Vision, people, culture: the Sydney convention centre story

Geoff Donaghy, CEO ICC Sydney.

From schoolteacher to CEO of global flagship convention centre ICC Sydney, Geoff Donaghy owes his success to the power of storytelling.

In the intensely competitive world of international business events, 20 December 2016 was a red letter day. It marked the opening of Australia’s largest international convention centre, ICC Sydney, in the Darling Harbour precinct on the western fringe of Sydney’s CBD. 

The result of a A$1.5 billion investment by the New South Wales Government and the Darling Harbour Live consortium, ICC Sydney has been designed to set a new standard for premium event venues – not only in Australia, but globally. 

It features 3.5 hectares of exhibition space and 8000sq m of meeting facilities across 70 rooms; it also boasts the southern hemisphere’s largest kitchens and Australia’s biggest stage. The centre also has its own integrated 10 GB per second optical fibre backbone and 955 individual wi-fi access points. 

For ICC Sydney’s chief executive Geoff Donaghy, the centre’s opening was the culmination of six years of painstaking planning. Since 2013, he has led the development of the centre’s infrastructure. He built the 1800-strong team that will keep it running and created a strategy to launch the centre on the international stage. For three years before that, he was group director of convention centres for venue manager AEG Ogden, and had a central role in putting together the bid that secured the public-private partnership (PPP) with the NSW Government. 

The power of storytelling

How do you go about creating and executing a successful business strategy for a flagship international venue? For Donaghy, it’s all about assembling the right people with the right mix of skills and chemistry, then leading them with a compelling vision of the future. To do that, he relies on a deceptively simple tool: the power of storytelling.

“I’m a great believer in stories – the stories we tell but, just as importantly, the stories that our team members tell their parents, their friends, their family. The stories that they tell about their enjoyment in working here and then, ultimately, the stories our clients tell and share with their colleagues.”

“I’m a great believer in stories – the stories we tell but, just as importantly, the stories that our team members tell …”

Donaghy discovered the power of stories in the early 1970s, as a schoolteacher in rural Queensland. From a one-room school in the bush, he moved to teaching children with special needs. “That was the part of teaching I loved,” he says. While his teaching career lasted just three years, it left him with enduring skills. “The lessons I learned in teaching and teacher training, I still use.

“You’re taught projection, voice control, and effective speaking – and in the opportunity school, there was also the concept of individual difference, in treating each person and their needs, looking at their progress individually. That’s an approach I still take with management teams and senior executives.”

Runs on the board

Strategy is fed by experience and Donaghy has that in spades. He had his first taste of venue management when he was general manager of Tourism Tropical North Queensland. “We lobbied for a convention centre, which I was approached to manage, so I got into the business of venues.”

Designed by architecture firms Populous and Hassell, and built by Lendlease, ICC Sydney is designed so visitors look out to Darling Harbour Next, he spent eight years as CEO of Suncorp Stadium (formerly Lang Park) in Brisbane, and joined international venue manager AEG Ogden, overseeing facilities across Australia, Asia and the Middle East. In 2013, he became president of the Brussels-based International Association of Congress Centres.

Donaghy had been carefully watching as the NSW Government considered its options to manage ICC Sydney – from refurbishment to redevelopment. When the government eventually took what Donaghy describes as the “very big, brave and bold decision” to spend three years replacing the existing centre, he and his team were ready. 

Donaghy was right in describing that decision as brave. The building which ICC Sydney replaced, the Sydney Convention Centre, had earned architects John Andrews and Philip Cox the Sir John Sulman Medal for Public Architecture in 1989. Although the original 25,000sq m building had been criticised as being too small to attract larger events, there were questions over why it couldn’t be expanded, rather than demolished. 

“Does it make sense to pull down A$120 million worth of [building] that’s perfectly all right? As Australia, we just haven’t grown up, we haven’t developed any good manners and we don’t protect … our good things,” Andrews told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013.

Donaghy, however, knew that AEG Ogden was in a strong position to field a competitive bid. “There are very few businesses that do what we do on a genuine, multi-venue, multinational basis … really only a handful,” he says. He knew his best strategy was to create a total package – from consortium partners, to finance, to overall strategic vision. And, of course, to tell the right story.

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“We set out to show that the benefits of choosing us, or our consortium, started right from day one, not from three years later, when the venue started operating,” says Donaghy. That meant being ready to work closely with the architects and builder to develop the centre’s design. It also meant looking beyond the financials of the PPP.

“Our financing partners like to tell us that PPP stands for ‘price, price, price’,” Donaghy says. However, he knew some larger issues would weigh heavily with government decision-makers.

“There were things that were defined in the contractual documentation … but there were also some things that, while they weren’t mandated and stipulated, we understood were very, very important to the government,” he says.

That included supporting NSW jobs and the regional economy by creating a showcase for the city and the state. That was the inspiration for the venue’s culinary and procurement philosophy, known as Feeding Your Performance.

"We set out to show that the benefits of choosing us ... started right from day one, not from three years later, when the venue started operating."

Donaghy’s team began by hiring a nutritionist to create a menu that would feed the performance of event attendees – including lunches designed to help them avoid an afternoon slump. But they also sought to feed the performance of businesses in regional NSW by sourcing produce from all > over the state. 

“We’ve gone directly to a whole lot of smaller producers, wholesalers, and farmers, rather than going through the big wholesalers … we give them guaranteed supplies and guaranteed payment,” says Donaghy. “We’re really feeding the performance of all of those smaller producers as part of that philosophy. 

“That was never mandated in the PPP but we knew, because of our experience in understanding government and community needs, that it was very, very important.”

Measuring the impact

Donaghy’s management team will track the broader economic benefits that ICC Sydney brings to the city and the state, driven by the hundreds of thousands of event delegates expected to arrive in Sydney each year. 

“The money they spend, which is about five times more per day than a holiday-maker, about 8 to 10 per cent of that ends up in our P&L as revenue. The other 90 per cent is spent out there in the community, so these facilities have very important economic leveraging power,” he says.

“We’re going to measure that very closely. We’ll take it right down into those regional areas as well, and measure the jobs and economic impact created in Mudgee and Orange, as well as in Sydney.”

When operating at full capacity, ICC Sydney is expected to generate about A$200 million in extra economic activity for NSW each year. The centre already has more than 500 major events on the books reaching out as far as 2022. 

The right strategic framework

For Donaghy, the key to success is to create an overarching strategic framework, while giving his people the flexibility to respond to a changing environment. To do that, he sets out a five-year strategic outlook, supported by a detailed one-year plan. Then he puts a priority on recruiting people with the right combination of skills and personality to create an outstanding customer experience: “I call it CV plus chemistry”.

Geoff DonaghyHaving hired the best people, it’s essential to give them a clear vision of the future.

“A little story I tell all of our managers is the one about Michelangelo being asked how he takes this big block of marble and turns it into a beautiful horse. He points out he did it very simply: he just took a big block of marble and cut off all the bits that don’t look like a horse. The moral in that story is to have crystal-clear goals.” 

Donaghy believes his focus on leading people is critical to making ICC Sydney a success.

“I don’t really know a lot about running venues – this is what I tell people. But I do know what clients and patrons want. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years, it’s how to recruit people who do know those things, each of those technical aspects, and put them together as a team.

“Opening a major venue is incredibly satisfying – but for me what’s most satisfying in each of those openings is to put a team of people together, to create opportunities and career paths for people. That’s really what makes it all worthwhile.” 

ICC Sydney at a glance

Cost: A$1.5 billion
Owner: New South Wales Government
Manager: AEG Ogden

  • 35,000sq m exhibition space
  • 8000sq m of meeting room space
  • 70 meeting rooms
  • three theatres, including the ICC Sydney Theatre with maximum capacity for 9000 people and Australia’s largest stage
  • grand ballroom with capacity for 2000 people
  • 10 GB per second optical fibre backbone
  • 955 wi-fi access points
  • intelligent lecterns with touch screen display, PC and network access

3 ingredients for a successful strategy

Geoff Donaghy says that his business strategy rests on these three foundations:

  1. Vision “It starts with the clarity of vision, and knowing what that organisation needs to achieve.”
  2. People “Very early on in my career, I realised that everything I was going to be judged on had to be delivered by other people, so if I was going to do anything in my career, it was to really concentrate on finding the best people, and then working really, really hard to make them even better.” 
  3. Culture “We want our people to be passionate professionals. Passionate about what they do, and passionate about providing that quality of experience for everyone that comes into one of these venues.”

Experience ICC Sydney

CPA Australia Congress 2017 will be held at ICC Sydney on 23-24 October. CPA Australia will also host the World Congress of Accountants at the venue on 5-8 November 2018. 

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