As the last raucous stragglers of the Rugby World Cup leave Sydney a very different tourist crowd is moving in. They’re not staying in posh hotels, they’re cutting their own lunches, and drinking alcohol is strictly out of the question.
From Thursday, the largest-ever congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia will converge at Telstra Stadium for their international convention.
It will be attracting 60,000 delegates, making it the second-largest event to be held in Sydney this year, says Denis Winchester, from the Tourism Industry Council. “It’s the mother of all conventions. The next closest I can think of is a Lions convention in Brisbane for 20,000.”
But the convention’s manager, Howard Cox, is undaunted – though he does admit to being a “little anxious” with the program of testimonials, baptisms for 500 and a costumed bible drama.
“There hasn’t been the facilities for this in the past,” he said. “Here we can handle that number of people.”t
Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped holding global conventions in 1958 – when a quarter of a million turned out in New York – and now stagger them across the world. About 30 conventions on a similar scale have been held this year in 14 countries. More than 5000 delegates are expected from the United States, Japan, South-East Asia and the Pacific.
Jon Hutchison, managing director of Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau, said over the convention he expected delegates to spend $60 million – about $250 a day.
“Their spending is moderate, but that’s a pretty good return,” he said. “Just those 5000 international guests will spend something in the range of $10 million to $12 million.”
He said a total of 17,000 hotel rooms had been booked for the event, with most overseas visitors staying for a total of six days. By comparison, last month’s six-week Rugby World Cup generated $350 million for the city with 80,000 visitors.
More than 3000 volunteers are also working to make sure it goes off without a hitch. There are departments covering every aspect of planning, from finding billets, to broadcasting, first aid and translation, since talks will also take place in Spanish, Italian, Greek and the Australian sign language, Auslan.
Getting participants to the stadium also takes top priority. Four express train services will shuttle between Central and Olympic Park every hour, there are special services from Newcastle, and a fleet of 400 buses has been organised.
But there are some things organisers won’t have to worry about.
“Everyone is bringing their own food each day,” Mr Cox said. “It’s our custom. We prefer not to have commercialism affect our place of worship.”