Creator of the big Sydney story

Creator of the big Sydney story

CMW offers insights from the long and distinguished career of industry leader, ICC Sydney CEO and Director Convention Centres, AEG Ogden, Geoff Donaghy

How did you arrive in the events/hospitality industry and what were your first roles?

I began my career as a teacher and I loved it. However, I didn’t see it as my life long career. I moved to Cairns, which was in the midst of its early and exciting days in tourism where the city was developing its own international airport, new hotels and resorts, and was also in the middle of world heritage listing the Great Barrier Reef and tropical rainforest. I worked my way up to CEO for the city’s Regional Development Bureau. During this time, we lobbied for a convention centre for the city. It became obvious to me that cities with a vision to reap the rewards from business events needed to have the infrastructure to do so. Our bid was successful and I was asked to manage the venue, and I have been in the industry ever since. 

Which projects have tested you most?

All venue openings are challenging, however the most testing was the Suncorp Stadium project I oversaw in Brisbane. With the football season having already started, there was a huge desire to get the venue open as quickly as possible. We took possession of the building on a Thursday evening and had 52,000 fans walking through the gates for a successful event on Sunday. This involved conditioning the expectations of politicians and patrons, and was only achieved through an extraordinary team effort.

In my later career, opening ICC Sydney in 2016 also had its challenging moments – because of the size, changes and flexibility offered by the new integrated venue and the fact that the city had been without a convention centre for three years, so the expectations were immense. However, we had a terrific team that kept the city and our clients engaged throughout the build process and an opportunity to recreate our destiny with industry leading culinary, marketing and teambuilding strategies.

When the new ICC Sydney project was launched and you took on the CEO role, how did it effect your broader work for AEG Ogden.

My group role within AEG Ogden involves identifying and assisting with new Asia Pacific projects, recruiting the best possible team and being a resource of support and guidance.

The two most important things when segmenting time are delegation, which involves trust in your people and permission to fail, and prioritisation, by only doing the things that really need to be done. 

With the ICC Sydney marking its second anniversary, what have been the landmark moments/events and what has surprised you most about the project?

During our first two years of operation we have delivered some truly world class and industry leading events. From the ASEAN-Australia Summit in March earlier this year, which included security for 11 heads of state and attracted over 200 international media to hosting the hugely successful Sibos 2018, where we welcomed more than 7,600 guests for a complex multi-day conference.

The acceptance by the business events industry and local communities of such a major project has been overwhelmingly positive, which is not so much a surprise but rather the result of meticulous planning and preparation.

I’ve long been a believer that being entrusted to deliver major city assets conveys both obligation and opportunity. The obligation is first and foremost to run them as efficiently and professionally as possible, but also to ensure the wide range of benefits that they create is shared broadly.

The opportunity is to gather a family of advocates from within the local community that benefit from our success while enriching the events we secure.

Where has the wider global meetings industry made big strides and which areas does it need to concentrate more on developing?

The ‘beyond tourism’ concept and philosophy, which was established in Australia, has been embraced by so many destinations across the world. The benefits of our major facilities and the events that we attract is not just about the economic impact, although we welcome their spend, which is four times that of a leisure tourist, it is the contribution to the knowledge economy and the lasting impacts events can leave in a city. I believe venues and events will continue to focus on this path.

Tell us about the thinking behind your Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan at ICC Sydney.

We see our RAP as an avenue through which we can celebrate and acknowledge the cultures and heritage of Australia’s First People. It allows us the opportunity to build on the work we have already done, including developing pre-employment programmes for hospitality students with TAFE NSW Eora College, engaging with Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council to connect events with Welcome to Country services, and introducing a dedicated First Australians stream within our Event Legacy Programme and within our workplace diversity and inclusion strategy.

While building an inclusive venue and providing authentic experiences for clients and delegates, we’re looking for economic opportunities and career pathways for Australia’s First Nations people and businesses and learning a lot along the way.

What goals do you still have in the industry?

There is still the potential in a number of countries for a well-designed and operated facility, and I look forward to being involved with AEG Ogden in those markets.

The greatest level of satisfaction I ever get out of any project is creating a team from within and outside our industry, and seeing them come together with a common purpose of establishing the best venue operation possible. As long as I remain in the industry, this will be my greatest goal. 

How do you relax when clocking off from the professional life?

Music, reading and cooking are my three favourite forms of relaxation. My musical taste runs from Beethoven and Mahler to B.B. King and Muddy Waters. I have always been an avid collector of music and still have some very rare vinyl pressings but the advent of technology, such as Spotify, has changed that fundamentally. I always pick my music to either suit or create a particular mood.

Something that I don’t get to do as much as I would like to is reading. I’m an avid book collector, although I am well prepared with a full library for when I retire, although that is still some years away.

From a young age I learnt cooking skill from my Italian Nona and my Mum. I’ve also picked up a great love for Asian cuisine from my extensive travels to the region. This is where I also developed my love for seeking out local food markets when I travel to new destinations.

And, finally, a tip from an Aussie on handling jet lag? How do you mitigate the effects of the long-haul travel you do?

Jetlag is always a lottery, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. My personal techniques involve setting watches on destination time, even on the way to the airport, so that you switch on mentally to that time zone, and relaxing as much as possible on flights with good music and a good book. I like to use flight time as valuable thinking time where I can minimise my digital connectivity, which is something senior executives have very little time to do.

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