With the coming of fall in the southern hemisphere, Australians are beginning to see some relief from the months of brutal wildfires which have killed at least 33 people and scorched over 12 million acres since September. Despite the tragic losses, the country is determined to mount a comeback. And Sydney as a meetings and events destination is set to play a large part.
It’s hard to imagine how global icons like the Sydney Opera House and Bondi Beach could be anything but a positive for those in the tourism game, but when you are building a business brand for a city like Sydney, its popularity as a leisure destination does present the occasional difficulty.
“Sydney has a strong reputation globally and that’s been built on a leisure brand: people think of Sydney Harbour and the icons in Sydney,” says Kristian Nicholls. He would know; Nicholls is the general manager (bidding) for the non-profit, government-backed organization Business Events Sydney (BESydney), an entity tasked with ensuring the business and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sectors realize Sydney’s strengths too.
As the state capital of New South Wales, Sydney operates in a reasonably stable political environment. It’s a credential worth mentioning given that at a federal level Australia has famously changed prime ministers six times in 12 years – five times if you count former PM Kevin Rudd only once. New South Wales also benefits from its status as a services-led economy, so the downturn in the resources sector – which has challenged locations like Western Australia – isn’t problematic.
But despite the fact that Sydney’s business credentials are increasingly turning into one of its market advantages, those same glamorous icons that impress the region’s 39 million or more visitors a year can mean it’s not all upside for those plugging a serious business destination.
“Sometimes when you have such a strong brand, getting cut through on the business side of things [can be] more challenging,” admits Nicholls. Still, he readily admits it’s a challenge he’s happy to have: “You’d never argue against having that very positive leisure base,” he says, noting that research into the MICE sector has shown that event attendees choose their conferences based on an equal split between the event itself and the destination in question.
Chicken or Egg?
That split is part of the reason Sydney is coming into its own for business travelers, as strategic decisions large and small (mostly large) are starting to pay off. The shift starts in part with the solving of a chicken-and-egg situation that was long the bane of MICE event planners: a lack of high-end hotel rooms. If you don’t have the hotel rooms – especially at the five-star end – it’s hard to attract the big events. If you don’t attract the events, well, it’s harder to get those rooms built in the first place.
The solution? Demolishing the old Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre and replacing it with International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney), an industry-leading convention center, exhibition center and 8,000-seat theatre that opened in December 2016. The three-year public/private partnership which got it there has been integral to Sydney’s recent success as a business and events destination.
From an events perspective, the result of that A$1.5 billion ($1 billion) development was almost immediate. Last year ICC Sydney held more than 671 core events, including 33 major international events. There’s more where that came from: ICC Sydney has over 1,500 more confirmed events in the pipeline between now and 2030.
Capacity constraints have also been largely resolved. More than 7,000 hotel rooms are now within walking distance of ICC Sydney. These include its neighbor, the new 600-room Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour, and options like the numerous Meriton Suites properties that are just a 10-15 minute walk from the venue, as well as the 2,500 hotel rooms under construction across the city. Taken as a whole, it renders the capacity issue a problem of the past.
“[We used to] struggle to secure an appropriate number of hotel rooms to be able to bid for conventions. Now they approach us to ask how they can work with us,” says ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. ICC Sydney has had an enormous spin-off effect on the Sydney experience for business travelers, prompting the rise of numerous new or enhanced options for their after-hours agenda.
Take Darling Square. This pocket-sized district between Darling Harbour and Haymarket (the location of Chinatown) is home to rewarding laneway experiences. In Steam Mill Lane, fashion and food sit side by side, offering everything from coffee stops and long lunches to a quick banh mi from Sydney institution Marrickville Pork Roll (good for those hurtling towards ICC Sydney just yards away).
Heading back to Steam Mill Lane at night? Try for a booth at the popular Japanese whisky and craft beer bar Bang Bang (watch for queues if in a group). “Our precinct has become vibrant and activated,” says Donaghy. “It quite deliberately provides the opportunity for visitors and convention delegates to rub shoulders with the locals; it’s an area the locals love.”
Another area the locals increasingly love is Pyrmont. Here, the Sydney Fish Market, a working fish market that’s already one of Sydney’s most visited sites, is gearing up for an expansion. “What they are creating there on an adjacent site is going to be world class. For example, they are quadrupling the size of the existing cooking school,” says Nicholls from BESydney.
Then, of course, there’s Barangaroo. Recently transformed from a disused container terminal on the edge of Sydney’s CBD, the 54-acre waterfront precinct offers an expanded harbor experience for visitors both day and night. “It provides beautiful connectivity between The Rocks, Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge precinct: it has to be one of the most beautiful harbor walks in the world,” says Nicholls. To enjoy it, follow the waterfront from Circular Quay past the Overseas Passenger Terminal, Campbell’s Cove and under Sydney Harbour Bridge to Walsh Bay and enter Barangaroo Reserve at Towns Place.
The Barangaroo precinct is so deliberate that it even has its own art program, delivered via a Public Art and Cultural Plan that connects 27 acres of Barangaroo’s public areas. When the project is finalized this year, it will become one of Australia’s largest hotspots for public art.
Of course, for those in the know, Sydney already had plenty of artistic options to discover. A short hop across Sydney Harbour to Lavender Bay lies Wendy’s Secret Garden, an experience worth crossing the bridge for. Created by the wife of famous painter Brett Whitely, and loved and nurtured by the public, locals have long come here to read, relax or (less relaxing) get married amongst the sculptures and scenery. Today, visitors in the know walk, ride or ferry across for this unique slice of harbor serenity.
While Wendy’s Secret Garden started as somewhat of a “guerrilla gardening” exercise, today its value is so widely recognized that it comes up in talks about a future Sydney version of New York’s elevated High Line park.
An art experience which is at the construction, rather than concept, phase is the much-anticipated renovation of the Art Gallery NSW. Titled the Sydney Modern, the project will double AGNSW’s current exhibition space. Although, the state’s leading art museum is already so good this shouldn’t be a “wait till later” experience for visitors. Instead, it’s best thought of as: “Visit now and come back later too.”
Back to the Center
While much is changing on the city fringes, regulars will know that the traditional Sydney CBD experience continues to be enhanced. Here, it’s a matter of old meets new.
Just one example is seen in Martin Place, where Sydney’s former General Post Office has been transformed to become The Fullerton Hotel Sydney. Hospitality veteran and Fullerton Heritage general manager, Giovanni Viterale, says he’s well aware of both the historic and sentimental value of the landmark building. “We’re committed to retaining its soul,” he says of the five-star, heritage-listed property.
For guests, “soul” means documenting the sandstone building’s history in a coffee table book, and, in a bonus for guests and visitors alike, complimentary heritage tours each Friday and Saturday. “I recently learned that the carvings along Pitt Street actually caused a public outcry when they were completed in 1883, because they depicted contemporary people at work in realistic form, rather than the more traditional gods or goddesses!” Viterale says.
Sydney’s past and future also meet just outside the Fullerton on George Street, where a somewhat contentious light rail project has meant a few tough years for CBD traffic and the retailers lining this major thoroughfare.
That’s all set to change with the project’s opening at the end of December, creating a smooth connection between the hotels around Circular Quay to ICC Sydney via an easy walk from Town Hall. “It provides a beautiful experience where four or five lanes of traffic are replaced by far more open promenades. I was looking down George Street recently and the footpaths have probably doubled or tripled in size. All of those shops that have had a challenging time during the development will reap the rewards,” BESydney’s Nicholls says.
In fact, the light rail project has already sparked changes at both ends of George Street. To the south, Spice Alley in Chippendale is a busy new food hub: locals pack into the tiny urban lane’s outdoor dining options every weekend.
As for the northern, waterfront end of George Street, although Opera Bar tucked underneath the Sydney Opera House will remain a perennial favorite for locals and visitors for food, wine or simply a coffee with one of the world’s best views, a new foodie offering is imminent across the way in the historic Rocks area.
There, next to the Park Hyatt and adjacent to the Overseas Passenger Terminal, some of Australia’s oldest warehouse buildings (Campbell’s Stores) are being transformed in a A$32 million ($22 million) upgrade happening under very strict heritage guidelines.
“These are beautiful old sandstone buildings. They will generate 12 high-end restaurant and bar experiences, all with the most amazing views of the Opera House,” says Nicholls. There they are: those icons again. It seems there is no getting away from them. Still, really, why would you want to?
Meriton Suites, citywide
Australia’s largest owner-operator of hotel rooms has five Sydney CBD locations including on Campbell Street, Sussex Street, Pitt Street, Kent Street and in World Tower. Property configurations range from studios to four-bedroom suites. meritonsuites.com.au
The Fullerton Hotel Sydney
1 Martin Place
Perfectly located for business travelers, this five-star property blends old and new. Heritage rooms are located in the historic General Post Office building, or choose contemporary designed accommodation in the high-rise Tower wing. the-fullerton-hotel-sydney.com
The Old Clare Hotel
1 Kensington Street, Chippendale
Stretching across two iconic heritage-listed buildings in a revitalized city fringe suburb bordering Sydney’s newest technology hub, The Old Clare Hotel offers vintage designer touches, one-of-a-kind fittings and a stylish Sydney experience. theoldclarehotel.com.au
9-13 Marsden St Camperdown
For a boutique hotel experience that challenges the norms, try The Collectionist hotel. Located a short hop from the CBD near The University of Sydney, guests can choose their room size then select a custom-designed “canvas” (room) from what’s available on the day: All 39 are the result of creative collaborations from leading Australian designers, architects and artists. collectionisthotel.com.au