“Everyone has done Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I think there is an opportunity to tap into new markets,” says Sean Hunt, Marriott International’s area vice president of Australia, New Zealand and Pacific.
The new market he’s talking about is Darwin, and with good reason as Marriott is busy constructing a new $200m Westin hotel on the waterfront between the Darwin Convention Centre and the new cruise terminal.
The hotel giant chose Darwin for its next new build Westin to cater to the emerging high end corporate market and inbound incentives, particularly from China, as the brand “resonates” with that market.
Darwin as an incentive market is relatively new ground for Australia’s Top End capital. But that is set to change with improved air access both domestically and internationally and even more reasons to visit in the shape of a new light installation by UK artist Bruce Monroe opening in October. Following on the from the success of Uluru’s Field of Light, Tropical Light will feature eight immersive large-scale light installations linking Darwin’s CBD to the waterfront.
These are big ticket reasons to consider Darwin as a destination, but ultimately any visit to the Top End is about one thing – the people. Maybe it’s the history of a city that’s been scarred by numerous bombing campaigns in WW2 or knows what it is to rebuild from the ground up after the ferocity of Cyclone Tracy in 1974 that has shaped the local psyche.
It could be that it is the capital of a Territory that is home to the highest proportion of Aboriginal people, so Indigenous culture isn’t just an add-on, it’s woven into daily life. That you can really immerse yourself in a culture that dates back 65,000 years is not just food for thought, its also food on the menu.
Karen Sheldon Catering offers not just a great insight into bush tucker (did you know that Davidson Plums have 100 times more vitamin C than oranges and is an anti-oxidant superfood), they also run the Accelerated Aboriginal Cooks of Excellence program which gives 10 local Aboriginal apprentices the opportunity to launch their cooking careers.
Jodie Sinel, sales manager with the All Occasions Group, got a chance to meet with three of those apprentices at a Bushfood Breakfast held on the lawn outside Parliament House during a recent Darwin Showcase event, hosted by the NT Convention Bureau.
“I was blown away by how they work so closely with Karen Sheldon Catering to find positions once their apprenticeship comes to an end – that story was incredible!” she says.
Move beyond the food and you can connect with the land itself at Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours. Local Elder Graham, his wife Lynette and their daughter Jade will take you on a walking tour of the property. But not before you’ve been welcomed to country with a baptism from the nearby billabong. You can learn about the native wildlife and get to throw a spear made from the Macaranga tree from which Pudakul takes its name. But it’s when Graham sits down with a group and speaks with candour and humour about his culture that the real magic happens.
“Loved it!” was how Claire Wardley, conference & event specialist from The Conference Planners, described it.
“For me the history of the Indigenous community is intriguing and I think more people need to have those types of experiences where it is safe to ask questions and not feel embarrassed to learn,” she says.
“I think it is so important to have such an honest and open conversation about the history of our collective Indigenous Australian culture. I would love to provide our delegates with a genuine no frills cultural experience.”
A cultural experience of another kind is on offer with the Katherine Outback Experience. Dual Golden Guitar winning musician Tom Curtain and his wife Annabel bring a genuine outback cattle station experience to events, with their array of horses and cattle dogs. Tom’s gentle understanding of animals is a great metaphor for bringing the best out of any team, but nothing beats seeing him belt out a country song on his guitar while standing on horse.
“We’ve always known that Darwin offers something completely different in Australia, for domestic and international guests,” says Rebecca Quilty, project manager corporate team at Arinex.
“It’s an authentic Australian experience, with an incredible amount to see and do. The level of product on this famil has really reinforced my view that Darwin is a great destination.”
But let’s hear from some of the locals about what makes Darwin such a special destination.
Darwin-based business events and strategic communications agency AA&P Events recently took home Event of the Year (Special Event or Incentive) at the Meetings & Events Australia National Awards for its Darwin Amazing Race Experience.
“There’s a genuineness to Territory people, and it’s very laid back and relaxed,” says AA&P Events managing director Natalie Bell.
“I think most people are surprised on their first visit Darwin – they don’t expect it to be such a vibrant, lively and contemporary city. There is so much to see and do in Darwin, and with places like Litchfield and Kakadu on our doorstep, there is endless potential for incredible experiences for groups coming to the Territory.”
Tom calls the NT the “land of opportunity. “It is still somewhat untapped but has so much to offer,” he says.
“There are incredible landscapes, wide open spaces and wildlife right on our doorstep, together with a diverse culture. The Territory has this ability to get under your skin, it’s very easy to fall in love with the outdoors and get back to nature. It’s a quirky place with so many hidden gems.”