The partnership behind Sydney's successful business events body

Sunday, 01 March 2020

Dominic Rolfe photo
Dominic Rolfe

    Bruce Baird AM and Lyn Lewis-Smith, chair and CEO of BESydney share their tips for a strong working relationship that helps the region secure major conferences.

    BESydney is a not-for-profit organisation tasked with attracting international gatherings to Sydney. Backed by the NSW government and reported to generate more than $1 billion to the state economy every five years, its strategists work with a worldwide network of industry and academic champions to spruik the city’s benefits.

    When the company started out 50 years ago, conferences were often maligned as little more than junkets for international executives. Today, global meetings are big business, with hosting rights hotly contested by BESydney* and their big-city peers for a prize haul of increased local capability, foreign investment, trade deals, enhanced reputation, talent attraction and long-term social change.

    Lyn Lewis-Smith GAICD

    We submit more than 100 bids a year and win around 70 per cent. In 2014, we set out to win Sibos 2018, the biggest financial services event in the world. It was the most competitive bid I’d ever been involved in and we were up against Melbourne, Singapore and Hong Kong. I’ll never forget sitting with the bid project team when we received the call from Belgium to say: “The winner is Sydney.” The screams in the room were incredible and the morale boost lasted for months afterwards.

    The process of bidding for and winning large events is like bidding to win hosting rights for the Olympic Games — the global networking, high stakes, strategy and investment — you put your heart and soul into it. Sibos ended up growing the NSW economy by $67m in direct expenditure, with an additional payoff in trade deals progressed by the Australian businesses exhibiting to the value of hundreds of millions of dollars, new business collaborations seeded and global connections forged.

    I became CEO in 2012, but was previously COO, GM of marketing and director of sales. The business has changed and grown so much since then. Our team has expanded globally as more competitor cities line up against us. To keep Sydney competitive, we’ve had to secure more financial and in-kind support from government and industry stakeholders.

    For a long time, people only recognised BESydney’s work for the expenditure we generate for the visitor economy. In fact, the outcomes of hosting a global meeting are so much broader across the economy and society as a whole. Every meeting we have is aligned to solving a global issue or playing to a NSW industry or academic strength. Hosting the 2006 International Congress on Obesity in Sydney concentrated thinking on this world challenge, and helped spark the idea for the Charles Perkins Centre, which opened six years later at the University of Sydney — a world-leading centre dedicated to easing the burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

    Governance directive

    Because we’re looking ahead with five- and 10-year horizons, obviously, our directors need skills in risk assessment, but an entrepreneurial mindset and a mix of industry experience is also vital. And being a future-focused organisation, innovation and digital literacy is a must. Ensuring diversity of thought along with robust board discussions relies on a chair to facilitate that. In meetings, we work together to ensure the limited time we have is focused on strategic priorities.

    In 2008, as part of getting different views around the table, we changed the constitution to bring in independent directors and chair. It has helped transform this organisation.

    With my director hat on, I believe observing the board’s dynamics goes to the heart of good governance — and getting across the strategic issues and challenges quickly, doing the homework before the meetings. Although we work in a hard-fought commercial market, being a NFP means you must balance a lower-risk appetite with the need to operate at a commercial level of risk to secure business.

    I’ve got a great relationship with Bruce, built on trust and transparency. We speak often, attend events together and he’s a great sounding board on strategy and political matters. We take the business very seriously, but also laugh a lot. We really enjoy what we’re doing, and it’s even better knowing we’re making a difference.

    The process of bidding for and winning large events is like bidding to win hosting rights for the Olympic Games.

    Lyn Lewis-Smith GAICD

    Bruce Baird AM

    While the single purpose of BESydney is bidding to secure international business events for Sydney and New South Wales — and increasing economic outcomes in terms of visitor numbers — it’s more than just attracting the event. It’s about the lasting impact conferences can have.

    Every city is vying for top-end global talent — and we know the capital follows. We’re now looking at how to create long-lasting spin-offs from bringing a host of the world’s best infrastructure, medical or technology people to Sydney. It showcases the city and the state to some of the world’s best talent, and hopefully gets them thinking about living and working here. Our University of Technology Sydney research, an initiative Lyn drove with the backing of the board demonstrated that global meetings attract large organisations and large investors.

    I’ve been chair of BESydney since 2017. I was previously chair of the Tourism and Transport Forum, National Rail Corporation, federal parliament’s trade committee and the House Standing Committee on Economics. At a broad level, the essence of good governance comes down to ensuring all the directors have a clear understanding of their role on the board, that their primary responsibility is to the organisation.

    The number-one characteristic directors must have is integrity. They also need to be collaborative with an ability to think laterally and creatively, instead of just saying, “Tick this.” It’s about being prepared to question what you’re doing, what you should be doing and asking if there’s another way.

    I’m more partial to having flexibility in my meetings to encourage a free flow of ideas from all around the table — otherwise you risk killing off innovation.

    As chair, I’ve naturally become close to the organisation and got to know its strengths and challenges. We’ve spent time fine-tuning the strategy process, giving the team the space to be bold in weighing the trade-off between quantity of events through the door and long-term strategic gains. The other challenge is to say: “How can we get even more out of this for the city and Australia?”

    This is where Lyn has developed such impressive models and ways of working, so we’re right up there among the top cities worldwide in terms of the conferences and incentives we attract. She developed the idea of having an ambassador program — key people from across the spectrum who work with us, opening up their international networks, making connections, identifying meetings, introducing Australian subject matter experts and leading organisations to bid with us.

    My professional relationship with Lyn comes down to a real human connection. We’ve become friends as well as working associates. It’s so critical to have that connection because you understand the issues that drive them, the frustrations, the challenges and their interests outside work. It’s a complementary relationship where each of our strengths are able to thrive.

    * BESydney is an advertiser in Company Director magazine.

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