“We have many Asian customers that like to enjoy themselves, but don’t want to drink alcohol,” explained a server at Sydney’s BLACK by Ezard restaurant, where diners can linger over enormous steaks before decamping to the rooftop deck.
With a string of booming economies to the north, Australia is knee-deep in Asian investment and tourism — which in turn drives 2- to 3-percent annual growth, as well as hotel construction, ever-multiplying event venues, and a robust food and wine culture to rival any in Europe, as Convene experienced during a recent visit to Sydney and Brisbane hosted by Business Events Australia. The Australian airline, Qantas, even pampers business-class guests with menus designed by celebrity chef Neil Perry — as well as flat-reclining seats.
“Guess where the world markets are moving very quickly?” asked John Aitken, CEO of Brisbane Marketing, explaining why Australia is booking more international meetings each year.
Sydney and Brisbane share much in common, including stellar weather, abundant waterfront venues, and diverse populations. (One-quarter of all Australians are born outside of the country.) Yet the competition for events between longtime Goliath, Sydney, and upstart Brisbane is both good-natured and real. Both cities have ample riches to accommodate meetings of all sizes, but differ in some fundamental ways.
SYDNEY: COSMOPOLITAN CLASS
In Sydney — host of this year’s 19,000-person-strong Rotary International Convention — the undulating harbor provides a stunning backdrop for hotels, docks, promenades, beaches, and restaurants. Visitors can take in the city’s natural beauty from atop the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge — that is, if they’re willing to shed their belongings, don a one-piece suit, and spend three hours clomping up and down catwalks, planks, and ladders to the top of the 440-foot-high structure. (The view is worth it.)
Standing on top of the bridge, climbers might not realize that the speck of their silhouette is visible to diners at the much-feted Quay restaurant, a soaring space on Pier One where chef Peter Gilmore composes striking dishes — such as a wispy tumble of saltwater-poached quail, takuan pickles, fermented shiitake mushrooms, smoked parsnips, and flower blossoms that explodes with flavor. (The restaurant can host up to 150 for a seated dinner or 300 for a cocktail reception; there’s also a tower for private dinners of up to 32.) Across crescent-shaped Pier One is ARIA, another jaw-dropping room-with-a-view that’s noteworthy for its celebrity chef, Matt Moran, and his innovative tasting menus. Both Quay and ARIA double as event venues — as does the entire quay on which they sit, the nearby deck of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and various theaters inside the cavernous Sydney Opera House.
Clearly, Sydneysiders like to party — and when the events are over, more than 40,000 hotel rooms await in the city. Visitors who relish both high tea and classic style can choose the five-star, 96-room Langham Sydney in The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest neighborhood. Indeed, Sydney is such a maze of venues, hotels, and restaurants that Business Events Sydney offers a free, comprehensive event-planning service.
BRISBANE: LUSH LIFESTYLE
In contrast to Sydney’s outsized polish, Brisbane — the state capital of Queensland — dwells in softer focus, with lusher gardens, a more compact city center, and a relaxed vibe. In 1988, the city hosted the World Expo, and the months-long event (which saw 15 million visitors) remade the south bank of the Brisbane River with sculptures, walkways, pavilions, and gardens. The expo’s legacy is a thriving “lifestyle precinct” that doubles as both the heart of civic life and an urban oasis of cafés, restaurants, museums, and even a swimming lagoon where visitors mingle with the laid-back locals.
On one end of the complex, the Queensland Museum is filled with both Aboriginal treasures and modern art; on the other, the open-air Stokehouse Q restaurant serves sublime seafood dishes — such as kingfish crudo with citrus and chili salsa — along with views of the river and a mezzanine level for private events. Within walking distance is the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, with its award-winning banquet food, contemporary art gallery (which doubles as a stunning reception venue), and 44 ballrooms, theaters, and breakout rooms that can accommodate groups of up to 8,000 people. Right now, the center is abuzz as the staff prepares for the G20 Leaders Summit this November.
Thousands of hotel rooms cluster around both Brisbane’s South Bank and downtown, where Starwood Hotels just opened its first, 246-room Four Points by Sheraton in the city. Around the new property, narrow “laneways” (aka alleys) are dotted with coffee bars, boîtes, and eateries. If you’re looking to strike out from the urban feel of central Brisbane, you can hop a CityCat ferry to the Woollongabba District — where antique centers nestle amid million-dollar condos and eclectic restaurants — or grab a wood-fired steak at the classic Regatta Hotel, an elegant hodgepodge of bars, dining rooms, and terraces.
Even farther afield, you can hold koala bears or greet kangaroos at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (where an outdoor patio doubles as a koala-filled, offbeat event venue for up to 500 people), or hit the famous beaches of the Sunshine and Gold coasts. It’s next to impossible to take a misstep in Brisbane, even if you end up in the water.