5 minutes with MCB’s Julia Swanson

CIM spoke with Julia Swanson, acting CEO Melbourne Convention Bureau, about taking over the reins from former CEO Karen Bolinger as the bureau caps off a remarkable run that saw it net $500 million in business events secured for Victoria this financial year.

With a leading figure such as Karen gone, does it leave a vacuum? Fundamentally, Melbourne as a leading global business events destination is the drawcard and it’s what our city has to offer as Australia’s knowledge capital and innovation hub. It’s the sum of our ‘Team Melbourne’ approach and MCB’s positioning of Melbourne nationally and internationally as a leading business events destination that goes above and beyond for clients and partners, creating lasting social and community impacts that deliver well beyond the event itself. Karen played an integral role in leading ‘Team Melbourne’ and she leaves behind a great legacy. We do miss her infectious laugh around the office.

How do you lay out a strategy for the next chapter? It is business as usual at MCB. Our continued focus is on delivering an event calendar that is balanced year-round with high yield events aligned with Victorian government priority sectors.

While we are in the midst of finalising our Strategic Plan for FY 2019-2020  –  which promises to be one of our most ambitious yet, as subsidiary of Visit Victoria, we are working together to collectively deliver the greatest number of visitors to Victoria and to drive the highest value possible from their stay.

At the core, our strategic considerations are driven by the annual International Association (IA) bid cycle and securing business events that enhance our reputation on the global stage. We’ve had strong success in this, securing the likes of the Rotary International Convention 2023 and our forward pipeline is healthy.

We are also focused on the Asian corporate incentive market to fill hotels and other venues across the city. As well as evolving our partner engagement plans to work strategically together to drive referrals and positive outcomes for the city and ways to drive more business through Victoria Event Solutions (VES) that provide short lead-time opportunities to partners.

Here’s a perfect example – we’ve just emerged from what we’ve dubbed ‘Mega May’. For the past two years, corporate incentive travel groups visiting Melbourne in May has significantly outperformed any other month of the year, with a 25 per cent increase than any other time of the year.

It’s a significant proof point that our strategy to fill the gaps in Victoria’s major events calendar is working.

Melbourne has had a stellar year in attracting events – what are the challenges in maintaining that momentum (and what are the tailwinds helping you)?

Business events are delivering more money and more visitors to Victoria than ever before, with MCB reaching the milestone of over $500 million in economic contribution for the Victorian economy from events secured this financial year. This record-breaking year can be attributed to years of work resulting in several significant conference wins across a diverse range of sectors.

As we look to the year ahead, front of mind is the growth of our city, which is providing more opportunities to drive business and leisure visitors to our state and shaping our ambitious targets for the years to come.

Melbourne now boasts over 33,000 accommodation rooms with plans for an additional 15,000 new hotel rooms across the city within the next 5 years, with 8 new hotels opening by the end of 2019.

So it’s important MCB is looking to the future to bid on and secure large international conferences to fill hotels, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and other venues across the city.

This will involve an elevated focus on securing International Association events and mega Corporate Incentive Travel (CIT) groups from Asia Pacific.

For CIT groups, we will continue to leverage Victoria’s major events calendar and our strong regional Victoria offering along with our expertise to create exclusive, money can’t buy experiences, that are unique to our city.

Our integration into Visit Victoria gives us an edge over our local and international competitors in accessing these major events and generating opportunities for incentive groups that are new and immersive.

There was a lot of collaboration under Karen, is that set to continue?

Absolutely. Melbourne is a founding member of the BestCities Global Alliance – I sit on their board, and we play an active role with PCMA as well as many other industry collaborations. MCB’s Beverley Williamson, GM Business Development and Bids was also recently appointed to the to the Meetings and Events Australia (MEA) board.

Just last month, BestCities Global Alliance partners, Dubai Business Events and MCB, along with Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, hosted a special evening during IMEX Frankfurt exploring universal access in the meeting industry.

Following critical acclaim at this year’s AIME, we presented the Dialogue in the Dark pop-up sensory experience at an International Association of Professional Congress Organiser (IAPCO) dinner.  It was an amazing experience for all attendees.

What is the long-term strategy for AIME? Building on the success of the reimagined AIME 2019, which saw over 8500 meetings scheduled, sell out Knowledge Programs – sponsored by PCMA, and the much talked about networking events, AIME will continue its focus on connecting the right buyers with the right exhibitors to produce outcomes from new business, in a more efficient and impactful way.

AIME 2020 promises to deliver endless opportunities. We have already seen significant growth in exhibitor sales with figures on track to surpass 2019. The team has an expectation to grow the show by at least 30 per cent in 2020.

Would you consider selling AIME and focusing on a domestic show instead? MCB is committed to retaining and growing this important and respected trade show held annually in Melbourne. It’s incredibly relevant, and we intend to take it to the next level building community, commerce and networking outcomes for the Asia Pacific region.

AIME has an important heritage that is valued by so many within the incentives, meetings and events industry, and we are committed to bringing the new vision for AIME to life and seeing it evolve over the next few years.

More international destinations are committing to the show and expressing interest in seeing buyers from the Asia Pacific region.  The AIME 2020 buyer program will include a strong mix of inbound and outbound Australian buyers, as well as Asia Pacific and international buyers.

With almost 60 per cent of the world’s population located in the Asia-Pacific region, AIME is the perfect platform to capitalise on the region’s growing business events industry.