Navigating Change with the CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau

27th Jun, 2024

Taking the helm of the Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB) just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Julia Swanson faced unprecedented challenges. Yet her leadership has driven the bureau to innovate and adapt, resulting in significant milestones. In this interview, conducted by Jesús Guerrero Chacón, Deputy Editor of HQ, at IMEX Frankfurt 2024, Julia shares her journey and her vision for the future of business events in Melbourne. Having hosted the largest AIME in a decade in 2024, and having just launched the bureau’s First Peoples Engagement Guide, Julia reflects on current successes and the legacy of the International AIDS Conference, which celebrates its 10th anniversary and sets an example for present and future events.

Julia, you started as CEO of the MCB a few months before COVID hit. How was that experience for you, and how did you overcome the challenges that came with COVID and the lockdowns?

It was an incredible learning experience. I was fortunate to have been with the Melbourne Convention Bureau since 2010, so even though I was new to the CEO role, I had a deep understanding of our clients, stakeholders, and the city. The onset of COVID was unprecedented; our type of business completely stopped, mass gatherings were banned, and venues had to close. It was a challenging time, but it taught us adaptability and innovation. We worked closely with the Victorian Government, setting up roundtables to navigate lockdowns and changing guidelines. Digital transformation became crucial, we created virtual site inspections and conducted webinars to keep planners connected with Melbourne, even when they couldn’t travel. Our clients were brilliant, with many postponing or hosting their events online rather than cancelling their events, and this adaptability brought us closer together as a team, making us more agile and focused. We also used this time to strengthen our digital capabilities, ensuring Melbourne remains at the forefront of planners’ minds around the world.

AIME has seen significant growth recently. How has it evolved under your leadership?

AIME has thrived, particularly post-pandemic. We managed to host AIME 2020 just before COVID hit, and while AIME 2021 was cancelled, AIME 2022 marked the first international exhibition to reopen in Australia. It was a smaller version of what we knew, people were still learning how to reconnect, but everyone was keen to come, and then the show really grew. We focused on making AIME vibrant and engaging, leveraging AI for business matching and ensuring it’s not just commercially successful but also fun. The result has been three years of consecutive growth, and this year’s AIME was the largest in a decade, with over 570 exhibitors, 595 hosted buyers, 4,000 attendees, and more than 17,000 meetings. Business between exhibitors and buyers is projected to exceed AUS$ 330 million over the next 12 months, a 65% increase compared to 2023. We’ve also introduced new elements to enhance the attendee experience, such as interactive sessions, engaging content, and innovative networking opportunities. These changes have made AIME a must-attend event in the industry calendar.

At AIME this year, you launched the First Peoples Engagement Guide. How has it been received?

The response has been incredible. Launched in February 2024, the First Peoples Engagement Guide is the first of its kind in Australia and was developed based on feedback from clients who wanted to involve First Nations businesses but didn't know where to start, as many of these companies are micro-businesses or start-ups, they are not easy to find.  Our guide includes a curated Indigenous Business Events Supplier Guide and practical tips on organising Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies. We’ve seen interest not just domestically but also from Europe, North America, and Asia. It’s about creating deeper cultural immersion and giving delegates unique experiences, such as First Nations walks through our botanical gardens to see sites that are 60,000 years old and you might not discover in the city if you’re walking out on your own. The guide has become a go-to resource for planners looking to create meaningful and culturally enriching events. Additionally, it has fostered a greater understanding and appreciation of Victoria’s rich Aboriginal heritage among international delegates, enhancing the overall delegate experience. For example, more and more people are making decisions based on purpose. They are increasingly concerned about the origins of their food, asking questions like: Is it produced sustainably? Does it have low food miles? What is the story behind the product? Delegates now seek deeper connections and cultural immersion. They want to understand the entire supply chain and appreciate the narratives behind the products they consume. By offering these stories and experiences, we provide a richer, more meaningful event that resonates on a deeper level with our attendees.

Talking about legacy, the 2014 AIDS Conference in Melbourne left a significant legacy. Can you tell us more about its impact?

The International AIDS Conference was a landmark event for Melbourne, bringing together nearly 14,000 delegates from 170 countries. It raised awareness about HIV and AIDS at a time when people were less informed about the issue. The conference led to the Melbourne Declaration, uniting health ministers across Australia to tackle HIV/AIDS collectively. It also spurred legislative changes to decriminalise aspects of HIV transmission and initiated early prevention programmes for high-risk groups. The legacy of increased awareness and community outreach continues to benefit Melbourne and beyond.

We had world-leading scientists from the Doherty Institute and the Burnett Institute, with notable figures like Professor Sharon Lewin, an infectious diseases physician and scientist, who has since become the president of the International AIDS Society. The conference not only advanced scientific discussions but also had tangible community impacts. For example, we saw a significant increase in early prevention programmes, with around 2,400 Victorians starting early prevention measures. Additionally, the conference helped to destigmatise HIV/AIDS through extensive public engagement and education initiatives, including pop-up education centres around the city and large-scale public demonstrations of solidarity. This comprehensive approach ensured that the legacy of the conference extended far beyond the event itself, fostering long-term benefits for both the local and global community. Even ten years later, AIDS 2014 remains the largest health conference ever held in Melbourne, with its impacts still resonating today.

Will the upcoming World Cancer Leaders Summit 2025 leave a similar legacy?

Absolutely. Melbourne is a leader in cancer research, with biomedical facilities like the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre in the Parkville Precinct. We’re working to ensure the summit has tangible outcomes, from cutting-edge research to community education. By bringing together the world’s brightest minds, we aim to foster collaborations that will lead to significant cancer treatment and prevention advancements. It’s about leveraging our local expertise to create global impacts. We’re also planning to integrate educational sessions and community outreach programmes to ensure the benefits of the summit are felt widely. Just like with the AIDS conference, we want to leave a lasting legacy that goes beyond the immediate outcomes, contributing to long-term improvements in public health and cancer research.

Looking ahead, what new initiatives is the MCB working on?

We are continually evolving, particularly in sustainability and legacy. Our focus is on aligning with state government priorities, such as gender equality and renewable energy. For example, we hosted the Asia Pacific Offshore Wind and Green Hydrogen Summit 2023, showcasing Victoria’s assets and policy initiatives in renewables. We’re also deeply committed to First Nations initiatives, supporting self-determination and creating opportunities through business events. These efforts ensure that we are not only promoting Melbourne as a premier destination but also driving positive social and environmental outcomes. We’re also looking at how we can further enhance our digital offerings and hybrid event capabilities, ensuring we remain at the cutting edge of the industry.

Under Julia Swanson’s leadership, the MCB has not only overcome the challenges of recent years, but has also set new standards for the business events industry. Initiatives such as the First Peoples Engagement Guide and major events such as AIME demonstrate the MCB's commitment to innovation and social impact. Looking ahead, the bureau’s focus on sustainability and inclusivity promises further success and positive change for Melbourne.

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