Sydney for incentives – SITE’s international board gives the “incentive-ready” thumbs up!

Following a week in the Australian city, I arrived very early at Sydney International Airport and easily found my flight to Abu Dhabi already on the LED screen – for 6 hours hence! It struck me how that would never happen in London or Dubai or Singapore. There the minutes would accumulate, and you’d stand in gnawing frustration watching display screens uploading pages and pages of data, never seeming to arrive at your flight. 

But, of course, Sydney is NOT a first-tier global hub like London or Dubai or Singapore. There’s simply not enough international traffic going in and out of the city. It’s one of those off-line, stand-alone cities, too physically, geographically far from London or Paris or New York for there to be much by way of direct connectivity.

And while news is instantaneous in our digital age, the 9-hour time difference means it gets to Sydney either a day early or a day late, leaving the city to march to the beat of its own drum and live a kind of splendid isolation from the rest of the planet. Sydney is a final point of arrival, a place you intentionally decide to go to.

For SITE’s international board of directors (IBOD) from San Francisco, New Delhi, Toronto, Chicago, Sao Paolo, Dublin, Cairo, Calgary, London and Cannes it was a hike and a half to get there. Only one director, Marissa Fernandez, a local, wasn’t constantly jetlagged, murdering the chocolate room drops at 3am and dozing off mid-meeting when budgets were discussed.

There’s a certain physical discomfort when you venture by air half-way across the world. However, having been expertly led into the DNA of this magnificent city by an impressive consortium of SITE Australia New Zealand, Business Events Australia and a raft of locals, there isn’t a person amongst us who wouldn’t run to do it again, and again, and again …

My flight touched down late afternoon permitting me to attend a wonderful “get to know each other” event hosted at the Zephyr Rooftop Bar by Gavin and his wonderful team of the Hyatt Regency Sydney, a truly gracious home to us for the duration of the IBOD meeting. With eye-watering views of Darling Harbour, the ICC Sydney and its supporting hotel properties (there’s a bunch of ACCOR hotels and a brand new W, currently the biggest W by guest room count in the world), we started our Sydney sojourn with a real sense of place.

The sure antidote to jetlag is to rise early and run and so it came to pass. We were taken to Mrs Macquarie's Chair and watched a spectacular Sydney sunrise as we tackled the 5km coastal path back to the hotel via Barangaroo, a new 15-acre urban development with nature reserve in Sydney Harbour. 

A day of intense meeting and planning was followed by a discovery experience at the storied Sydney Opera House. We were given an insider’s briefing of a fascinating, intriguing historical narrative that involved huge technical challenges, massive budget over-runs, all sorts of nefarious political meddling and finally the humiliation, and eventual redemption, of Jørn Utzon, the Danish creative genius who, somewhat improbably, won the architectural competition to design the building.


Jumping aboard a water taxi, we made our way around the harbour to REVY, a beautifully restored early 20th century heritage building on the harbourfront and now one of the intimate event spaces at Doltone House, Jones Bay Wharf. The Doltone House team received us with a truly impactful First Nations’ welcome courtesy of Aunty Margret Campbell, an educator and lifelong campaigner for aboriginal rights. 

Aunty Margret’s welcome was the precursor to a fascinating culinary immersion in indigenous ingredients prepared by Mark Olive, the award winning First Nation’s chef and a most entertaining and engaging dinner conversation with Cate Banfield, Marcella Zuniga and the debonair Robin Mack from Tourism Australia. The impressive evolution and expansion of the Doltone House venue collection was also presented to us. 

As the next day dawned, I joined a flotilla of early morning locals for a 5km run up and down the multifarious wharfs, piers and marinas that form Sydney Harbour. Sydney, a bit like Vancouver and Auckland, is all about the outdoors, surrounded by maritime urbanity, concrete, glass and steel on one side, rolling seas on the other. 

Following another day of intense meetings, we were transported to the Rocks area to undertake the Harbour Bridge Climb, a veritable bucket list experience that, in fairness, had some of us quaking in our boots – me included, although I wasn’t ever going to admit it! It’s a three-hour experience, all told, involving about an hour’s preparation during which you don the special overalls, harnesses, and miscellaneous equipment. No mobile phones, cameras, bracelets or other protuberances are allowed and, in case you’ve concealed something in a bodily orifice, you take a kind of lie detector by passing through a metal screening machine! 

We set off with Jake our guide who had a routine of hilarious one-liners, all delivered with the perfect timing of a skilled comedian (like, for instance, the metal riveters who had “a truly riveting time”). He expertly memorised all our names – including the difficult ones like Pádraic – kept us entertained and safe, and took wonderful pictures of us as we scaled the dizzy heights to the twin flags at the apex of the bridge. Orget Sadiku and his saxphone awaited us there with random renditions of Italian tarantelle, gifting us the satisfaction of being able to say we had sax atop the harbour bridge. Boom, boom! 

Thanks to our gracious partner Colette Baini, we also had sax on a super yacht later that evening with the same Orget, this time accompanied by a high octane DJ. Departing from the wharf adjacent to our hotel, we anchored in the harbour somewhere between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, enveloped by VIVID, a drone and light show that attracts visitors to Sydney during winter. Orget was quick to spot the singing talent in our midst and we soon discovered the mellifluous tones of Dallas Lyons III and current SITE President, Karim el Minabawy.

Could there be more? Well, yes! An engaging morning of education at the delectable Campbell’s Stores with around 80 of the business events community of Sydney led to more time on the harbour as we undertook a wonderful team building exercise with Aaron from Sydney by Sail. One thing is certain: pit SITE IBOD members against each other, and you’ll have a hard-fought contest! Thankfully there was no sabotage and all vessels returned safely to harbour!

And competition defined the final evening too as the truly amazing team at the Hyatt Regency came up with another creative way of engaging and entertaining us. A seating plan ensured the perfect mix of IBOD and locals at each table, and then Chef Sven – a German chef with the heart of a lunatic Irishman – assigned roles to each of us, giving us each responsibilities in terms of food choice, service and presentation. We enjoyed a wonderfully informal, interactive evening of great food including some wonderful oysters, spectacular rack of lamb and a truly memorable Pinot Noir from the Hunter Valley.

So, yes, it’s a long flight. And yes, there’s a time difference but does Sydney deliver something truly and unique incentive? You bet it does. In spades! 

Written by

Pádraic Gilligan

Pádraic Gilligan


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