The King of Cairns meetings

Ross Steele – Cairns Convention Centre – Tourism Partners

‎June 2018

Ross Steele, General Manager, ‎Cairns Convention Centre

You’ve been in the business events industry for 20 years.  What career path did you take to become GM?

Don’t hold it against me but I have a finance background and was an external auditor at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre before Julie O’Keeffe made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to join the team there.  I then moved to Cairns as Business Manager progressing to be GM about 11 years ago.

The Cairns Convention Centre is part of the AEG group, an Australian company.  Where was the first AEG convention centre in Australia and overseas?

BCEC opened in 1995 closely followed by the Cairns Convention Centre in 1996 with both proudly managed by AEG Ogden since preopening.  Incidentally both these Centre’s have won World’s Best Congress Centre which is a fantastic testimony to AEG Ogden and its Australian roots.

The Queensland Government has announced they will overhaul the centre with a $176 million spend.  What impact will this have and what’s the timeline?

While early days following the announcement, the refurbishment will provide the opportunity to renovate the existing Centre and add additional exhibition and meeting space to allow us to undertake more concurrent business and also larger conventions.  The funding commitment is over the next two years so it is exciting times ahead.

Cairns is an air access dependent destination.  What nonstop flights would attract additional international delegates?

Air access is vital for the region not only for tourism but for general business.  Additional capacity into Asia and the Middle East would be fantastic and will not only allow Cairns to increase International visitation, it will free up domestic capacity to grow the National market also.  Air access is a vital selling point for us in the business events industry and we are lucky in Cairns to have good connectivity.

What have been the biggest changes to the global convention and meetings industry in the past 20 years?

In twenty years we have seen convention centre’s pop up all over the world as cities and destinations understand the economic and social benefits of hosting business events. Along with infrastructure, we have cities and countries supporting convention bids in many ways including funding which never occurred 20 years ago.  The convention industry has become not just a tourism export industry but a knowledge growth and innovation industry to the regions that host these events.

The centre has been a drawcard for international delegates, what drives this?

Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef is aspirational for visitors and therefore a natural delegate booster for our international convention clients.   We still need to ensure our clients understand that we do have the wonderful business events infrastructure such as the Convention Centre, Hotels, off site venues etc to host a successful event.  That is why we use “Serious Business – Stunning Location” as our tag line, it suits us!!

What has been the most complicated business event you’ve been involved with?

We have hosted some wonderful and complicated events such as G20 meetings, APEC meetings, the Pacific Island Forum as well as lots of great world conferences but one in which we still take great pride in is the Australian Tourism Exchange which when held in Cairns was the first time outside of a capital city.  It also used up all of the Centre and the car park next to us.  The faith that TEQ through Andrew Sinclair, Tourism Australia through Leigh Sorensen and TTNQ through Brian Hennesey placed in the Centre and the destination was huge and I think rewarded with what was the best ATE at that time.  Made us all very proud to be a part of.

Your team has been with you for a considerable period.  How do you retain great people?

I asked one of our long standing members once why they had been with us for so long and he said, we all love living in Cairns but there’s only one convention centre so they are stuck!!

Seriously, I suggest to you that all convention centres are built to host successful conventions but it is the people that differentiate them around the world.  Our team are the best in the world who continually challenge me and themselves to improve.  It is my job to give them the resources, authority and support to do what they do best and in turn they respond with whole hearted commitment, that is why they are successful and success brings fulfilment, which is why I think we have a stable team.

What is your proudest convention centre moment and why?

Calling the team in Cairns at midnight from Berlin after accepting on their behalf the International Association of Convention Centre’s “World’s Best Congress Centre Award” in 2014.

You’ve had a few high profile visitors to the centre, who were the stand outs for being down to earth?

Recently we hosted the preliminary games of Basketball for the Commonwealth Games and we were lucky enough to host Prince Charles and the Queensland Governor along with many others but I have to say our Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove is very much a stand out for being down to earth.  He loves sport so we had a lot in common and he took the time to acknowledge not only dignitaries but the general public and most importantly our Cairns Convention Centre F&B team members, nice bloke.

What’s the next big thing for AEG and Ross Steele?

AEG continue to grow and successfully opened ICC Sydney last year, are in the process of opening the Dubai Arena and there are many more projects in the pipeline.  For Ross Steele, well I love living in Cairns….

On a lighter note ….

When you arrive home from an international trip what do you like doing?

Catching up with my wife who has been storing up her unused words!!

You’ve travelled the world, what is your favourite place in Australia and overseas? (apart from your home town of Cairns)

In Australia it’s the Mornington Peninsula where I grew up and overseas it is Wanaka in NZ.

Living near Cairns you no doubt get out and about to some great eating places.  What is your gem that most visitors to Cairns don’t know about?

Coco Mojo in Clifton Beach is well known locally but not so with tourists, well worth the trip out if you want to shy away from any tourist spots.

When hitting the kitchen what is your hero dish(s)?

Eggs Benedict on sour dough topped with baby spinach, smoked salmon and Lime Hollandaise sauce.  My kids usually request it when they are home.

What Australian and international company(s) do you see leading innovation?

AEG member venues are always innovating and sharing ideas within the family to ensure we remain the best in the world.  Otherwise I recently had the privilege of attending our local Cairns Innovation Awards and I saw a whole bunch of young people with fantastic ideas that not only will shape business in to the future but have social aspects that I would not have been remotely interested in at their age, pretty inspiring.  The future is in great hands.

What global brands do you have an affinity with?

Apple (my phone) and Garmin (my watch) and RM Williams (my boots).

If you could wave a magic wand what one problem in Australia would you fix?

Mental Health issues particularly those affecting the older generation.

What is your personal number one online retailer for purchases?

Ubet, but don’t tell my wife!

Favourite web site(s)?

How do you manage jet lag?

Move my watch onto my arrival time zone as soon as I board the plane and pretend it is that time.

What is the one thing you always pack when travelling?

Phone Charger

Rumour has it you like motor bikes, what’s your dream machine?

I don’t have a bike any longer but a BMW 1200 GS Adventurer would be nice.



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