A lasting legacy: Penny Lion reflects on her time at Tourism Australia

One of the industry's greatest champions looks back on her achievements and shares what's in store for the future.

Penny Lion has stepped down from her role at Tourism Australia, where she has led the organisation’s business events division for almost 11 years.

For many industry professionals, Penny will continue to be thought of as an ambassador for business events and someone who has helped shape not only Tourism Australia, but champion the industry as a whole.

Speaking to Spice News, Penny reflects on her first year in the organisation, having just arrived back into Australia after five years leading the UK operation of Cievents (now FCM Meetings & Events).

“When I came back to Australia I was interested in two things: one, to see how much opportunity there was to have business events come to Australia and two, what had changed in Australia since I’d been there and I was happy to see positive views on all fronts,” she says.

“Australia had always been very well positioned and business was doing well. The one thing that hasn’t really changed but we’ve certainly improved on, is Australia’s can-do attitude.

“I think that played really well in the business events space because although we don’t over-promise, we certainly are prepared to give things a go and customers love that.

“I thought wow, I have my work cut out for me because we’re in a good space. So, what am I going to do to improve on it and that’s what I then set about trying to do.”

Since then, Penny has witnessed major changes across the industry, most notably the “incredible influence” of China.

“When I first came back, Australia wasn’t doing well in the Chinese marketplace and it just wasn’t a market that we thought offered the kind of opportunity that we now understand it does – we had a lot of learning to do,” she says.

“That was a big thing for us, understanding the marketplace and realising there was some great synergies and look at that now – the achievements of what we’ve delivered with the incentives out of China has been fantastic.”

She says Australia has also come a long way in improving how they pitch for business events, particularly the time and research that goes into bids that often take years to convert.

“Remembering how we used to be in the association space to where we’re playing at now – leaps and bounds.”

Creating a legacy

Initially when Penny started at Tourism Australia, she noticed a distinct lack of alignment between the business events campaign and the ‘There’s nothing like Australia’ consumer campaign.

“I remember working very hard internally explaining why and how it could work and was proud to launch ‘There’s nothing like Australia for business events’ within a year and a bit from when I first started and it exists still today,” she says.

“We’ve done many different iterations but we’ve just done a really fresh review of it with a new campaign that will launch when we can open our borders.”

Penny Lion speaking the Business of Events in 2019
Penny Lion speaking the Business of Events in 2019

The Bid Fund Program is by far one of the biggest legacies of Lion’s tenure. And while she mentions a number of people who were part of making the program happen, it’s certainly regarded by the industry as one of Penny’s key achievements.

“That was John O’Sullivan’s brainchild, who was such a fantastic boss, but because I’d been banging on about it for so long he said, ‘Just make it happen’,” she laughs.

“So to then go ahead and do all the due diligence about what it might look like and how it might be structured – I’m really proud that persistence paid off and to see it being well utilised up until the pandemic impacting us.”

But Penny’s proudest achievement isn’t the Bid Fund Program or the many other campaigns she’s been involved in, it’s the relationships she’s fostered.

“The thing I would say I am absolutely so proud of is the industry and stakeholder engagement, and the relationships that I’ve been able to have,” she says. 

“Although there can be some very hard conversations, they’re always done with kindness and respect. Having that empathy for industry and really understanding what’s working for them and what’s not, how tough it is for them.

“For me, that is my greatest legacy that the industry can really have open conversations with [Tourism Australia] because that was not the case when I first started, they were a bit misunderstood I think. So I’m really proud of that.

“I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be in their shoes, and it’s tough.”

Next steps

Penny is set to continue in a consulting capacity until October, before taking a well-earned break to spend some time with her partner in South Australia at their vineyard.

“I want to go and spend more time there and actually be with my partner because that’s what’s most important,” she says.

“I might do some bits and pieces and help out the industry if there’s a need for it. So I will think about that while I’m having a bit more of a lengthy break, but mostly it’ll be about the vineyard and having a bit of time out and just to be amongst the vines.”

Tourism Australia aim to continue Penny’s vision of integrating business events more across the whole organisation once she bids farewell.

As for her parting wishes, Penny hopes the very best for the industry, in such challenging times.

“I really wish them a break, you know, a break to actually have some good things and some momentum going because the industry is a passionate bunch and they just want to do their work to make their customers happy,” she says.

“I want them to do well and I know it won’t be easy, but I think if they stay determined and work together, they’ll get there without a doubt.”

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