When Tony Buhr, a business development executive at Maritz Travel and a former safety for the University of Missouri Tigers, spent a week touring Australia last fall, not even football Sunday could pull him away from the beauty of the country. “I was staying in these amazing hotels with huge TVs, and I didn’t even want to turn them on,” he recalls.
Indeed, this once-in-a-lifetime trip helped Buhr gain clarity about the value of living in the moment. To visit the land Down Under is to experience a slice of culture that’s not like America in many ways. English is widely spoken, making it easier to navigate than many international destinations; however, the slower pace of life, a general sense of nonchalance and the abundant resplendence of Australia make it feel every bit the oceans away it is from the United States.
Corporate meeting managers are picking up on this trend and taking a serious look at what Australia has to offer events and incentive programs. One of the most attractive reasons to book Australia is diversity of experiences, from beaches to the bush to bustling metropolises. You don’t have to choose only one either—the majority of groups gathering here incorporate at least two kinds of experiences into their stay. Take a look at three to consider.
You can’t go to Australia without visiting the Great Barrier Reef. One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the underwater ecosystem includes more than 100 islands, 74 of which are part of the Whitsundays—a collection of islands off the coast of Queensland. Only three of those islands have operating resorts, and getting there involves multiple modes of transportation, but the journey is half the fun in surroundings this beautiful. After flying into Brisbane or Sydney from the United States, groups board another short flight to arrive at Hamilton Island Airport, where they can then travel by boat to their resort.
A top choice is One&Only Hayman Island. After an hourlong ferry ride over the Reef aboard a two-level luxury yacht, the boat docks at One&Only and guests are transported to their rooms via “buggies” (golf carts). Pina coladas served in shelled coconuts and topped with fresh pineapple make for a refreshing welcome. Planners can arrange for staff to pick up luggage from the airport and deposit bags directly in passengers’ rooms as they arrive—a perk for weary travelers.
Registration can also be completed on the yacht, making for a seamless transition to guest rooms once they arrive at the island. One&Only has 160 rooms, ranging from king pool suites (some of which have direct swim-out access to the pool), lagoon rooms, ocean view rooms and retreat rooms to four two-bedroom suites and the three-bedroom Owner’s Penthouse. A DVF Suite—named after its designer, Diane von Furstenberg—is a stylish home away from home for your most fashionable C-suite exec.
Considering all supplies must be transported to Hayman Island via barge every morning, planners should expect higher costs on meals and entertainment. The yacht makes only two trips daily, so evening entertainment, such as indigenous performers, brought in from other islands must often stay overnight.
Though it’s delightful to stay on Hayman for the duration of a program, the surrounding area begs to be explored. Planners can book a day or half-day excursion to the world-famous Whitehaven Beach, accessible via seaplane or boat. Remind women to wear their rings (and bring cameras!) on this trip as the sand at Whitehaven, the only beach of its kind in the world, is fine enough to shine diamonds.
Sailing, diving, snorkeling, whale watching, helicopter tours and water sports are also available. The views of the reef from above—and the view of ocean life from beneath the sea—are too stunning to describe until you’ve seen them yourself. If gliding above the water in a luxury yacht is more your group’s speed, arrange a boutique charter a la Ocean Dynamics. The company is a favorite among the likes of Katy Perry, Bill Gates and Aussie Hugh Jackman, and captains know the best spots for snorkeling around the reef.
While on property, planners can arrange wallaby spotting, an “Amazing Race”-style competition, sea kayaking, spa treatments, golf, tennis and more. For groups with serious golfers, consider booking a heli-golfing excursion, where guests are picked up via helicopter and delivered to play an 18-hole course on Hamilton Island.
Into the Wild
When you really want to take your group off the grid, a journey into the Australian bush is in order. For a weeklong stay, a luxury property like Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley will give guests a taste of the wilderness, without subtracting the creature comforts incentive winners expect.
Begin an adventure in the bush by getting participants outfitted for the occasion in Australia’s traditional Akubra hats. The best way to get to Wolgan Valley in New South Wales is via helicopter. Ask Akubra vendors to come directly to the helipad, where they can custom-fit hats to each individual before boarding.
About an hour later via aerial journey (or about three hours’ drive from Sydney), arrive at the conservation-focused resort in the Greater Blue Mountains Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to experience the ultimate juxtaposition of luxury and backcountry. The resort occupies only 1 percent of its 7,000-acre conservancy, meaning the majority of the terrain—including animals—is untouched.
With 40 freestanding villas, Wolgan Valley is best suited to more intimate groups. Each villa has its own private pool and veranda, providing ultimate seclusion and tranquility. Heritage Villas sleep up to three; Wollemi Villas up to four; and the Wolgan Villa up to six. Sodashi bathroom amenities, a complimentary bar, use of mountain bikes, binoculars, turndown amenities and a personal arrival experience all come standard for groups.
Several dining venues are on-site, including the historic 1832 Heritage Homestead & Kitchen Garden, which has options for fine dining as well as storytelling around the campfire for up to 90 guests. An authentic Australian bush experience isn’t complete without a menu of Sydney rock oysters, rabbit rillettes, seared kangaroo and, of course, wine pairings.
Make time for a wide range of outdoor activities, such as the Wolgan Signature Wildlife & Sundowners Tour, to take in the surroundings. Departing as the sun begins to set, the two-hour tour lets guests observe kangaroos, wallabies, native birds and more. Other activities include horse trail rides, mountain bike adventures, guided hikes around the nature reserve, spa treatments at One&Only Spa and even a conservation activity (like tree planting or wombat surveys), which does double duty as teambuilding for groups.
City Lights, New Heights
No journey to Oz is complete without at least a few nights spent in glorious Sydney, the capital of New South Wales and one of the country’s largest cities. The metropolis is growing significantly, with about 5 million people in 2016, according to census projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Over the past five years alone, it’s grown more than 8 percent. Given the vibrant culture, bustling dining and nightlife scene, generally great weather and world-class beaches (and prime surfer watching, if actual surfing’s not your thing), what’s not to love?
When it comes to hotels, it’s important to note the service culture in Australia is typically on a different level than planners come to expect in the United States. As such, brands that may typically be favored among your groups can vary in Sydney. A few sure-to-please properties are Park Hyatt Sydney (this five-star, harbor-front hotel has the best views of any hotel in the city, with prices to match) and The Langham, Sydney.
Emerging from a $30 million makeover in September 2016, the five-star, 98-room Langham—which first opened in 2012 in the former location of The Observatory Hotel—has already hosted various incentive groups (including buyouts) from the United States. Inside the elegant guest rooms, which are outfitted with super-king beds, a pillow menu offers guests a half-dozen choices; towel warmers and Chuan Spa bath products take showers to a new level; and extra toilet paper rolls are tied with tiny ribbons in the brand’s signature light pink.
“Sydney is the perfect mix of European and U.S. culture,” says Gaylord Lamy, general manager of the hotel. And he would know. Hailing from Italy, Lamy worked in the hospitality industry in Hong Kong and Chicago before heading to Sydney. He recently moved with his wife and two young kids there for the job, a testament to the destination’s appeal. “People take their time here,” he says.
While being in no hurry is well and good, planners can maximize the always-too-brief time they’re able to spend there by arranging iconic Sydney activities blended with free time to explore. One such activity is the BridgeClimb. The two-hour, private guide-led climb is suitable for all fitness levels, and spectacular, 360-degree views of the area make for perfect pictures. F&B packages are also available—think canapes at 440 feet above ground.
Take in the history of Sydney’s oldest neighborhood with tours of The Rocks, full of boutique shopping, cafes, gelaterias, brew pubs, courtyard restaurants and more. Get familiar with the acronym CBD, which locals use often to refer to the city’s central business district. Don’t miss The Rocks Markets, nestled next to the CBD and open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It serves as a one-stop shop for picking up souvenirs like original artwork, perfume, handmade jewelry and bags. Fuel up between stops with a chocolate croissant and cappuccino from La Renaissance Patisserie and Cafe, which also does large catering orders for events. The Rocks has multiple venues available for private event rentals as well.
To see Sydney from a different point of view, consider booking a Harley tour for your group. Several companies in the area, such as Harley-Davidson Tours Australia, Troll Tours and Wild Ride Australia, take attendees on tours of neighboring beaches like Bondi Beach, Sydney Harbour Bridge, CBD, Central Coast, North Sydney and more. Don’t forget the photo ops.
It wouldn’t be a true trip to the city without an evening at Sydney Opera House. Book group tickets to opera, music, theater, dance, comedy, talks and more, or rent one of the eight spaces within the World Heritage-listed treasure to host your own event. The main Concert Hall, with capacity of about 2,600, has a cathedral-like ambiance for unforgettable performances. Host a large alfresco event in front of the Opera House or an intimate cocktail hour on the terrace facing the water. Events by Aria is the resident caterer.
Local DMC Ovation Australia can help create custom experiences all over the country, including at quirky venues like Luna Park: think Coney Island, Aussie-style. For one conference in Sydney this fall, Ovation will arrange transport via ferry from the opening reception to Luna Park, where a giant circus-themed welcome party will be full of rides like the Whirly Wheel, slides, a carousel and a mirror maze—plus plenty of carnival food.
Why choose Australia as an incentive destination? “Why not?” is the greater question, posed a meeting planner who, after visiting the country on a FAM last fall, declared she’d throw in the destination as a “wild card” to her executive team.
The key components of any successful incentive program are the three Ps: people, product and place, shares Penny Lion, executive general manager of events for Tourism Australia. A meeting planner’s job is to design a program that’s desirable and memorable, and “it’s our job to deliver on that,” says Lion.
After meeting and talking with Australia locals, experiencing all it has to offer culturally and getting the chance to feel like they’re part of this special place—if only for a little while—participants will not only be rewarded with the incentive trip of a lifetime, they’ll also start planning their trip back before they board the flight home.
“Isn’t this what we want from our travels?” wrote AFAR Magazine co-founder Greg Sullivan in a letter to readers last year. “Not to have been there, done that, but to have been there and be inspired to return.”