. “It’s all about peace and harmony.”

This touching morning opening held at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, features stunning views over the Swan River. The venue is a short walk from the new, dazzling Ritz-Carlton at the city’s popular Elizabeth Quay precinct. After an 18-year hiatus, the Ritz-Carlton group is back in Australia with this new property in Perth with its stunning facade of glass blocks, 205 rooms and 18 suites, floor-to-ceiling windows with captivating river, park and skyline views and 21,5000 sf of stunning conference space.

The hotel’s signature restaurant is Hearth, and a rooftop features a popular bar and an infinity pool overlooking Elizabeth Quay. A spa rounds out the offerings.

Eighty-seven of Australia’s leading business events representatives met with the event and incentive planners during the business session. Also on tap was a tour of Perth’s $1.6 billion state-of-the-art 60,000-seat Optus Stadium that opened in January 2018 and was recently named the “world’s most beautiful stadium,” after winning the prestigious Prix Versailles Architecture Award presented by UNESCO and the International Union of Architects. The stadium has 18 specially designed event spaces that can host up to 2,000 and is also home to The Camfield, Perth’s largest pub with room for up to 2,500 standing. The playing field and locker room are also available for events. How’s that for a unique experience?

From the stadium, a short transfer took us to Crown Perth, an integrated resort with three hotels, 33 restaurants and bars, a 2,300-seat theater, three pools, and six traditional event spaces, the largest being the 21,527 sf Crown Ballroom. A poolside reception complete with a  synchronized swimming performance and dazzling fireworks capped off a day of discovery.

The next day, a breakfast event at Coast, a restaurant on Port Beach in Fremantle focused on local Western Australian produce, complete with mini smoothies, acai bowls, a ball pit, and a chance to be mesmerized by the Indian Ocean gently crashing against the soft white sand, delighted. Helicopters were ready to take our group to the Swan Valley, a 190-year-old wine- growing region. Salt bush, finger lime, and wattle seed were some of the bush food we tasted as Noongar Elder Dale Tilbrook offered insight into indigenous food and culture.

AustraliaThe first inhabitants of the South West of Australia were the Aboriginal people believed to have had a connection with the land for almost 50,000 years, she explained. Conversationatists by nature, they were seminomadic hunter-gatherers who followed a six-season calendar, Birak, Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba, and Kambarang.

Then it was off to Sandalford Estate, a winery that has been making quality Western Australian wines for more than 175 years. Not only was a wine tasting enjoyed, but so too was a local food tasting. The experience ended with a wine blending experience where small groups competed to create the best Meritage.

That evening, a spectacular farewell-to-Perth dinner was held in the gardens of Government House. Long tables were set up under tents, and an open kitchen showcased chefs preparing the meal. A local orchestral group, Dolce Ensemble and the Wadumbah Aboriginal Dance Group, made the evening complete.

“Perth was certainly a revelation. It’s a beautiful, clean city with gorgeous beaches. There is lots to do and see, and I thought it could be a good place for both incentives and meetings,” explains Kim Hester, vice president of sales, JNR Incorporated, a business incentive performance solutions company, and a Dreamtime participant.

There are 19 beaches in total to choose from in Perth. Add to that a burgeoning dining scene and Kings Park & Botanic Garden, a 990-acre oasis with breathtaking views of the city.

The respect and reverence for their country that Uncle Walter and Christine Anu shared with the group carried over as the participants of Dreamtime 2019 scattered, delighted to discover that the indigenous owners of the land were recognized everywhere we went.

Although individual groups went their own way, all were welcomed with that great Aussie spirit the country is known for. Australia is a country like no other, and it is the people who make a stay here unforgettable.

“The Aussies are super welcoming, and I was taken by their friendliness and the culture,” explains Meaghan Carfrey, director of strategic account management, Cadence Meetings + Incentives. “For a company that truly wants to recognize their employees who have won this honor of being top performers, this is something they can’t plan on their own as we have these amazing partners behind us that can give them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Off to Paradise

Our group was headed to The Whitsundays, an archipelago of 74 tropical islands surrounded by the agate waters of the Coral Sea just off the Queensland coast, on the Great Barrier Reef, via Sydney. An amazing night was spent in Sydney with not only dinner served in the iconic Opera House but with a performance by an opera singer as well. There aren’t many attractions that take your breath away when seeing them for the first time, and the Sydney Opera House is one such place. Its sails soar into the air, creating a sense of possibility, and as I spent more time in the country, I realized anything is possible in Oz.

We overnighted at the Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park that looks out over St. Mary’s Cathedral with 558 rooms and suites, 17 function and meeting rooms, three restaurants, and a spa.

The next morning, a short flight took us to Hamilton Island and qualia, widely regarded as one of the best resorts in the world. Accommodations take the form of 60 private pavilions here facing the water, surrounded by lush tropical bushland within the resort. This high-end resort occupies a peninsula on the northern tip of Hamilton Island. Each pavilion has its own golf cart to shuttle to the resort’s two infinity-edged pools, spa, restaurants, bar, or outdoor Meditation Pavilion, where I enjoyed a yoga class with a tranquil view.

The privacy offered at qualia attracts celebrities from around the world, and recent guests have included Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taylor Swift, and Chris Hemsworth.

Although leaving qualia, its name coming from the Latin word meaning “a deeper sensory experience,” wasn’t easy, the activity to come lessened the blow. We boarded a twin-propeller plane that took us on a scenic flight over the breathtaking coral patchwork that is the Great Barrier Reef, one of seven natural wonders of the world. The views were otherworldly, the highlight a flyover of the naturally-formed Heart Reef.

As we landed, a yacht was waiting, with champagne flowing, to transport us to Hayman Island and the InterContinental that opened in July 2019. Formerly the One & Only that was forced to close after Tropical Cyclone Debbie; a $135 million investment restored this new resort. One-hundred-sixty-eight upgraded rooms and suites, some with direct swim-out access, new restaurants and recreational opportunities, as well as white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, await.

Sitting under a canopy of towering trees with strings of twinkling lights draped in the branches, a dinner of Australian favorites was served that evening. At dusk, hundreds of bats flurried above, creating a show of sorts that can’t be found anywhere else.

The next morning, a few members of our group were up bright and early for a hike. A wallaby scurried away as we made our way to the highest spot on the island, determined to take in the sunrise from this vantage point. Panoramic views of the entire island were worth the early wakeup call.

Most associate Australia with kangaroos and koalas, but the friendly sulfur-crested cockatoos stole the show! At qualia, one enjoyed perching on my deck’s railing, and an even more opportunist cockatoo flew into my room at the InterContinental and landed on the mini bar in search of a snack.

Our last night was spent back in Sydney and also featured iconic Aussie animals like kangaroos and koalas who live outside the guestrooms of the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga. This truly unique resort is nestled within the Taronga Zoo, with views overlooking Sydney Harbour. There are 62 rooms housed in five sustainably-designed lodges. It’s also nice to know that every stay contributes to the care of Taronga’s animals and conservation and education program as it is owned by Taronga Conservation Society Australia, a not-for-profit, conservation-based organization.

“Australia is a destination on most people’s bucket list, and to actually be here is still surreal,” says Lori Wagner, regional director, Meeting Encore, based in Ottawa, Canada. “There is an idea some have of it being so far away, but believe me, once you get here and have this wonderful experience, it is all worth it.”

Many of the incentive planners on the trip said for the right group, the flight time would not be an issue. “There is a misperception that it takes two days to fly to Australia, which is incorrect. There is incredible airlift to this country, and the flight is about 14 hours nonstop,” explains Jones.

Hester also weighed in on the distance. “It is a lot of meals and movies, but there are new aircraft that fly faster and have made the journey so much easier, and the flight time has decreased. Plus, the airlines offer a good variety of product. For instance, there is premium economy on Qantas and American, which is a great option and an added level of comfort above coach.”

The dedicated group and travel team at American Airlines spoiled our group by arranging for us to fly Premium Economy from the US to the Land Down Under one way and Business class for the other. With ample space, first-class amenities, and service, the flights added to the Dreamtime experience.

Adam Tillotson, regional director of sales, Prestige Global Meeting Source adds that for those groups willing to invest in the experience, it is worth the journey. “A great saying is the distance is worth the difference, and that is definitely the case with Australia,” he adds. “It is nine to ten hours from LA to Europe. For four more hours, you can be in Eastern Australia and have a truly unforgettable experience.”

I extended my adventure in Sydney for a few days to explore the city and learn about its interesting history. Whether meandering along the cobblestone streets at The Rocks, the birthplace of modern Sydney, or walking along the golden sand of Manly Beach, to finally and precariously navigating the span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to get to its summit with the help of Bridgeclimb Sydney, I was awestruck and humbled as I watched the city light up from this 360-degree vantage point.

There aren’t many cities that not only arrange for you to climb a bridge, but encourages it, but Sydney is no ordinary city and Australia, the country, is extraordinary and positively inspires: From its cosmopolitan cities, unique wildlife, breathtaking scenery, brilliant coastal experiences, and stunning wineries, all is further magnified by its authentic people. Australia may be the world’s smallest continent and the largest island, but I have learned that it definitely has the biggest heart.

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