NICE ONE, WARNY! John Warn shows us how it’s done

WORDS: Greg Pride PHOTOGRAPHY Brian Usher - plus supplied

Whack! Zipping down the line of the wave peeling speedily through Rainbow Bay, he banks his surfboard hard off the top of the feathering lip. Foam flies in his wake as he rides past us towards Greenmount, carving impressive turns.

John on a recent Surfing Holiday

“Wave of the day!” we exclaim as he paddles back up the point, silver-haired but grinning like a stoked grommet.

It’s a rainy Tuesday morning – not exactly the sort of day that the new Experience Gold Coast CEO would want to see featured in any of the organisation’s ad campaigns for the Goldy – but Ocean Road publisher Brian Usher and I have arranged to meet the fellow keen surfer for an early wave and a breakfast chat about his high-profile role.

Mother Nature has failed to turn on the postcard-perfect weather but the surf’s okay and after meeting in the pre-dawn darkness atop the hill at Point Danger to assess conditions, we paddle out at Snapper Rocks to get amongst it.

John surfing in Keramas, Indonesia

An hour-and-a-bit later, with scud showers still moving through the southern Gold Coast, we’ve had our fill. A quick change out of our boardshorts and rash vests in the carpark and we head to a cafe at Rainbow Bay for the interview.

Warn was appointed the first Experience Gold Coast CEO last August and took up the prestige position in November leaving his tenure as Pacific Chief Operating Officer for global hotel giant Accor.

The role was created following a Gold Coast City Council restructure of its major marketing and funded entities which saw peak tourism body Destination Gold Coast, Major Events Gold Coast, Study Gold Coast, Bleach Festival promoter Placemakers and HOTA (Home of the Arts) effectively amalgamated under Experience Gold Coast to drive strategy, reduce costs and improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Early morning at Snapper Rocks before we hit the waves

Warn was selected by the Experience GC board, chaired by former Queensland Premier Honourable Robert Borbidge AO, on the strength of his vast tourism and events CV including his Accor role and positions as Chairman of both Destination NSW and Cricket NSW.

“We asked for someone dynamic with bold ideas – who would challenge the Gold Coast way of thinking while being able to inspire and bring together a high-performing team,” Borbidge said of Warn’s appointment.

“John has extensive experience across a broad range of industry sectors and demonstrated he is the person who can best achieve this for the Gold Coast.”

Warn might originally be a Sydney boy but he has lived on the Gold Coast since 2019 and it was a mixture of serendipity and life-changing events that brought him here.

“I grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches – with mum and dad and my little sister” he says over coffee, an acai bowl and bacon and egg rolls.

“I was always an active kid. Like many young Australian’s I played heaps of sports – cricket, surfing, golf and soccer. They were my passions. And then, following a family holiday and aged just 12, a big life-changing moment occurred that shaped a lot of who I am, I lost my father to cancer – it happened in just a few months.

“Back in the mid-1980s, the prognosis and treatment for kidney cancer wasn’t very sophisticated and we lost him. The great irony with our lives now happily here on the Gold Coast, is that our last family holiday was on the Gold Coast and I’ve always loved it here.

“Dad was a banker and I was always really interested in what he’d done, but I was curious about working with people and always enjoyed being in teams. When you’re a young kid, especially a boy and you lose your dad, you think, ‘oh, I want to help fix people like him in the future – how can I get involved in supporting people to grow and lead’.

“Anyway, I got to the end of my schooling and decided to go and study accounting, I was always strong at numbers and mathematics and ended up working in the (Westpac) bank and studying part-time. I just wanted to get into the workforce. I have just always loved being around people.”

Warn then managed to combine his two biggest sporting passions – cricket and surfing – with his career. The first job was with an investment bank in the UK where he also played professional club cricket, before returning to Australia where he landed a position as an accountant within the surfing industry – later becoming general manager and after another summer stint in England playing club pro cricket, Warn again found himself back in Australia helping run surf retail businesses; which included the famous Brothers Neilsen chain and later a network of airport surf shops called Beach Culture, which was part-owned by former Channel 9 boss David Gyngell.

Former Australian Cricket captain, Steve Waugh, John and 10 x World Surfing Champion, Kelly Slater, playing golf when John was Chair of Destination NSW


Warn was then head-hunted by retail entrepreneurial guru Brett Blundy into specialty retail and then moved to David Jones department stores who were about to embark on a big transformation.

They “wanted someone younger (and) a bit more dynamic to help transform the traditional department store model, which David Jones was at the time”.

Working with CEO Mark McInnes and fellow executives, Warn spent the next seven years at DJs, overhauling the business. He recalls fondly many great business lessons in that period.

John playing golf at NSW Golf Club

The experience there which included dealing with landlords on new property deals – saw him approached by the Lowy owned family shopping centre behemoth Westfield, which he joined in 2010 and he stayed for eight years. It was such a great business, full of strong leader’s and I learnt so many lessons in leading people and running a large scale operation across Australia and New Zealand.

“Mr (Frank) Lowy always encouraged all his senior executives to get involved in a sport that they love with a passion,” he said.

“For me, it was really natural to go and get involved in cricket because cricket has given me so much. I’ve played and followed it my whole life. I played club cricket with Manly, where I also grew up surfing.”

“But I got so much from the game that I wanted to give back. I played at Manly my whole life. I’m still 120 short of 5000 runs for the club, which I’m determined to get in the next few years.” Warn played 13 seasons with the Manly Warringah Waratahs, debuting in 1st Grade in 1998 and leading the 3rd Grade side to a premiership in 2004/05, helping the club to three championships.

John playing for his old club Manly in 2021


He was made a life member after retiring from playing in 2006 and continued to play a significant role for the club as a board member for 15 years.

In 2013, at the age of 40, Warn became the youngest Non Executive Chairman of Cricket NSW, running a $40m business with 400,000 participants and six teams including the Sydney Sixers and Sydney Thunder Big Bash sides (after hours whilst at Westfield). Warn served as Cricket NSW Chairman until 2018 and was made a life member in 2021, after driving and delivering a huge transformation program both on and off field. “It was such an opportunity and delivering a turnaround at Cricket NSW winning every available title and building a sustainable financial model for it’s future was very satisfying”.

However, I always had a bit of a yearning to move here because this was where I had my last holiday with my dad. My grandfather had also left Sydney and moved to Elanora and lived on the Gold Coast for 20-odd years.

Complicating matters was Warn’s position with Westfield, where he was being groomed for more senior roles. The company sent him to the US in 2016 to undertake the prestigious Stanford Executive Program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in Silicon Valley, California. Time away on this two month program, Warns says was a time of reflection – where he began contemplating what the future life for the Warn family was.

Marg & John at the Magic Millions 2024

He and wife Marg have four children, the youngest and only son, Jim, who was named after John’s dad is little brother to Elle, 17, Holly, 15 and Lani, 12.

John and family at Mermaid Beach (L-R, Elle, Jim, John, Lani, Marg & Holly)

Warn describes many “crucible moments” in his life – a term used by a key mentor of his – performance coach Ben Crowe, the “mind coach” to the likes of Ash Barty and Stephanie Gilmore (former Prime Minister and fellow cricket tragic John Howard is another of Warn’s mentors).

In early 2018, he and Marg decided to seek a better lifestyle in a warmer climate, but couldn’t quite land precisely where North they might move.

“I was sitting pretty at Westfield and Cricket NSW, but we had to make some decisions that would give the kids, especially Holly the best opportunities in life that we possibly could, before they were all in high school,” Warn says. Holly, their middle daughter was born with cerebral palsy, after suffering a stroke in-utero and had early ambitions to become a Paralympian in swimming so the Gold Coast and its huge array of natural attractions were a big drawcard.

“Within a few days, we went to dinner at our favourite restaurant and made the call. I think Marg was a little shocked that we arrived at the decision pretty quickly, but in real terms we were putting our family first. I wanted to stop my whole career and work out what we have to do for the kids.”


The Warns found great schooling on the Gold Coast, offering outdoor spaces not able to be matched in Sydney and a flexible learning program that suited their needs.

Then came another curve ball – or rather a googly – at precisely the time the decision was made in the form of an offer to apply for the plum job as CEO of Cricket Australia, a post being vacated by James Sutherland following the infamous ball-tampering incident in South Africa.

Warn and Marg figured that if he got the job, he could commute to and from the Gold Coast to Cricket Australia HQ in Melbourne. But despite the backing of some of Australia’s top cricketers and leading cricket journalists, he was controversially overlooked.

Australian Cricketer, Usman Khawaja & John Warn when Chair of Cricket NSW

“It’s the greatest job I never got and I’m really grateful, considering how life has worked out,” he says. Warn was then asked by Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW Premier at the time, to become Chair of Destination NSW.

“I really enjoyed that role and led the business for three years including Covid and bushfires but as it unfolded an approach to join Accor happened, I had to eventually leave it, as the role with Accor was massive and I was running Destination NSW remotely from our home at Broadbeach,” he says with a chuckle.

John as Chair of Destination NSW

In late 2020, he joined Accor and was appointed Accor’s Pacific Chief Operating Officer – a role he held for three years before taking over as Experience Gold Coast CEO.

“My wife and a lot of other influential people in my life encouraged me to go for it, because they thought it would be perfect for my skill set,” he says.

“I’ve worked in private enterprise, public companies and government and the Experience Gold Coast role combines many of the things I’m passionate about and experienced in, including tourism, events and sport.

“It was a pretty exhaustive process, but I was fortunate enough and felt very grateful and honoured to be offered the role.”

Warn says his pitch for the job, to a selection panel including Borbidge, Mayor Tom Tate and council CEO Tim Baker, started with a personal story about who he was and why he wanted the job.

He told them about the death of his dad and about his “beautiful family”.

“I told them that a few years ago, we had decisions to make as a family that led us to the Gold Coast,” he says.

“Part of me wanting to do the role was also about giving back to the city and wanting to make the city a better place, for my children because it’s given us as a family a new opportunity.”

“And then I went into my ambition for the Gold Coast, centered on it to become the lifestyle capital of Australia. In fact, there’s no reason why it can’t be the lifestyle capital of the world.

Family holiday, Margaret River, WA

“I spent 45 years in Sydney which is a world class city and where I grew up is a special part of our great country. But then you come to the Gold Coast and realise this place has so many layers, so much potential, extraordinary culture, incredible people and so many different elements that many people don’t even know about.

“We have to unlock that. The big ambition is to anchor everything in the business (Experience Gold Coast) from being the lifestyle capital of Australia and to be bold about repositioning the Gold Coast for the future.

“It’s a city that has developed and grown up so much and now 2nd and 3rd generations call this home – it is so much more than just an incredible place for a holiday.

“I want us to move away from holidaymaker’s coming to the Gold Coast just to go to the beach and the wonderful theme parks. We will always have that as part of our core DNA but, you know, our hinterland is extraordinary, the waterways, the indigenous heritage, our food and beverage culture is amazing, health, medical sectors are growing, education is a huge part of the economy and the climate is incredible.”

“All you have to do is get up early in the morning and just see how active everyone is. I look at my kids and go ‘wow, you kids had it great in Sydney but how lucky are you living here’.”

Warn and his family are walking the talk, embracing the Gold Coast lifestyle and all that it offers with gusto. Lean and fit, he can often be found on Saturday mornings pounding the pavements with his kids at the local parkrun before hitting one of the Coast’s many sporting or cultural events, or on weekday mornings slipping in an early pre-work surf.

He and Marg are also kept busy with their children’s school and sporting activities, particularly Holly who now is an accomplished swimmer with her sights set on becoming a Paralympian.

Olympic swimmer Michael Klim and Holly

A rising star in Australian swimming, she won a spot on the Australian Paralympic Swim team to Paris to represent Australia as the youngest Australian swimmer in the Dolphins para team at just 15. She has had a stellar 2024, winning four gold medals at the Australian Age Championships on the Gold Coast and went to the World Para European championships in Portugal in April, winning two silver medals.

Holly has her ticket!

Warn has already kicked a number of goals at Experience Gold Coast, including using his immense cricket contacts and knowledge to secure two Big Bash finals for Carrara Stadium in early 2024 and bringing the World Surf League championship tour back to the Gold Coast after a four-year absence (he’d ironically helped snatch World Surf league events for Sydney while Chair of Destination NSW).

Warn also did an exclusive deal to get the Taylor Swift Eras tour movie for HOTA amid the American megastar’s Australian tour, while Experience Gold Coast also recently unveiled an innovative new marketing campaign called ‘Sneeky Mid-Weeky’ aimed at encouraging tourists to the Gold Coast outside peak weekend periods.


“Pearl Jam are secured for November and we have a few more exciting exclusive sporting announcements looming. In Arts and Culture, with an incredible asset like HOTA we have so much potential.”

Expect many more coups and announcements from Experience Gold Coast, because Warn is a proven winner.

“I love the ambition and vibrancy of this city,” he says enthusiastically. There is so much to do across the whole business, in education, delivering on a new ambition in arts and culture and pushing the limits on delivering events befitting the lifestyle capital of Australia.”

“We have a great team at EGC and I have put together a top class executive and the City has a really positive mandate, population is growing, we have a great entrepreneurial mindset and a diverse economy that is not just reliant on tourism.

The City of Gold Coast is in great shape and our partnership with them is vital. I feel so lucky, my family just love it here and all the kids are settled and happy.

Family holiday in WA (L to R Jim, Elle, Holly, Marg, Lani & John)

The EGC board is full of great minds and good people with a huge range of expertise and with my board and the whole team at EGC we have a strong desire to keep on improving.

That’s such an exciting opportunity.

You can see why I feel so humbled and grateful to be in this role living in this beautiful city.”