September 15, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

ICC Sydney will be able to host 5,960 fully vaccinated people in its Aware Super Theatre and 1,852 in its Darling Harbour Theatre under the public health orders governing the reopening of NSW once the state reaches the milestone of having 70 percent of the over-16 population fully vaccinated in October.

Sydney’s major convention and exhibition venue will be guided by rules applied to hospitality and entertainment venues, which will allow the centre to operate at 75 percent of fixed seating capacity in its theatres and one person per four square metres in other indoor spaces.

“There was a little bit of confusion in the industry when the roadmap was first announced that business events wasn’t specifically and explicitly mentioned,” says ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy.

“We had an advantage that we’d operated under the conditions that had been alluded to previously and quite successfully.”

Donaghy says he hoped the official announcement of ICC Sydney’s intention and permission to reopen for in-person events, made yesterday, would reassure those who were unclear whether business events would be allowed to restart.

As Donaghy puts it, the venue is now “getting ready for [reopening at] 70 percent [full vaccination], very strong eye on 80 percent and conversations around that and then examining to the greatest extent possible if there are any…steps that we can take advantage of in the interim…on the pathway between 70 and 80”.

He says ICC Sydney has been running encouragement programs amongst its staff for many weeks to promote vaccination.

“We created fun sections on our internal intranet – a combination of fun but also pointing out the serious nature of vaccination being part of the future.”

A survey of the ICC Sydney team – both permanent and casual staff – showed that of those who responded, 94 percent were either already fully vaccinated, had had one dose or were booked in to be vaccinated. Over 90 percent of permanent staff responded to the survey in addition to around half of the casuals on the books.

“We’ll have ample staff to be able to run events to…the government requirements – and we’re waiting and expecting to see before too long that the Government requirements for vaccination in businesses will be stipulated in a health order – we’re very comfortable from the conversations we’ve been having in the last 48 hours that that will come.

“Notwithstanding that…we would think that most, if not just about all, of our clients would demand that as well.”

Donaghy says they hadn’t yet determined what to do with the small number of staff that may choose to remain unvaccinated. He also says that while everyone has the choice over whether or not to be vaccinated, businesses also have choices to make.

“The use of the word mandated causes a little bit of confusion, in that people aren’t being mandated to have a vaccination – they’re just being mandated if they want to undertake certain activities, they have to be vaccinated.

“There’s a subtle difference. If someone chooses not to be vaccinated that’s fine, that’s their choice, but the businesses that are getting back in business, whether it’s our sector, whether it’s the lifestyle sector, whether it’s sport and major concerts…it’s their choice – our choice – and our clients’ choice only to have vaccinated people running those events.

“If someone says to us, ‘we choose not to be vaccinated’, I said, ‘well that’s fine, what side of the road do you choose to drive on?’ It’s the rules that society has made for the best interests of the majority of people and that’s what society is about, that’s what communities, that’s what Governments are about.”

ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy

Donaghy says the venue will be following the requirements set out by the state government “precisely and exactly”.

“The position we’ve taken through all of this, just as we follow, deliver and adhere to health regulation requirements and never anything less than that, we also don’t do anything more than that, at this stage, because we don’t know where to stop then, we don’t know what issues that might bring about, so we follow the requirements precisely and exactly.”

He also pointed to research by event powerhouse Freeman in the USA, which found that due to high vaccination rates of participants, their general willingness to abide by health measures, and the controlled nature of events, infection rates at events were up to eight times lower than in the wider population in the region where events were being held.

Donaghy says that even if there were attendees at business events who were asymptomatic but infectious when the venue reopened, statistical evidence showed the risks to others at the event would be significantly lower due to the requirement for everyone to be vaccinated.

“It might be that things will happen at business events, but they will happen in a far less intrusive and statistically impactful way than they would have by everyone being vaccinated. That’s the Government’s position and that’s going to be the conditions on which the community starts to operate again.”

Having maintained close and regular contact with clients throughout the shutdown of in-person events in Sydney, Donaghy says the venue team is now beginning to approach organisers of the events scheduled for the rest of this calendar year.

“The first priority is the 90 events we’ve got on the books this year to see how many of those we can get back but we also envisage that once that happens, there will be other events that appear that just haven’t made the decision, haven’t nominated themselves into our pipeline, but will realise that now they can get back and do events face to face.

“We’ll be reassuring clients of the fact that we’ve got as safe a possible environment as we can possibly offer for them to start coming back…towards the end of October.”

He says they’ve also got their eye on business further ahead.

“It’s not just about the next three or four months, it’s about the next three or four years for our business, and that’s probably one of the differences we have from the other industries that are being brought back, is that we have to maintain a very close focus on next year’s business and even further out – two or three years’ time for that international business that ultimately will be able to come back.

“We want as many of those in the pipeline and still connected to us and us to them as we possibly can.

“So it’s about creating the momentum of confidence but keeping it rolling over into next year and beyond as well.

“Ultimately, we won’t be operating at full capacity and full potential until we can start getting international events back.”

He believes there “might be some element of selective and controlled attendance in the second half of next year” for international events.

“It’ll take some time afterwards to build up full momentum and potential.”

For now though, facing a near-term reopening of the venue for local in-person events, he’s feeling “excitement and satisfaction, tempered by the fact that it’s putting one foot on the ladder to recovery. Quite a bit of climbing to go yet”.