As if the farewell cocktail reception and private dinner inside the Sydney Opera House were not treat enough for our delegation, the evening’s surprise speaker was the son of the building’s celebrated acoustics designer. Or so we thought—for the so-suave Venetian, his elegant wife and another guest, an Aussie “meetings industry journalist,” were actually actors.
We bought the hoax, too, according the refined couple and their halting English high courtesy at the dinner table. The act only became apparent when the plants—actually “Opera by Disguise” from Sydney-based entertainment firm SMA Productions—took the floor one by one and sang arias worthy of the house.
Orchestrating this memorable night was Karen Mathieson, director of sales and operations for premier planning firm ID Events Australia. For our group of ten, she had also arranged such activities as the high-adrenaline ride aback Harleys through Sydney to Bondi Beach, an Aboriginal-led tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens and our breathtaking ascent of Sydney’s beloved Harbour Bridge.
“While Sydney is a master at hosting large complex events, the city also uniquely caters to many smaller, niche experiences,” said Mathieson, whose résumé includes supporting Oprah Winfrey’s highly publicized visit to Australia in 2010.
As Oz’s largest city and financial capital, globally connected Sydney indeed holds a commanding position in the business events market (collectively, meetings, incentives, conferences and expos), which generates more than A$100 million in economic benefit every year for the city and state, New South Wales (NSW).
Receiving some 40 percent of all Oz-bound travelers into Kingsford Smith International Airport, Sydney and NSW also enjoy the lion’s share of international business travelers, a large number of which hail from the U.S., despite the distance. Remarkably, the U.S. trailed only New Zealand for international conference or convention arrivals (22,170) and overall business arrivals (123,210) as of September 2012. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, these represent gains of 30 percent and eight percent, respectively, from September 2011.
“Sydney combines decades of experience with well-regarded event suppliers, versatile event spaces and a strong understanding of the expectations of North American event organizers,” said Lyn Lewis-Smith, CEO of Business Events Sydney. “Sydney events come without many of the uncertainties and concerns associated with the new, emerging destinations—and we are known for making the seemingly impossible, possible!”
Sporting more than 32,500 hotel rooms and serviced apartments, Sydney, which offers planners a “whole-of-city approach,” is growing for the future. In late 2013, work begins on the fully integrated Sydney International Convention, Exhibition and Entertainment Precinct (SICEEP) in Darling Harbour, replacing the existing Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre, which will close during construction. Slated for completion by late 2016, the A$1 billion-plus project will include interim expo facilities on Glebe Island.
“The new convention center will be a huge drawcard for events that we have not been able to pursue in the past,” Lewis-Smith said.
It’s business as usual for the smaller end of the group market, though, and with Sydney perennially atop many a U.S. traveler’s wish list, that means rich rewards for the antipodean adventure that is visiting Down Under.
Premier lodgings in the Central Business District, a quick ride from the airport, include the luxurious Shangri-La. Facing Sydney Harbour, the 563-room property offers private event and dining space at its 36th-floor Blu Bar and Altitude Restaurant, plus the award-winning CHI Spa. Reopened in February 2012 after a refurbishment costing upwards of A$60 million, the superb Park Hyatt features private balcony views of the harbor and Opera House from most of the hotel’s 155 rooms and suites.
Notable newcomers include the 200-room QT Sydney. Opened in September 2012, this flagship of Australia’s expanding QT design hotel brand resides within the heritage-listed Gowings Department Store and State Theatre buildings.
When the 171-room Darling Hotel and Spa (winner of Best New Hotel Construction and Design 2012 at the Asia-Pacific International Hotel Awards) was launched in October 2011, it marked the first new five-star hotel opening in Sydney since the 2000 Olympics. An inverted glass tower set upon a sandstone base, the hot-list Darling forms part of The Star, a multifaceted entertainment facility set to debut a new A$100 million rooftop Event Centre in early 2013.
For a yesteryear experience, Luna Park— the lovingly restored 1930s amusement park under the Harbour Bridge’s northern end—caters to corporate, private and social groups with discount packages that include unlimited-rides passes. Looking ahead to 2014, the University of Technology, Sydney’s new A$150 million business school, housed in a “wrinkly and crinkly” structure from Frank Gehry, will offer space for small meetings.
For more offbeat experiences, groups can choose from lesser-known venues such as Kit and Kaboodle Bar in Kings Cross. “Offering classes in burlesque dance and life drawing, plus event hosting, it’s ideally suited for incentives,” Mathieson said.
Housed in a century-old pie factory, Grounds of Alexandria is a coffee research facility with rentable space, including its fragrant kitchen garden. Another urban sanctuary is the stylish Palmer & Co., an underground bar and event space that pays homage to Prohibition America. Voted Time Out Sydney’s “Cafe of the Year” for 2012, Kitchen by Mike hosts gourmet gatherings ranging from breakfast meetings to five-course dinners.
In scenic Rushcutters Bay—where operators like EastSail take corporate groups on sailing trips and regattas around Sydney Harbour—Neild Avenue is an artful new restaurant and bar housed in an old tire factory. With versatile spaces such as the private Elvis-themed Gracelands room, The Winery at Surry Hills is a playful retreat for groups of up to 400 people, while VictorsFood provides groups with an Aussie cooking experience on a private harbor island.
During my stay at the Shangri-La, my encounter with a high-level delegation from the Australian government meeting that was held at the hotel led to a breezy chat with one of the ministers. Awaiting their departure outside the hotel was a troop of Sydney’s finest on motorcycles, whom I also engaged in conversation. Then it occurred to me—could they be plants arranged by Karen Mathieson? In Oz’s fabled Emerald City, the surprises are limitless.
Business Events Sydney: +61-2-9331-4045; businesseventssydney.com.au
Tourism Australia: +61-2-9360-1111 or 310-695-3200; australia.com