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An ICC Sydney perspective on SXSW Sydney

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An ICC Sydney perspective on SXSW Sydney
With the first South by Southwest (SXSW) Sydney wrapping up last night, micenet caught up with ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy on Friday in the heart of the festival.

ICC Sydney was the anchor venue for the much-anticipated inaugural SXSW festival in Sydney – starting on Sunday October 15, the event marked the first time a full-scale SXSW had been held outside of its origin city, Austin, Texas, USA.

The convention and exhibition venue in Darling Harbour hosted the lion’s share of the SXSW Conference, some screenings of the SXSW Screen Festival – including the opening night event, the Australian premiere of Saltburn and the world premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Faraway Downs on the closing night – and parts of the SXSW Games Festival, including a major esports tournament in the Aware Super Theatre.

Donaghy believes SXSW Sydney brought a new audience into the centre.

“I think a very big proportion of people haven’t been here before because this event itself has attracted a whole new demographic,” he said.

“There might have been people that have been to concerts, there might have been some people that have been to our tech exhibitions, but I think across the board, the majority of people probably haven’t been through our doors before.”

Even for those who had been to events at ICC Sydney before, he says they rarely see all parts of the venue in one visit, but SXSW was held across conference spaces, exhibition bays and the Aware Super Theatre, where the Intel Extreme Masters esports tournament bumped in for most of the week before running over the weekend.

Donaghy said there was potential for new business to come to the centre through the attendees drawn there by SXSW.

He said the dates for next year’s SXSW Sydney festival are already pencilled into their calendar.

“There’s been every indication that it’ll continue, that the government support for it will continue. We’re certainly hoping that it will continue. It’s worked really well here.”

ICC Sydney still managed to host some other events which overlapped with SXSW’s residency at the centre, with the Mind Body Spirit Festival and the Sydney Property Expo, amongst others sharing the space.

Does Donaghy think that in future years SXSW will totally overtake the venue?

“That could be. It probably won’t be next year but it might be in future years.

“We stress though that a lot of it happens in the other parts of the precinct, the other parts of the [festival] footprint.

“We’re pleased to see all the things that are happening outside…we only want the things happening here that are best happening here.”

With the event having been held annually in Austin since the late 1980s, Donaghy believes organisers got it right for the first SXSW in Sydney and that the city is the perfect host for an event like this.

“They’ve had 36 years to get it right and we believe this event has nailed it and got it right from day one…in Sydney, not just us, but in Sydney – all the other facilities that are [in use] in the city and the inner west and the fact that it’s activating and bringing to life that whole surrounding precinct for us, we think it’s a fantastic thing.

“If you scanned the world to find the best event to showcase creativity, innovation and all of the streams that fall into that, you would have very quickly found South by Southwest. If you scanned the world to find a city where each of those streams is well developed or at least emerging, you would have found Sydney. And then, if you looked for the best venue in that world to anchor all of those streams, also to be part of a broader footprint, you would have come up with ICC Sydney. And that’s exactly what’s happened this week,” said Donaghy.

On Friday, during micenet’s visit, the convention centre was bustling with people attending various conference sessions, from the impact of AI on journalism to the aviation industry going green and a First Nations perspective on digital land rights in the Metaverse. By lunchtime SXSW attendees could be seen scattered right up to Broadway around Central Station, which is part of the festival’s footprint – during SXSW Sydney, events were held at University of Technology Sydney and the Powerhouse Museum, at Central Station and up in Chippendale, as well as in and around ICC Sydney. On Saturday night, acts from the SXSW Music Festival were playing at The Abercrombie, which reopened last year on Broadway, until 5am.

micenet sat in on the Decarbonising flight: The how, when and where of green aviation and EVTOLs session at the SXSW Conference, which delivered the unexpected – looking at a new type of electronic flying machine, an electronic vertical take-off and landing vehicle, could revolutionise travel and even life-or-death medical care in Australia. micenet sees exciting possibilities for the business events industry too. Alongside this, the power of SXSW to spark ideas became apparent.

An ICC Sydney perspective on SXSW Sydney
Budjerah performs during the “Faraway Downs” world premiere hosted by ICC Sydney at SXSW Sydney | Image credit: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney

Back with Donaghy, he said ICC Sydney has had a big year. They hosted the WorldPride Human Rights conference in March – which took home the major conference category at the Australian Event Awards last month – the FIFA Women’s Football Convention in August, as well as being a spill-over venue for live screenings of the Women’s World Cup match broadcasts on their massive open-air Event Deck.

“[In] the meantime we’re also doing our normal but growing inventory of exhibitions and other conferences,” says Donaghy. That includes hosting the FDI World Dental Congress in September, which became the largest dental event ever held in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 10,000 participants.

“We’re an incredibly important piece of economic infrastructure and we believe within five years, maybe even a bit sooner, we’ll be back to creating $1 billion worth of economic contribution,” he said.

“But we’re equally an important piece of social infrastructure. We’ve got a social obligation and a social opportunity to do great things. But we’ve earned the right to do that. We’ve got a social licence…because we’re a very successful business.”  

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