The big venue daddy

CMW asks ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy about the big new baby coming on stream in the harbour and much more besides

Can you bring us up to date on the ICC Sydney project and opening?

After three years of pre-opening marketing, an extensive recruitment and training programme, and a three-month intensive operational readiness period of 30  events to test the venue, our procedures and the team themselves, ICC Sydney opened its doors to the world on the 20 December 2016.

Along with our Darling Harbour Live Consortium, we were fortunate to have been selected to design, develop and deliver such an important piece of Sydney and Australia’s future.

Being entrusted to build the team and oversee AEG Ogden’s largest and most important venue project to date was also an enormous personal privilege.

But, over and above professional kudos, it is the overwhelming response we are receiving at this early stage to our people – their embracing of our ICC Sydney welcoming culture and their passionate professionalism – that makes me the proudest.

Your expectations for the first two years of operation of the new facility?

When we bring a greenfield venue project to market, we usually target year five as the first stabilised business year.But with Sydney being a well established destination for the world’s business events industry, year three is our more realistic benchmark target for this project. While the response and bookings secured during the construction period are very pleasing, much of the market does want to see a new venue completed and a track record established before they will entrust their important events with us. So we will be working hard to build that confidence and trust and establish our reputation as a truly world-class operation in the first two years of operation.

What do you expect the new centre to bring to Sydney and Australia in terms of convention business?

Simply having Sydney, Australia’s major gateway and global city, back in the game with a truly world-class and greatly expanded facility will generate significant new interest and demand.

Our new offer will also serve to restore and boost Sydney’s market share.

We can host three, fully separated concurrent conventions of up to 2,500 delegates, we have an 8,000 plenary hall and have expanded the previous venue’s useable exhibition capacity by 40%.

And the next big project for Ogden?

We have a number of potential proposals currently under consideration but nothing that can be announced as yet.

How did you first get into the meetings business?

After some time in airline and hotel roles, following a short teaching career, I was managing the Cairns regional tourism organisation during an exciting period for the city as it developed an international airport and forged a new paradigm of tourism involvement in responsible and sustainable ecotourism. It is the only place on the globe where two world heritage listed natural areas, the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropic Rainforest, exist side by side.

However, the more I looked closely at successful cities around the world, I saw that invariably they had a successful ‘visitor’ industry with a much broader base than just leisure holiday makers. And invariably that visitor base included major conventions and exhibitions, or business events, as we later came to call it in Australia.

An opportunity to lobby for the funding of an international standard convention centre arose when a casino licence was being granted for the city, which we were successful in achieving. I was then asked to oversee this new Cairns Convention Centre project, which introduced me to this great industry and here, more than 20 years later, I still am.

Probably my most instructive moment came early in my career as a young manager, when I realised that from that point on just about everything I was going to be judged on was going to be delivered by other people.

So if I was going to do anything to learn and live by in my career, it was selecting and recruiting the best possible people through my personal mantra of CV plus chemistry. Then working very hard to help make them even better.

You are president of AIPC and sit on industry boards both globally and in Australia. What are the secrets for managing your time?

It starts with surrounding yourself with the best possible people as I outlined above. And then aiming for the most effective possible delegation strategies, which can only be built on a platform of trust and permission to fail.

Crystal clear focus on the specific mission and goals of whichever organisation I’m involved with at a particular time and avoiding all those distractions that one can be easily seduced by in our industry is paramount.

To illustrate this, I share with all new managers a little story about how Michelangelo created his beautiful statue of a horse from a big shapeless block of marble by simply cutting off and discarding all the bits that didn’t look like a horse.

Having travelled internationally and extensively for most of my career, I’ve developed disciplined practices.

I always lock in to my destination’s time on the way to the airport. My enjoyment of in-flight wine lists is purely dedicated to research for our culinary services team.

I rarely watch movies on flights but do take the opportunity to catch up on reading; work backlog first, then a good novel and listening to my extensive iPod music collection. I did log on to an inflight internet system last year – for the first and last time.

How are the industry associations you are involved with shaping?

There has been an enormous maturing and evolution of how the industry collaborates and presents itself.

Strategic discussions have certainly moved on from our somewhat sad little plea that we weren’t part of the tourism or leisure industry, which is how we were mostly seen when I first joined the industry.

If one pivotal point could be identified, it’s the ‘beyond tourism’ concept which was conceived and matured in Australia.

This allowed the industry to recognise and measure the economic benefits, that tourism services consume, while focussing on the knowledge and skill development, the innovation and ideas that come from business events, and having the best minds and thinkers in professions, industry and academia gathering in your venue and city.

The JMIC case study project is a perfect example of just how far the industry has come in this regard. Having it overseen by our neighbours and colleagues at the University of Technology, Sydney makes it even more satisfying.

How do you relax outside of the business?

My personal mantra has never involved specific career goals or ambitions. I have simply tried to do the best I could in whatever my role was. And to make sure that the next step I took was always a big challenging and ambitious one.

Relaxing? There’s never too much of that in the pressure cooker environment of a major venue opening; as rewarding yet addictive as they are. But I try to never lose touch with the joy of cooking for family and close friends, drawing from either my love of traditional Italian cuisine learnt from my mother and Nona or Asian influenced dishes from my extensive travels there over the years.

Exploring my too often neglected music collection is also an important part of my chill out time. It’s eclectic but when I need serious time out, I’m drawn to either traditional blues or classical selections and always with a good book


Paul Colston


Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World. Write Paul an E-mail

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