On a recent trip to Townsville, Lauren Arena was pleasantly surprised by what the tropical savanna has to offer.

For far too long this sunny city has borne the moniker ‘Brownsville’, mostly due to the fact that it’s not as green and lush as its neighbour, Cairns. And while it’s true Townsville sits in a pocket of dry tropics (protected from rains by the mountain range behind it), there’s nothing dusty about this city.

Townsville is a gateway to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, with wetlands, rainforest, and tropical islands all within an hour’s drive from the buzzing city centre.

There’s a strong economic base and a diverse range of industry sectors that offer educational and networking opportunities for conferencing and trade delegates. As well as housing Australia’s largest military base, Townsville’s key industries include education (home to James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science), mining and tourism. The city also hosts a range of large-scale sporting and cultural events – like Townsville 500 V8 Supercars, The Australian Festival of Chamber Music, and The Goldfield Ashes to name a few – and features more than 3000 hotel rooms and 700 dining venues.

Townsville Enterprise Convention Bureau recently hosted a group of meeting planners and travel professionals to its commercial hub, with a tradeshow and famil tour that allowed delegates to meet with local operators and explore the facilities on offer. The four-day jaunt kicked off with one-on-one appointments at Mercure Townsville (the only resort-style accommodation available in the city centre) followed by a wild night at Billabong Sanctuary, which included dinner in the sanctuary’s Melaleuca Function Centre, close encounters with some native residents, and a night tour with the estuarine crocodile, Snappy Tom.

Billabong Sanctuary’s owner and director, Bob Flemming, is a local gem. He and his wife Del built the wildlife park on what was previously a bare paddock and, despite extensive damage from Cyclone Yasi in 2012, have maintained the park as a leading educational and tourism facility for the past 30 years. Their passion to share their expertise and work with all conference and school groups is truly commendable.

Following a night of wild encounters, Townville’s key tourism attractions and offsite venues were the order of the day as delegates explored the Museum of Tropical Queensland and Reef HQ Aquarium. While the museum features an elegant boardroom and expansive terrace for cocktails or break-outs, the aquarium’s dedicated conference and training centre caters for 90 (theatre) and 100 (cocktail). Reef HQ also runs specialised dive shows for events and its Turtle Hospital provides a number of corporate social responsibility programs. The Victoria Bridge in the city’s centre can also be transformed for an open-air cocktail or market-place event.

Further out from the CBD, the Riverway Precinct on the Ross River provides another offsite venue option for open-air events. Echoing the vibe of Brisbane’s South Bank, the precinct features two public pools and an arts centre with theatre space, beautifully manicured lawns, and tree-lined walkways along the river – a great outdoor option for corporate family day events.

The nearby RSL Stadium, which celebrates its fourth birthday in July, is an ideal exhibition space. Known as ‘the big shed’, the stadium caters for 2200 pax and has the largest indoor floor space in Townsville.

Into the afternoon, delegates boarded the SeaLink Queensland transfer to Magnetic Island, which lies just eight kilometres offshore, to the north of Townsville’s city centre. With 23 beaches and bays, reef activities abound on Magnetic Island. Reef trips, diving charters, sea kayaking, sailing and fishing charters are available, while the island itself is made up of two-thirds protected national park, with 25 kilometres of walking tracks to guide visitors from bay to bay through the bushlands. Delegates got topless while on the island, buzzing around in a fleet of the island’s iconic Tropical Topless car rentals.

There are plenty of accommodation options on the island, but none as alluring as Peppers Blue on Blue resort.  Positioned on the water’s edge and overlooking the marina, the resort’s one, two and three-bedroom apartments and three and four-bedroom penthouses are idyllic and the swimming lagoon in the centre of the resort is incredible – its sheer size will blow you away.

Day three saw the group scale most of the city’s hotel inventory, with visits to Park Regis Anchorage; the Grand Hotel, which offers the only 24-hr room service in town; Holiday Inn Townsville, affectionately dubbed ‘the Sugar Shaker’ thanks to its iconic shape and cyclical design; the newly opened Rambutan, a chic option for backpackers or sporting groups; Oaks Gateway on Palmer and sister property, M on Palmer, which features 104 rooms.

The group also visited the newly refurbished Quest Townsville and the newly built Quest on Eyre, which together offer 225 brand-spanking-new serviced apartments. Quest on Eyre also features a conference room catering for 72 (theatre) with an expansive balcony.

Jupiters Townsville Hotel & Casino, which was recently sold to helicopter tycoon and owner of Daintree Eco Lodge, Chris Morris, was also on the day’s hitlist, with delegates chowing down at the hotel’s swanky steakhouse, Kobe. The new owner recently announced the property will undergo a $30 million refurbishment.

The final day of the trip started with an award-winning breakfast at local hotspot, JAM Corner café, following by a tour of Jezzine barracks, which recently had a $40 million facelift; a stroll along Townsville’s famous foreshore, The Strand; and a trek up to the summit of Castle Hill for a last look of the city and its surrounds.

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