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Sydney Positions Conferences As Catalysts for Economic Development

Skift Take

Governments, convention bureaus, and universities like those in Australia are collaborating more strategically to diversify the economy and drive economic development by targeting specific international conferences aligned with national interests.

— Greg Oates

Research into the impact of international conferences on a city’s economic growth has evolved beyond easily measurable tourism-related metrics, like direct spend on hotels and restaurants, to the long-term benefits for the local business and academic communities, as well as the visiting professionals and their organizations.

Driving that shift, national and state governments worldwide are developing “innovation agendas” to map out their priority areas and modernize their economies for the 21st century. In the U.S., for example, the White House published the Strategy for American Innovation in October last year. Here are the innovation agendas for Canada and Dubai, also. At the state level, private organizations often produce similar strategies, such as these in California and Washington State.

A significant portion of those innovation agendas emphasize the need for governments to develop their advanced industry sectors and high-tech services to support them. One of the best ways to accomplish that is by attracting international conferences aligned with those sectors to build networks of global knowledge expertise.

However, while this is not an altogether new idea, there is a widespread lack of research about how convention bureaus are effectively collaborating with their governments to lure high-value conferences to their cities.

Business Events Sydney (BESydney) is the outlier. It was the first convention bureau to really study the legacy impact of international conferences when it published the Beyond Tourism Benefits research paper in 2011. That has since evolved into a series of reports produced in conjunction with the University of Technology Sydney.

Last week, the bureau published its latest research in the series. The report, “Conferences: Catalysts for Thriving Economies,” highlights four dimensions of value that conferences deliver for the destination beyond the tourism spend. They are: Innovation, bringing new business knowledge and advanced technologies to Sydney; Collaboration, spurring the development of new research partnerships and business relationships; Sector Development, elevating the profile of Australia’s advanced industry capabilities worldwide; and Global Talent Attraction, helping lure knowledge professionals to the country.

The report also links to three documents delving into the impact of conference business specifically on associations, government, and community, supported by numerous case studies.

That research, in turn, helps support BESydney’s continued case for the level of funding it says it requires from the state-level New South Wales government to help it deliver on the Premier’s Innovation Initiative, which is similar to the innovation agendas mentioned above.

For example, according to Lyn Lewis-Smith, CEO of BESydney, the Beyond Tourism Benefits research helped secure funding for the new International Convention Centre Sydney opening in December this year, because it focuses on the economic benefits for local industry as much as the local tourism infrastructure.

“For our clients, we don’t see them in the tourism space; we’re in the business and innovation space,” Lewis-Smith told Skift for our Future of Conventions trends report. “I think what many cities get wrong is they’re working in the tourism space, so sure they have good delegate expenditure on restaurant and retail that feed the supply chain. But that’s a very narrow view of what international events do for a city. Delegate expenditure is one thing, but all of these legacy outcomes are so much more powerful, so when you get that story right, governments start to listen.”

Government Support For Business Events

For most U.S. convention bureaus, one of their primary challenges is explaining their value proposition and funding requirements to city councils and state capitals with each new administration.

Lewis-Smith told us, “It’s difficult to go to the government asking for money with an empty hand stretched out.”

That brings us to Australia’s national government, which has witnessed the success of the collaboration between the New South Wales government and BESydney over the last few years.

Two weeks ago, the Australian parliament passed the Innovation and Science Australia Bill to establish the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). The federal government is committing 1.1 billion Australian dollars ($840 million U.S.) over four years to support the development of advanced industry sectors, which are heavily represented in New South Wales. That means BESydney now has a new national mandate to secure business events that add to the innovation and science ecosystems in Australia.

This year, BESydney restructured its conference bidding department into three industry teams targeting: health; science, engineering and infrastructure; and professional services and technology. The aim of the restructure was to align with the national and state-level governments’ priority sectors.

David Swagell, industry team leader at BESydney, who’s responsible for developing the region’s professional services and technology sector, said the new innovation and science agenda solidifies a shift toward a more top-down approach in terms of how BESydney goes after big conferences.

On a macro level, the national and state-level governments are now both effectively driving strategy to develop the country’s business events brand worldwide, based on the needs of Australia to diversify its economy.

“It’s a really exciting time to be a scientist, a researcher, and a thought leader in business in our country,” Swagell told Skift last week. “We now have a very strong focus from the national government to create an innovation environment that’s transitioning away from industries such as mining in Australia, and moving toward those like the financial services sector, professional services and technology, educational training, and a quite a few others.”

But is that resonating with U.S. conference organizers, specifically? Swagell said it is for a growing number of international groups based in North America, especially during the last couple of years.

“For some of the most advanced associations, they’re asking, ‘What kind of government support can you provide?'” he explained. “That’s where the trend is going. When meeting planners come into a city, they don’t only want support from the bureau now. They also want it from the government.”

The national and state governments are vocal about their commitment to do just that. It’s not uncommon for Australian officials to show their support for business events both in online editorial and social media.

For example, Greg Hunt, Australian minister of industry, innovation and science, tweeted last weekend: “Proud to back Australia’s bid to win #COSPAR2020 & support important science and promote our great scientists.”

Lewis-Smith then retweeted: “Great to see Federal support for Sydney’s bid to win an internationally significant space science event #COSPAR2020 #auspol.”

The big picture takeaway here is a solid blueprint for private-public partnerships and collaboration across local, state and national levels to align government leadership, destination marketing, business event development, university research, and economic development.

It’s all right there. The rest of the world just needs to copy it.

“Specifically, we’re looking to focus on the connection between the business events industry and the commercialization opportunities derived from those events that will hopefully create a legacy impact in Sydney for years to come,” said Swagell. “And we’ve now got very strong support right up to the Prime Minister’s office to back our bids and advocate for Business Events Sydney.”

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