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Mr Lucky is in the right place

Date

Megan Doherty

The new man in charge of tourism is enthusiastic about changing negative perceptions about Canberra, MEGAN DOHERTY writes

New Australian Capital Tourism director, Ian Hill.

New Australian Capital Tourism director, Ian Hill. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Now retired Liberal senator for Victoria Judith Troeth says she has a distinct memory of Ian Hill when he was a young departmental liaison officer working in her Parliament House office during the late-1990s.

''I've got a very good picture of Ian actually doing the washing up in our office and turning around and looking at me with this cheeky grin,'' she said.

''In our office, it was very democratic, everyone washed the dishes and whatever, and Ian was just standing there and I said to him, 'Is this what a DLO is really supposed to be doing?'. And he just gave me this cheeky grin.''

Perhaps he knew he was destined for more than dishpan hands. Troeth, then the parliamentary secretary to the minister for primary industries and energy, certainly believed so.

She saw something in Hill, who was then the link between her office and the department.

''He was just alive with energy and enthusiasm for everything we did,'' she said. ''I'd never describe him as self-deprecating because I think he's got a fair bit of self-confidence without going over the top. But he knows instinctively how to deal with people. He looks at them and then decides on the manner he will adopt. So from that point of view he was equally as good with the farmers as he was with the bureaucrats.''

Hill, 43, may be a relatively unknown face to the Canberra public but he now holds one of the ACT's most important jobs, at least in terms of how the national capital is perceived.

He is the new general manager of Australian Capital Tourism, the arm of the ACT government charged with the challenging job of attracting more tourists to the territory while also changing negative perceptions of the national capital.

Tourism is a critical industry to Canberra, each year contributing about $1.4 billion to the ACT economy and sustaining 16,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Hill, a father of one, is an affable, personable bloke with a knock-about-nature that probably belies his ambition and hard work. He readily says he has enjoyed a charmed life and a right-place-at-the-right-time professional career.

Hill worked for Troeth when Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine determined the fate of Coalition bills in the Senate, taking the upper house out of the shadows and making it the place to be. He also worked for the Australian Sports Commission on the brink of the Sydney Olympics when the entire nation was primed for sporting glory. And now he takes the reins of the ACT's tourism body at a time when Canberra is expected to enjoy a year-long chance to reposition itself in the national consciousness as it celebrates its centenary in just a few short months. ''I consider myself career-wise really lucky,'' he said.

Hill was born in England, migrating with his family as a one-year-old. The classic Ten Pound Poms. His father was an accountant who went into management and worked in the agricultural sector. His mother ran small businesses including health food and dress shops as well as raising Hill and his older sister, now a speech pathologist.

''I think Australia was sort of the land of opportunity and they lobbed up with two kids on a boat and there were heaps of jobs going and I think they just fell in love with Australia,'' he said.

The family settled in Adelaide. Hill went to Heathfield High School near Stirling in the bucolic wine-growing region of the Adelaide Hills (''It was a nice place to grow up. I was very lucky'') and did a business degree at the University of South Australia. He loved sport and reckons he was better at socialising than studying at university. ''I had a really positive upbringing. If I could go back to school I probably would,'' he said, with a laugh.

Hill is married to Libby and they have a 19-month-old daughter Lily.

He first came to Canberra in 1994 in a graduate program with the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. He worked at Parliament House for Liberal senator for Western Australia Winston Crane and then for Troeth.

He remembers that time as ''fast-paced and high-octane'' and his enthusiasm for working so closely to the machinations of government is still palpable nearly 20 years later.

''I'm fairly agnostic around politics and there's a lot of good people up there and a lot of intelligent people up there, whether it's Labor, Greens, Liberal, Democrat and it's really interesting to see how those dynamics work,'' he said. ''I think there's a lot of people doing good work behind the scenes and that's not always reflected in the press. It's a pretty amazing place to work.''

The graduate program was collegial (Hill remembers many a bonding session at the Private Bin or Bobby McGee's) but also a valuable stepping stone for anyone with ambition and talent. ''I saw Canberra as a place of opportunity and it certainly rolled out that way for me,'' he said.

Hill worked in communications at the Australian Sports Commission in Canberra and then moved back to Adelaide to work for the South Australian Tourism Commission and then later in a marketing and tourism role in the Adelaide Hills, working closely with local operators.

''It was a bit more down and dirty and I really enjoyed that,'' he said. ''You're working really closely with people who've got their money in the game.''

Hill moved back to Canberra in 2004, securing a marketing position with what was then the Australian Capital Tourism Corporation. He met with the corporation's then chief executive Ross MacDiarmid and was quickly convinced he wanted to be back in the national capital. ''Canberra wasn't out of the system for me at the time,'' he said.

MacDiarmid was a dynamic, high-profile head of tourism in the ACT in charge of the stand-alone corporation.

However, the Labor government, under current Tourism Minister Andrew Barr, scrapped the Australian Capital Tourism Corporation board in 2006 and integrated tourism into the Department of Territories and Municipal Services. The move was announced in the government's slash-and-burn schools-closure budget of 2006-07.

The rationale at the time was that the costs of maintaining the corporation comprised more than 16 per cent of tourism expenditure and future funding would ''focus more strongly on the many high-quality local attractions, rather than replicating the efforts of the National Capital Authority in marketing national capital attractions'', saving $3 million to $4 million a year.

Australian Capital Tourism now sits within the Economic Development Directorate. Hill became deputy general manager last year and general manager in May, replacing Simonne Shepherd.

Andrew Barr says Hill ''brings with him many years of experience in tourism in the territory''.

''Not only has he got the connections and reputation to work closely with the tourism industry, but he also has a range of innovative ideas and plans that you will see rolled out over coming months that aim to boost tourism in Canberra,'' the minister said. ''These won't involve his beloved Port Adelaide Football Club playing in Canberra though!''

Hill says he wants to be accessible to the media and, by default, the community, but will defer to the minister when required, saying Barr is ''recognised as the best tourism minister in Australia''.

''One thing I want to bring to the role is a passion for Canberra,'' he said. ''We need to be very engaged with our industry and we've got some work to do there to be honest.''

Hill says the ACT attracts about 1.86 million domestic overnight visitors a year.

''Now that number has been fluctuating over the the last 10 years. It's been as high as almost two million and probably as low as 1.65 million,'' he said. ''Those numbers will continue to vary. Domestic tourism is an incredibly competitive marketplace and it's competing not only with other tourism destinations but it's also competing with your share-of-wallet and your time. What do you spend your disposable income on? There's home renovations, there's going out, there's flat-screen TVs, there's iPads and iPods. We're fighting for a share of that expenditure.''

Hill says people are taking shorter breaks more often and that represents significant opportunities for Canberra.

''We sit between Sydney and Melbourne, two large population bases who are the core visitors looking for short-break experiences and I think we've got some great stories to tell.''

And the ACT is not chasing only the traditional family market. There are also the foodies, the culture vultures, the adventurers.

He says the goal of the Canberra Airport and government to secure direct Canberra-New Zealand flights sometime between March and May will be a ''game-changer'' for tourism. The second phase of the airport's $420 million redevelopment will be complete by then and the next possibility was direct flights to Singapore. ''From our point of view, we're starting to gear up for that,'' he said.

The centenary celebrations will be about events but ''also be about how can we have a deeper, richer conversation around how Canberra is a place where good things, big things, exciting things happen, whether it's science, education, tourism''.

''It will be about how can we make our service levels exceptional next year so that when you've come to Canberra in 2013, you don't look at Canberra the same way again,'' he said.

Megan Doherty is City Reporter.

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