Brisbane Thrives on the River

As the chatty crowd filtered from the pre-function area of Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre into the Plaza Ballroom, the room went dark. Voices ceased. The beating of drums commenced. Three performers from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts danced around the stage. The audience was mesmerized, with dozens recording the entire 10-minute performance on their phones.

Then the lights came up and Penny Lion, general manager of business events for Tourism Australia, came to the stage and shook us all back to reality that we were, in fact, at a conference.

This was how Brisbane kicked off Dreamtime, the biennial three-day program organized by Tourism Australia that brought 95 buyers and 19 media from the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia to experience the country’s business events offerings. All indications are that the first-time host of the program hit it out of the park.

“We are very happy with buyer satisfaction for Dreamtime 2017 and are confident they will be more likely to consider Brisbane after visiting,” says Rob Nelson, COO of Brisbane Marketing, the city’s official tourism organization.

Incentive planners from the U.S., in particular, were delighted by what Brisbane had to offer.

“I was pleased with how Brisbane has grown into a nice destination with so many activities in and around the city,” says Bill Sellmer of Florida-based Sellmer Meetings & Incentive Travel.

Playing host to Dreamtime couldn’t have come at a better time. Overshadowed in the past by glamorous Sydney and hip Melbourne, Brisbane is forging ahead as an Australian destination in its own right, particularly for incentive groups.

Go With the Flow

Activating the Brisbane River is a key focus area of $10 billion of investments being made by private-sector investors over the next four years. “The river is a symbol of Brisbane’s livability and prosperity,” says Nelson.

As such, the city’s riverfront and skyline are changing dramatically over the next five years, with new hotel projects that will benefit planners. One such development is Queen's Wharf Brisbane, which accounts for $3 billion of that investment. Located on the river in the heart of the CBD (central business district), Queen’s Wharf, when completed by 2022, will include more than 1,000 premium hotel rooms—including the city’s first Ritz-Carlton (coming by 2024) and luxury hotels from Australian hospitality brands Rosewood Hotel Group, Dorsett Hospitality International and The Star Entertainment Group.

“Brisbane’s [new development plan] is going to place it as a top competitor to Sydney and Melbourne,” says Sellmer.

In late spring, Australia opened its first W property in Brisbane. With 312 guest rooms and 29 suites, plus nearly 12,000 square feet of meeting space and the brand’s signature AWAY Spa, the five-star W Brisbane—occupying an entire city block in the CBD—targets a younger demographic craving a true urban experience. Other five-star hotel properties coming in 2018 include the 143-room Emporium Hotel South Bank (May) and a 286-room Westin (October).

Howard Smith Wharves, a $110 million redevelopment under the city’s iconic Story Bridge, is also generating much buzz. When it opens in 2019, this project will be “a game changer for Brisbane,” says Anna Rogers, marketing director.

Eighty percent of the nearly 8.5-acre space will be parkland, offering a plethora of green space for public use and events. A new-build, pillarless exhibition building, with a retractable glass roof, will accommodate up to 1,000 guests for events; a bakery, brewery and coffee shop will supply on-site restaurants with pastries, beer and java, respectively; and a dedicated F&B event team will utilize produce from the property’s gardens. Howard Smith Wharves will include a five-star, 164-room Art Series hotel. Imagine hosting an opening or closing night here with the Story Bridge lit up in your company’s colors. Magical!

Beyond the City

While it would be easy to build an exciting, culture-rich itinerary without taking your group beyond city limits, you’d be missing out on many one-of-a-kind Australian experiences.

Charter a luxury coach service like Hughes Limousines and head to Sirromet Winery (a 30-minute drive from the CBD), where chief winemaker Adam Chapman will take you on a palatable tour, starting with a biscuity, bubbly chardonnay pinot noir and ending with juicy shiraz viognier. (Though it sounds French, the name of the winery is simply the founder’s name—T. E. Morris—spelled backward.)

Depending on the time of year and where the wines are in the maturation process, you may be able to taste wine straight from the barrel and compare it to the same varietal in the bottle. Sirromet’s wines are not currently exported to the United States, so a take-home bottle makes for an excellent gift. Sirromet will even create custom labels for corporate groups. End the tasting with a leisurely lunch of wood-fired pizzas, ultrafresh bruschetta and the best chilled prawns you’ll ever taste on the delightful Tuscan Terrace, with views of the property’s 560 acres of natural bushland.

Another day, surprise attendees with a twofold experience they won’t forget. Midmorning, depart via coach and make the hourlong trek to Spicers Hidden Vale. Located about 50 miles southwest of the Brisbane CBD, the venue—which includes accommodations, event space and a restaurant—will give guests a glimpse of Australian bush life. On-site, enjoy a lunch worthy of Martha Stewart Living at communal tables while sipping locally produced wines. (You’ll notice that wine-filled lunches and simple foods prepared incredibly well are a theme in and around Brisbane.)

If your group is small, arrange for a helicopter service like S&S Aviation to transport guests to the next stop: Kooroomba Vineyard & Lavender Farm. This ethereal place is “a touch of Southern France in Australia,” says owner Doogan O’Hanlon, who runs Kooroomba with his wife, Verity. The farm produces French lavender all year, with crops peaking in winter, June through August. If you have a larger group and would prefer more than a Champagne-and-dessert afternoon (though the lavender cheesecake is worth every calorie), Kooroomba has nearly 400 beds in the surrounding area. The on-site restaurant can seat 100 for dinner or accommodate up to 400 people for cocktails, using the outdoor terrace.