Setting milestones

As BeSydney turns a grand 50 years of age, the organisation's bidding general manager, Kristian Nicholls, reminisces past achievements and industry changes, and cast his eyes on the future.

BESydney has just marked 50 years. What are you most proud of?
(As) part of a consortia across governments and industry, a lot has been achieved from the markets perspective. In 1969 when we opened, the world conference market was fairly small. Lobbying to have a purpose-built convention centre in Sydney, which opened in 1988, was a major challenge for the industry at that time.

Importantly, I think the state government (now) acknowledges the value of business events coming into the city and the federal government recognises the value of business events beyond the tourism expenditure. I would say that’s probably one of the greatest achievements. BESydney (played a) leadership (role) in that dialogue around moving international meetings to the beyond tourism benefit.

Also, we did groundbreaking research with University of Technology Sydney, which acknowledged that while overnight visitation is very valuable to the economy, it’s the legacies beyond the event – the impact it has on that particular community, sector development, trade and investment opportunities, and talent attraction – that (is even more precious). Not only has that attracted the attention of the New South Wales government but we’re seeing cities across the world duplicating that messaging for their own stakeholders and government.

What trends have you observed in the business events space?
The association market is placing a greater focus on legacy. Global associations want to understand what benefits there will be to their members across the world as well as within the local community. They are not only looking at where profits can be put towards, or knowledge exchange between attendees, or best practices. They are also focusing on things like CSR, and we are fortunate that Sydney has taken a very strong leadership in terms of sustainability as one of its three pillars.

On the incentive side of things (our other key market), programmes coming to Sydney don’t just want to have a great time and do a business session about new products and driving sales. They are looking at potentially doing some professional development with their in-market teams as well. So we are exploring how they can interact more directly with our universities to get exposure to short courses while they’re here. We are certainly seeing that as a trend.

How is Sydney re-inventing itself so clients keep coming back?
Broadly there’s a huge infrastructure programme underway. The state government is undertaking an A$20 billion (US$14 billion) infrastructure project across the state. That includes light rail development in the CBD. On the private investment side of things, a number of new hotel projects are on the cards.

These are ballpark figures (but there are) almost 7,500 rooms at different stages just in the CBD. And that’s fantastic. A lot of them are sparked by the global meetings that we’ve attracted. We hosted Sibos last year, the World Congress of Accountants and many others, and that is sparking confidence in the market to develop new hotel products. There’s also a number of venue developments underway.

But you’ve also got rising competition from other cities in Australia. Are they adversaries or do they actually help you sell Sydney?
Exactly that last point. We often hear this from the international market, that Australia punches above its weight in the global meetings market. We have several very strong and active cities with purpose-built facilities and governments that back them.

When an organisation is selecting a region to go off to, they will think of the country first and then they will narrow down on the city. Therefore often, we are positioned (with) Australia as a great destination and then naturally Sydney is the most well known.

As you say, everyone is upping their game in this space. When it comes to selling Sydney to an overseas market, do you still consider it an easy sell?
I often get friends and family saying you must have the easiest job in the world selling Sydney because it is such a beautiful city (laughs). But the reality is the competition has never been greater. Cities understand the value of hosting global meetings and actively look to align policy and resourcing to compete for (these events).

There’s something like a 40 per cent increase in the Asia-Pacific on cities actively competing for the global meetings market, either because they’ve built purpose-built facilities like a convention centre or they’ve created a convention bureau like ourselves. It’s a very noisy market these days.

We invest significantly in overseas representation, so our staff are based in-market. We have two people each in Europe and North America for the association market, as well as five in Asia – in Shanghai and Singapore. We are competitive, (but) it is tough.

I think it’s also a challenge at times that people see Sydney for its beauty rather than its brains. We’ve done a lot of work in the last five years especially to reposition Sydney’s brand, that it is not only a place that you go to because it is on your bucket list but a place to see the world’s best practice taking place.

Did you know one of our universities is competing to build the first quantum computer in the world? The blackbox was invented here; we were significant players in the development of Google map; we are a significant contributor as a country through our research and development teams in the development of Wi-Fi. (We need to ensure) that we unearth those types of stories, so that such sector strengths shine through in a noisy and competitive environment.

I think we’re well on that path now.

What is the vision for the next 50 years?
It’s very much to continue that focus on alignment with industry, academia and government to become even sharper on the sectors that we are looking to develop or enhance.

But we have a game changer happening in the next 10 years or so. In 2026, the new Nancy-Bird Walton airport will be open at Badgerys Creek and that’s going to be significant. Not only is there going to be a city the size of Adelaide developed around the airport precinct, but there will also be new sectors being developed around aerospace, defence and agribusiness that we can help enhance by bringing global leaders into Sydney to showcase them. As well, the new airport will bring 10 million new passengers into Sydney, which means an opportunity to create new tourism experiences – particularly through the incentive market – beyond the CBD.

Let’s have fun with the last question. You must have had some crazy requests to entertain over the past 50 years.
There have been multiple requests for a corporate logo to be emblazoned on the Sydney Opera House. While that would be truly wonderful, the Sydney Opera House is a natural heritage icon and it’s not appropriate to have a corporate logo emblazoned on it. So we work with clients on how can we create a wow, never-done-before factor in other ways, and there are many ways we can do that in Sydney.

We’ve had a client sky-write their company name at the time they were having their photos taken, so they could capture that against the blue sky with the Sydney Opera House in the background.

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