People in the tourism industry, and friends, used to ask Greg “I Love the Gong” Binskin what on earth he was doing taking on the general manager’s job at Tourism Wollongong.
They couldn’t imagine why a successful tourism marketer would leave a job at a successful holiday destination like the Snowy Mountains ski resort of Thredbo to promote an industrial city like Wollongong.
That was 11 years ago. Greg took no notice because he could see what they couldn’t – the city’s enormous potential as a short-stay destination for the four million-strong Sydney market – and a genuine international tourism force in its own right.
“Friends used to ask me what on earth I was going to sell about the place. Now they think it is fantastic,” Greg once told me.
He could see that, with coastal scenery, beaches to die for and attractions like the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple, Wollongong had a story to tell international visitors, particularly from Asia.
These days, no-one questions Greg’s decision.
Wollongong is well and truly on the tourism map, and Greg is leaving his role as general manager of the city’s tourism body (recently renamed Destination Wollongong) to warm applause for a job well done.
He’ll be farewelled officially on Thursday, but I wanted to add a tribute to the many I am sure Greg is receiving from within the city and across the tourism industry.
He arrived in Wollongong in the middle of the five-year Wollongong Image Campaign, which ran from 1999-2004.
The campaign, funded by Wollongong City Council, was instigated after a series of depressing surveys showed that Wollongong had a poor image in the rest of Australia as a tourist destination. For example, a 1994 study by Tourism NSW had concluded: “The Illawarra excited little interest.
‘‘It was either unknown as a location ... or unappealing as a holiday destination ... due to its link with the industrial Wollongong and Port Kembla.”
Things had improved by the time Greg arrived in 2001, but he still had a massive job to convince the rest of NSW – and Australia – what Illawarra residents already knew: that we have one of most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country, and a lifestyle that is hard to match.
He was prepared to stick his neck out, and as a result has had considerable success in markets previously considered unobtainable – like China, Hong Kong, Korea and India, using the Nan Tien Temple as a major drawcard.
During his tenure, five new hotels have opened in the city and the opening of Sea Cliff Bridge in 2005 gave him and his team a superb piece of tourism infrastructure, which they have exploited to the full with initiatives like Grand Pacific Drive.
The bridge is known around Australia and Grand Pacific Drive is marketed in 16 countries.
And while some dismissed Greg’s ‘‘We Love the Gong’’ campaign as a little corny, there is no denying its success.
Greg was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Regional Tourism Award at the 2007 NSW Tourism Awards, for Excellence.
It was fitting recognition of his role in lifting the image of the city and building the tourism sector as an increasingly important economic force and employer of people.
Congratulations, mate, on a job well done.