BY ALANNA MCQUAID
There I was, at 5:30 a.m., climbing on to the back seat of a Harley Davidson, holding on tight to a stranger’s worn leather jacket for my first ride ever, which just so happened to be in the desert of Central Australia’s Outback. Off we roared into the darkness to eventually arrive at a viewing platform to wait, and soon witness, the sun’s dramatic ascension onto the horizon. I was awed by the breathtaking views of the monolith, Uluru, as the desert awakened and transformed from black to hues of pinkish-red. Now that is a WOW factor!
We all know that today participants are looking for incentive travel programs that offer more than luxury accommodation, world-class cuisine, golf, spa, great entertainment and sightseeing tours. They are looking for authentic travel experiences that involve meaningful engagement with the people, heritage, arts and special character of the destination. While a comprehensive list of criteria must always be met to ensure a successful incentive travel program, it is iconic destinations like Australia that transport participants to a place where the imagination soars and inspiration swells.
My dawn ride in the Outback was part of my trip to Australia to attend LUXPERIENCE, a new luxury trade show and the only luxury travel exchange in the southern hemisphere. The trip gave me the opportunity to discover what Uluru and the vibrant, harbourside city of Sydney had to offer MICE planners looking for “experiential travel” elements to incorporate into their clients’ incentive travel programs. What I found was an abundance of creative, unique and memory-making options sure to satisfy even the most discerning participants.
Just standing in front of iconic landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, with its unique sail-like construction, and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the world’s largest steel arch bridge soaring above the world famous harbour below, makes for a goose-bump kind of morning. But, becoming part of the local, authentic experience by participating in themed activities or tours, if only for an afternoon or a day, is to shift to a new sense of awareness about the destination that, for program participants, can range from simply enjoyable to cathartic.
Samantha Holmes, business events executive, Americas, at Tourism Australia, is much like all the Australian travel folk I met: professional, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and bursting with ideas for all types of incentive travel itineraries. Australian suppliers are keen to incorporate experiential travel into their itineraries along with the luxury hotels and venues, outstanding multicultural cuisine, golf, spa, sightseeing, experienced DMCs and world-class entertainment.
Some of the extraordinary and exciting Sydney itineraries include:
★ A private lunch on the rooftop of the Museum of Contemporary Art followed by a short walk to the Opera House for a private, behind-the-scenes tour with a renowned opera star.
★ A sunset water-taxi ride to Cockatoo Island for an exclusive dinner at the funky Island Bar, an industrial-look venue built from recycled shipping containers—an homage to the island’s past as a shipbuilding yard and naval base.
★ Breakfast at the Taronga Zoo, a space that offers fabulous views of Sydney Harbour as well as the company of real wildlife.
★ A panoramic tour of the city and environs aboard a private seaplane followed by an exclusive gala dinner with A-list performances and costumed wait staff at The Star, Sydney’s premier fine dining and entertainment venue.
★ A trip to Jervis Bay, where a local marine biologist will take the group on an exclusive tour to view the humpback whales that migrate up and down the coast.
★ An Aboriginal-guided tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
★ A private cooking class with a renowned chef at the Sydney Fish Market.
★ A ferry ride across the waters of Sydney Harbour to Manly—one of the city’s most popular seaside destinations—to get to know the locals over a plate of fish and chips.
One of the highlights of my time in Sydney was the day I spent with Richard Graham, owner of My Sydney Detour. Graham is a tour guide extraordinaire—passionate about connecting corporate groups with everyday Australians and exploring parts of Sydney not written about in guidebooks. And he delivers! This is experiential travel done well. From the moment your guide arrives at your hotel, behind the wheel of a 1964 Holden (an iconic Aussie car), you know you’re in for a tour with a difference. You get an insider’s view of Sydney and you do as the locals do: partake in the café culture; drive through the salubrious suburbs; walk along rugged coastline and secluded foreshores; and discover some of Sydney’s hidden gems.
INTO THE OUTBACK
Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, is the quintessential Australian icon. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is located in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in the southern part of the Northern Territory—the red heart of the continent. Jutting out of the desert landscape, some 335 kilometres from Alice Springs, it is sacred to the country’s Aboriginal people and home to ancient springs, waterholes, caves and rock paintings. A visit to Uluru is experiential travel defined: extraordinary, inspirational, humbling, engaging, and for some, a life-changing event. Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the rock and its inherent spirituality, some leave Uluru different than when they arrived. In addition, only in Uluru can you come in contact with the world’s oldest living culture, Anangu, and its people, the Aboriginal custodians of this ancient way of life.
A wide variety of tours are available for program participants to experience Uluru in unique ways. I was delighted to take part in three during my stay. The first, Desert Awakenings, starts with a pre-dawn motorcycle ride away from the crowds to a secluded sand dune to watch the sunrise over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, providing a photo opportunity with a kaleidoscope of colours like no other. The second, Sounds of Silence, invites guests to dine in elegance and style under the stars in an isolated desert setting.The third tour I took, Outback Sky Journeys, is a combination stargazing and fact-finding mission under the Southern night sky. A professional astronomer guided our group through the evolution of the Universe by exploring the vast celestial skies overhead. Using telescopes, binoculars and iPads, we learned how stars are formed, why they produce light, the lifecycle of a star, the theory of “the Big Bang” and much more. What an awesome experience to have our questions answered in an Australian Outback classroom. This was a great big check-mark off my Bucket List.
Clive Scollay, general manager, Maruku Arts and Retail Gallery, is not someone I will soon forget. I spent an afternoon with him enthralled in an authentic cultural experience. It began with a Dot Painting workshop, which was followed by time spent browsing the impressive gallery filled with magnificent works of art and sculptures by indigenous artists (and yes, even some for sale—beautiful and memorable keepsakes for your participants). Finally, he led us on a moving, emotional tour around the base of Uluru.
Scollay’s enthusiasm for experiential travel for corporate groups was matched by his experience in delivering creative and interactive solutions for teambuilding events, artist commissioned Dot Art corporate logos, and beautiful corporate gifts carved from wood and incised with burnt-wire decoration. But it was his obvious devotion and respect for the sacred land and Aboriginal people of Uluru that was most inspiring.
Back in my room at the five star luxury Sails in the Desert Hotel, a beautiful property within the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, I lay for a long time staring at the ceiling thinking about our group dinner that night—a culinary delight in the desert that began as the sun set and darkness fell to the sounds of a didgeridoo being played under the watchful eyes of a million twinkling stars.
Tali Wiru, which means beautiful dune in the local Anangu language, encapsulates the magic of fine dining under the Southern Desert sky. Limited to an intimate group of 20 people, the evening begins with French Champagne and canapés around a firepit and progresses to the dune top for a table d’hôte four-course dinner, matched with premium Australian wines. The group was lively and in good spirits but often quieted by the exceptional clarity of the desert sky that allowed us to gaze at the stars, planets and galaxies far away in the dark night. I felt humbled by our microscopic presence in this enormous desert, silent and black, except for the fading embers from the fire and the stars above. A WOW factor – oh yeah!
Alanna McQuaid is the international business development manager for Meetings + Incentive Travel and an intrepid traveller.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.