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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8216

Mr MARLES (9:00 PM) —There were 184,000 international convention or conference visitors to Australia during the year ended 30 June 2008. ABS statistics indicate that the national conference market is worth $7 billion in direct expenditure, contributing 0.7 per cent to GDP, while employing some 85,000 people. In terms of location and proximity, there is perhaps no better place in Australia than Geelong at which to host conferences and conventions. Positioned less than 1½ hours flying time from Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane and Sydney, Geelong is located right in the heart of Australian eastern seaboard activity. To get you there, there is an array of transportation choices. By air you can travel direct to Avalon, Geelong’s own airport, from Brisbane or Sydney. The drive from Tullamarine airport is just over an hour. That airport, as one of Australia’s main international gateways, provides extensive links to the Australian domestic network and beyond.

Once you arrive in Geelong, some of the nation’s greatest tourism assets and picturesque vistas await. Positioned on the shores of scenic Corio Bay, Geelong is the gateway to both the Bellarine Peninsula and the Otways and all the fantastic tourist attractions that those areas enjoy—the Great Ocean Road; the Otway National Park, incorporating the award-winning Otway Flyover; many great wineries and restaurants; and, of course, the beaches, including the world-famous Bells Beach. Closer to Geelong you will find major golf courses, great shopping and opportunities to go sailing on Australia’s most beautiful north-facing bay and at the end of the day some fantastic restaurants at which to have a meal and plenty of hotels in which you will get a good night’s rest. These are just some of the reasons that Geelong has already been the site for numerous conferences and corporate events.

Currently in the Geelong region there are many small- to medium-sized venues that can cater to the needs of equivalent sized conferences. Data supplied by the region’s peak tourism body, Geelong Otway Tourism, indicates the current conference resources are supplying a great economic benefit to the region. In the financial year 2007-08, conferences in the region attracted just under 19,000 delegates who stayed an average of 3.7 nights each. These visits provided an economic benefit of $56.5 billion to the regional economy, a figure which was, in itself, a substantial 15 per cent or $7.3 million increase on the previous financial year. However, these figures represent the tip of the iceberg as they are only reflective of conferences that are organised through Geelong Otway Tourism’s business unit. There are many venues that take bookings directly and the revenue their activities generate is unquantifiable. However, what is clearly indicated in the data is that the Geelong region has a well-established basis for conferences’ success. With a further 25 conferences confirmed through Geelong Otway Tourism and another 10 currently under consideration, equating to a forecast of $40.6 million in regional revenue, we have evidence that suggests the assets and resources of the region, whether natural or otherwise, are combining to make Geelong an attractive proposition for the conference market. What must now be considered are ways to build upon this existing success.

In my former role at the ACTU, at one stage I was tasked with organising what is a major event on the ACTU calendar, the ACTU congress. The equation on that event is simple—three days and 1,000 participants—although, as I was to discover, the answer was not so easy to find. Having had a successful congress in Wollongong in the year 2000, we were keen to have another regional centre as the host for the 2003 conference, thinking that it would both aid the conference by keeping delegates in a more confined area and provide a more tangible economic benefit to whichever region could accommodate us. As a local resident, my first inquiries were made through the various Geelong venues that are available, hoping I would be able to find a financially competitive option. This was a great opportunity to showcase Geelong’s many attributes but to my dismay I was to discover that value for money would not be the issue; rather, there were no venues large enough or with adequate floor plans to meet our requirements. Subsequent searches across other regional centres returned similar results and ultimately the 2003 congress was held in Melbourne.

This was an opportunity lost. Had Geelong had sufficient resources to accommodate the ACTU’s congress requirements, the potential windfall to the local economy would have been huge. Research indicates that conference delegates spend an average of $300 per night, compared to $112 per night for all visitors. When you equate those figures with a three-day conference of 1,000 delegates, as was the case with the ACTU congress, you discover the potential revenue lost as a result of having inadequate facilities was in the vicinity of $1 million.

The indicators are clear. Geelong has what continues to prove an attractive site in which to host conferences and conventions, but to maintain the momentum and increase the appeal the region must seek to cater to larger conferences, for therein lies tremendous economic and employment potential. It is for these reasons that I am tonight adding my voice to those who are currently in support of establishing a large-scale conference venue in central Geelong which will cater for in excess of 1,000 patrons in classroom-style seating.

Existing plans developed by the City of Greater Geelong have centred on the design of a facility able to cater for between 1,250 and 1,500 seated delegates, which will also provide for an exhibition space of between 3,000 and 4,000 square metres. Moreover, this tri-level design allows for multiple plenary areas and break-out rooms. It is formulated with future expansion space incorporated and includes provisions for ancillary facilities such as parking, a 200-plus bed hotel, retail and associated services. While blueprints for a final proposal have not yet been generated, I feel that the principles displayed in the building design process to date are sound and cater for the major attributes needed by this type of facility.

Financial forecasting conducted by council and based on existing plans provides further indications of the potential benefits the creation of this facility could entail. Preliminary data suggests that in the first 20 years of operation the facility would generate direct revenue of approximately $356 million, while Geelong’s businesses and services also stand to benefit, with analysis concluding that for the same 20-year period the wider community would reap in net terms approximately $423 million. Combined, this would mean a forecast $779 million in extra revenue coming into the region.

The existing design would also facilitate the creation of 617 direct jobs in initial construction and in the ongoing maintenance and staffing of the facility, with a further 715 indirect jobs created in the wider community through increased consumption and tourist expenditure. Furthermore, the facility could provide a focal point for local businesses and education facilities to conduct their own activities like graduation ceremonies and meetings. By providing an enhanced ability to forecast large influxes of people into the region, there would be increased opportunities for tourism sector expansion through the provision of such activities as pre- and post-conference delegate holidays and day trips.

Clearly there are benefits that can be drawn from the creation of a large convention centre in the heart of Geelong, be they financial, social or cultural. It is my opinion that the processes undertaken by the council to date in seeking to further this project have been consultative and considered. They have engaged relevant stakeholders and sought their input. But two of the largest issues that will still need to be overcome throughout the planning process are those of location and financing.

On the issue of location, the council’s existing planning processes identified 10 potential sites. In choosing those sites, council officers in direct discussion with Geelong Otway Tourism, Tourism Victoria and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment created a selection matrix factoring in issues of ownership, topography, strategic positioning, traffic and access, acoustics, urban design and planning. The end result was the formulation of three preferred sites, all centred on the inner Western Wedge and Cunningham Pier precincts.

I firmly believe that in the ultimate decision-making process of choosing the most appropriate site for this facility it is incumbent on our city to make greatest use of its natural assets. To my mind, one of the most important assets available to us in Geelong is Corio Bay. It is a bay with so many positive natural attributes, from its protected and placid waters to its northern aspect and scenic vistas, and it is further enhanced by the excellent facilities that are now either established or under construction along the Eastern Beach area. What better image could we offer those seeking conference facilities than a site that takes in all of the beauty and charm of Corio Bay? What better image to leave with those who visit our region? Corio Bay should be a central element in the site selection process from here on in.

Financially, the figures I previously outlined should serve as an inducement to any potential investors. With the facility forecast to reap $356 million in direct revenue over its first 20 years of operation, there is a clear enticement for private sector involvement, and I think this should be encouraged. As the federal member for Corio, I will continue to lobby governments for funds that will benefit the future prosperity of the Geelong region, but I also feel it is important that Geelong not become government dependent. The great cities of the world have developed their own prosperity and investment and I think that Geelong, as an actor on both the national and world stages, should be seeking to do the same. We need to be actively pursuing every private sector option that is possible for the building of a convention centre. I look forward to working with the council and other relevant stakeholders over the coming months to see this important project come to fruition and for Geelong to further stake its claim as the conference centre of Australia.