The Conference Company’s Stephen Noble tells us how he sees the Gold Coast fitting into the current business events landscape.
As Manager Asia Pacific for The Conference Company, Stephen has extensive experience at the highest levels of the business events industry. As well as being hands-on with meeting planning and organisation, he’s also known throughout the industry for his consultancy and leadership, and as an Ambassador and Training Academy faculty member for the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers.
Stephen was most recently on the Gold Coast for the 70th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand (CSANZ), held at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre (GCCEC) from 11-14 August 2022. It was the second time the conference was hosted at the venue, after a memorable debut in 2013.
“That 2013 conference at GCCEC still stands out as one of the most enjoyable and successful meetings for the Cardiac Society,” he says. “It was a great experience, and a lot of delegates still remember it as one of their favourite meetings, so the word-of-mouth about coming back to the Gold Coast has been very positive.”
We sat down with Stephen to talk about the trends he sees emerging in the post-COVID business events landscape, and what those trends mean for venues like GCCEC.
Destination events are back in vogue
Before COVID, Stephen says delegates had become less interested in where business events were being held – but he’s seen this trend reverse as these events have kicked back into high gear.
“This is an evolving space,” he says. “If you go back and look at the last 10 years before COVID, prior to lockdowns and people not being able to travel, our international conference attendees and speakers had become a lot more time-precious.
“The attitude was, ‘I’m going to arrive as late as I can and leave as early as I can’.
The destination itself had become less important – people weren’t necessarily saying, ‘Oh, I’m attending this conference specifically because it’s on the Gold Coast’.
“What we’re seeing now is that everyone’s a lot more conscious about where they’re travelling to, and they want to make the most of that travel. Everything comes back into fashion – the whole concept of pre- and post-touring is coming back into play, and people are wanting to spend more time at their destination.”
Stephen says this plays to the Gold Coast’s advantage, as the destination delivers the sun, sand and surf that delegates want to experience when they travel to Queensland.
“The Gold Coast is classified as a ‘regional’ destination, but we see it as a major destination when it comes to our conferences,” he says. “From a delegate’s point of view, you’ve got the beach and all these other attractions right there – it often gives us a more unique environment to work with than other destinations. The Gold Coast has a lot going for it, in that sense.”
Stephen says the Gold Coast’s relaxed atmosphere is pitched at the perfect level for conference attendees.
"It’s a little bit of a different vibe on the Gold Coast. It’s still professional, but we definitely notice that our attendees feel more relaxed and more in control of their day. And that’s key for conference organisers, because we’re all about trying to create an environment that amplifies learning and amplifies connections."
“When people are more relaxed, they’re more open to absorbing information and creating connections. That’s an intangible aspect of the Gold Coast’s appeal that we’ve noticed – if people are in Melbourne or Sydney, they’re more likely to rock up to an event in a suit, but when they’re on the Gold Coast, they might be a bit more laidback in terms of their dress. And straight away, that puts you in a different mindset.
“And in terms of the cost of staging an event, the Gold Coast is a destination where we get value for money, costs are rarely a factor, and we still get the quality and professionalism that we expect elsewhere, and sometimes even moreso.”
Playing it safe
Stephen says safety is of the utmost importance for conference attendees at the moment – and not just because of COVID-19.
“Safety is probably more critical than anything right now,” he says. “In the global meetings market, we’re certainly seeing that with the war in Ukraine and other things going on over there, Europe is not seen as a safe destination. And there’s a little bit of that with North America, too, where people are unsure if they want to travel there or not.
“On the other hand, Australia is seen as a very safe destination. It’s further for international speakers and delegates to travel, but they’re very willing to make that long-distance trip, because they know when they get here, they’re going to be looked after. They’re going to have an iconic experience, and it’s going to be safe.
“That ‘Down Under’ hospitality is something that Australia is known for globally in the meetings and conference market. And in terms of the suppliers and the people that we partner with in Queensland and on the Gold Coast, they certainly live up to that reputation.”
Giving events the green light
Since its inception in 2004, GCCEC has been an industry leader in sustainability and environmental innovation. It was also the first convention centre worldwide to attain Platinum Certification from EarthCheck, the world’s most recognised environmental management program for the travel and tourism sectors.
Stephen says that’s important, because sustainability is increasingly becoming a make-or-break issue for conference attendees.
“The business events industry was probably ahead of the curve, in terms of recognising the importance of sustainability,” he says.
“It’s something we’ve been in tune with, as an industry, for many, many years. But what we’re seeing now is a generational change in terms of the buying decisions of the younger attendees who are starting to come to conferences.
“People are making decisions about whether or not to attend a conference with regards to an organisation’s ethical and sustainable practices. So in the business events world, it’s one thing to be able to say, ‘We’ve reduced our use of paper’, or ‘We’ve eliminated plastic goodie bags’, but it’s more important to be able to provide that certification and demonstrate that legitimacy.
“As conference organisers, those credentials help us to promote the event and the destination to our attendees. It’s good to see that sustainability has actually become an important consideration for attendees, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”
Ticking all the boxes
At the end of the day, Stephen says the primary concern for professional conference organisers hasn’t changed – especially now that in-person events are back on everyone’s agenda.
“The foundation of everything is still the ability to deliver the meeting from a bricks-and-mortar point of view,” he says. “The logistical concerns of capacity and size are still the primary driver.
“Organising a conference is a jigsaw, and not every venue has every piece. To use CSANZ as an example – this is one of the largest medical meetings in Australasia. So the first thing we need is a space that’s able to accommodate 1500 to 2000 people for a plenary session. In addition to that, we’re running up to 11 concurrent sessions, ranging in size from 100 to 700 people. And we need to be able to accommodate all of that in one venue.
“The other part of the jigsaw – and this is what typically takes a lot of venues out of consideration – is the need for 8,000 to 10,000 square metres of exhibition space for the trade show. That’s a deal breaker. If we don’t have that space, then we can’t accommodate the required space for industry sponsors and exhibitors, and the meeting isn’t viable without that.
“GCCEC has everything we need and we’re able to take over the entire venue. We can create our own immersive space, and the attendees can get to know it very well without wandering into any competing conferences or anything else going on.
“It ticks all the boxes for us in terms of our requirements, but it’s not of such a significant size that the delegates are having to walk large distances around the venue to get from one session to another. It’s just right.
“When our clients at The Conference Company ask us about the Gold Coast, we can recommend it with complete confidence. There’s no second guessing it, because we know our reputation will be upheld if they take our recommendation to come here.
“The Gold Coast has absolutely been a great destination for us."