From zero to 100 – MCB’s Julia Swanson on the return of international incentive groups

incentive groups
MCB CEO Julia Swanson is optimistic about the return of larger business events and incentives.

Melbourne and Victoria will welcome the return of international incentive groups this month. CIM spoke with Julia Swanson, chief executive of Melbourne Convention Bureau, about the swift rebound following the reopening of international borders.

How has the year been so far? It’s been a very busy start to the year. We’ve gone from 0-100 in the blink of an eye.

It’s very exciting to see international incentives coming back this month with groups from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and New Zealand all visiting. The MCB has taken a long-term view with international business, which is our core business. The last two years we have kept our international offices open and maintained our client relationships. It is testament to our teams in Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Washington DC and London that have really stuck it out through incredibly challenging times working with our clients.

While clients haven’t been able to travel they have been able to plan. So there have been plenty of discussions about new and exciting itinerary options and what new experiences they would like to do when travel reopens.

They are coming through quite quickly now, especially from South East Asia. It’s just gradually going to build as aviation returns and groups get bigger and little more ambitious about where they are going.

How quickly has air connectivity returned? Melbourne Airport, the Victorian Government and MCB are having constant dialogue around aviation. We are seeing previous routes re-established and new routes opening up. We’ve got good access into India now which is a vital market and new routes such as the Melbourne to Dallas Fort Worth which opens up a significant market in the mid US. We are seeing more from the east coast of the US, while flights out of San Francisco and Los Angeles are starting to reopen over the next few months, as well as long haul from Europe.

Regional Victoria is on the itinerary for international incentive groups this month.

What did the State Budget offer events? MCB received a funding injection of $2.6 million from the State Budget for domestic business events across Greater Melbourne and Regional Victoria. We had a smaller shorter program last year to see what that could do in terms of stimulating short term domestic business into the supply chain. We secured $118 million worth of business for 2022/23 with about 39,000 delegates – which the State Government is happy to support into the future.

[Government funding for major events] is incredibly important. Melbourne is an events city at its core. The government recognised the role events would play towards the end of the pandemic. Events stimulate tourism but they also support social cohesion, rebuilding communities and city revitalisation.

There was a strategic initiative to get the city back to where it was. We are starting to see that pay off. We had a successful Australian Open, record crowds at the Grand Prix, theatre shows are sold out and we had 1.4 million people attending Moomba Festival. So people are definitely coming back. We have really come a long way in very short amount of time.

How important was  Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event (AIME) 2022 in restoring confidence? Talk2 Media & Events did a fantastic job in trying to deliver what was probably Australia’s first international event held just four weeks after the international border opened. The show had to adapt to changing expectations, open and closing borders, it was an incredibly complex show to put together with such volatility.

Talk2 Media really listened to the feedback from 2020’s show about what everyone wanted and how they wanted to make connections both in Melbourne and on the show floor. And they really adapted the show strategy to do that. One of the key metrics we look at is buyer numbers which were up on pre-Covid levels, and that shows a lot of confidence from buyers in booking and planning events for the future.

To know that over $120 million with of business was either placed on the show floor or expected to be placed over the next 12 months was a $20 million increase on 2020. We always wanted AIME to stimulate the reopening of the sector and hopefully the numbers show we achieved that.

Will MCB continue to partner with Talk2 Media for AIME? Talk2 Media are a long-term partner for us. They are a very dynamic Melbourne-based business and have good relationships right across the sector.

How is the pipeline looking ahead? Next year will see a big leap forward with business on the books. We have some significant events for 2022 including the Global Entrepreneurs Conference (2500 pax) and in early 2023 we have Rotary coming with around 17,000 delegates, and few other large internationals as well. We’re pretty optimistic it will keep getting better going forward.