Optimism a Highlight at ATE

More than 100,000 appointments were held with tour operators, hotel properties and destinations

By: By Michael Lowe

Report from the ATE // (c) 2009 Michael Lowe

ATE booths filled up with appointments
// (c) Michael Lowe

The 2009 Australia Tourism Exchange (ATE), the single largest travel trade show of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, was held in Melbourne over the course of eight crisp, cold days in June. The Melbourne Exhibition Center saw over 100,000 business appointments held in the 237 fully loaded booths of tour operators, hotel properties and destinations and often spilling onto the convention floor and lounges in a display of enthusiasm and optimism for the future of Aussie travel.

Smiles, laughter and an overall jolly mood prevailed over the ubiquitous state-of-the-economy talk known as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Managing director of Tourism Australia, Geoff Buckley, stressed the destination’s relative stability in the face of a rough year and a tough market.

“The global market has fallen by 7.5 percent in the first four months of 2009 and about 11 percent in the Asia Pacific region. Australia, with its performance of about a 1 percent drop [in visitors], is a little bit better than most,” said Buckley in a press conference. “I think [those numbers] are helping us to gain some market cheer in what is a really tough environment.”

According to Buckley, some of that market cheer will be coming from the States if Australia can get past what he calls the time and cost barrier, longtime adversaries to the notion of Australia as a manageable destination.

“Americans think Australia’s a long way away and say, ‘I’ve lost a day, where’s it gone and will I ever get it back?’” said Buckley, who attributes this belief to the misconception that Australia is “Down Under” and inaccessible, if not isolated. “Truth is people go to Italy, which is just as far from Los Angeles, and think nothing of it.”

For Buckley and Tourism Australia, the trick now is finding ways to change the American mentality about Australia.

The second barrier is the cost of travel to Australia, which has previously been considered too expensive by the majority of the US market. Now, however, Buckley asserts that price tags will be dropping dramatically due to increased aviation competition. On July 1, Delta airlines will add nonstop service from LAX into Sydney to the already busying route. New service from Virgin Atlantic’s latest carrier, V Australia, in addition to increased service into Melbourne and Sydney through Qantas, will not only expand flight capacities, but has begun to radically reduce airfares to the island continent halfway around the globe. Some reports show fares slashed by 42 percent since last year.

“With a lot of competition on the Pacific route, we’re seeing some incredible fares from a distance travel perspective [that] will help break down that cost barrier,” said Buckley. “And that’s part of the psychological shift we’re trying to make.”

Perhaps indirectly, ATE 2009 provided the perfect stage to showcase Australia’s accessibility. With 634 representatives from some 40 countries meeting with 1,322 Australian delegates from 511 companies from around Australia, ATE proved not only a forum for international business exchange, but also an international public display of Australia as a manageable destination from the States or anywhere else on the globe.