Warm Welcome

Adelaide Convention Centre

The nature of the conference and exhibition business means that Alec Gilbert and his staff are busy selling a property that doesn’t even exist. By 2014, South Australia’s capital Adelaide will have a shiny new convention centre facility next to the existing centre; the original building – the first purpose built convention centre in Australia – will then be demolished and rebuilt to present a much larger overall capacity by 2017. This – because large-scale events are often organised several years in advance – is what the marketing team for Adelaide Convention Centre is promoting already, despite having little more to show event organisers than a set of drawings and artists’ impressions.

“We are carrying on our usual business and at the same time building a new centre right alongside it,” explains Alec, who is chief executive of the centre and who has previous experience of a similar situation – he was in charge of a similar expansion of the ICC in South Africa’s Durban. He arrived in Adelaide in 2006 with a brief to start planning for the future following the business’s successful first two decades and with the goal of “creating more space and more flexible space.”

So the two-stage expansion and modernisation programme will be managed to avoid any shutdown of the facilities. “This is quite different from the scenario in Sydney where you close everything down for a period of three or four years.” Adelaide had no such option, Alec acknowledges, being a smaller venue and needing to maintain its market share. “So we have been managing the situation very carefully with the contractors involved and it has been working remarkably well.”

Clients who booked the existing centre have not been disturbed, nor have they complained, as the design means building alongside the existing facility. Alec suggests the only real impact will have been felt by the railway which runs underneath the centre, two tracks of which have had to be closed when piling, for example, is being carried out. He is happy to reassure everyone likely to use the facilities before completion of phase two in 2017 that they will not even notice the work in progress.

Alec believes that, “Adelaide is a good place to hold a conference,” and cites its convenience as a selling point. “From the moment you arrive at the airport,” the facility is accessible. He credits the state government with the foresight to establish the centre in 1987 as “the first purpose-built convention centre in Australia.” It was built to fulfil a charter ‘to generate economic benefits for South Australia’ by attracting a high yield tourism sector to the state. “Its brief is to stimulate economic development and operate on a viable basis, and that is how we have operated throughout. Any profit we make is handed back to government.”

Helping local businesses to turn a profit and filling hotel rooms is all very well, but not everyone likes their town overrun by badge-wearing strangers. Adelaide is a welcoming place, says Alec, and there’s a palpable buzz when bars and restaurants, as well as sidewalks, fill up with visitors. But beyond that, what’s in it for the community?

“That has been a specific strategy of mine, to ensure we become much more of a community facility rather than just somewhere that delegates come to, because there were a lot of people in Adelaide who didn’t know where the centre was and I think we have changed that quite a lot.” A good CSR presence was established and the facilities now present many more community-based events. Alec says the Centre was among the first to find effective ways of recycling food for the needy – with more than 50,000 meals donated over the last few years.

The centre achieved one particular milestone, that of making a billion dollars of economic impact, last year; is the sponsor of local events such as the Santa Fun Run; and has developed its own event, the Cellar Door Wine Festival, during the inevitably slack period following the New Year (and during the Adelaide Festival when hotel accommodation is at a premium), that is “community oriented and strategic in terms of the government’s priority to promote the wine industry,” explains Alec. As an alternative to touring the wine regions of the Adelaide Hills and being able to taste just one or two vintages before heading back, visitors to the festival have all the wine regions and wineries brought to them in the convention centre. Visitors get a ‘passport’ to the different regions and can take notes and compare wines at leisure or attend lectures.

Alec believes the two-stage expansion, with its enhanced and bigger facilities, will have a further beneficial effect on local people. “We are now holding a number of school-related events here so youngsters are becoming familiar with the venue and that can only be good for the longer term.” Will it not seem overwhelmingly big and intimidating? Adelaide is not as big as Melbourne or Sydney and hasn’t the funding or infrastructure to compete for some of the very biggest events, but, “if you have an event of a thousand people, you own the centre and you virtually own the city.” The average attendance for a large event is around the 800 delegate mark, on the global norm, but the city has been missing out on the really large events.

The expanded facility is aimed to be able to host bigger conventions or more concurrent events, with “each client feeling that they specifically own ‘their’ building.” Nothing is worse for a conference organiser – or delegate – than to have the feeling of being in a small corner of a massive facility with a dozen other events going on around the same point and time, and Alec is confident the new facilities will not suffer this drawback. “It was a specific part of the brief that each building, although they are all linked together, should be able to operate individually.”

The city’s overall infrastructure is well equipped to cope with the increase in business, according to Alec. Access by air has been much improved with services of Emirates as well as more flights from Singapore and other Asian cities, “so it is starting to look a lot better.” Hotel rooms are not quite so plentiful. “As a convention centre operator I desperately want more hotels,” says Alec. The expansion plan has already prompted the commencement of two new hotel projects, “but another big-branded hotel in the city would undoubtedly be good.”

Alec regards 2014 as a milestone year for Adelaide: the SA Health & Medical Research Institute will open next door to the convention centre – “a fantastic resource for us in terms of attracting medical-related events” – the Adelaide Oval will open, a new bridge connecting it with the city, the hospital is well underway and plans for the development of the casino appear to be progressing well. The convention centre is designed to capitalise on its riverside location. “The state government is attaching great importance to the “vibrant City” concept and the development of the Riverbank Precinct is going to have a massive impact on the City and State and our ability to bring events to the region. It’s a very exciting time.”

It’s a competitive business, of course, with Adelaide’s revenue split roughly 60-40 in favour of domestic arrivals. “We want to get a larger proportion of international business, and we are addressing this, but it’s a long term process. The measures we have put in place will take a couple of years but certainly the new buildings will help our case.” Asia (notably Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) is the big competitor, well organised in bidding and “it’s sometimes difficult for South Australia to compete in that arena.” Domestically, the national association market is the industry’s bread and butter – the annual events that tend to move around Australia on a rotational basis to ensure they reach all their members in turn, although Alec says, “I think associations are starting to be less cyclical in their approach,” and are taking greater note of value for money in different locations.

He says there is a trend in certain areas to place incentives to get the business. “It’s become a bit like bidding for the Olympic Games these days. We all know it’s happening, but it might force governments and convention centres to look at their business model.” There are destinations that are happy to put large sums into subsidising targeted events as “specific, carefully selected conventions are seen as a very important tool in promoting their economic development strategies.” Conventions centred on key industry sectors focus the attention of world leaders in those fields on the potential of the host destination.

Is Alec at all worried for the future of conventions – especially with forecasts of cutbacks in travel or greater online activity? Alec mused, “It’s quite ironic really. Whenever there is a crisis, including the GFC, the immediate response is to hold a conference to debate the issue at hand. Once we knew that we had approval for our expansion plans, we took the initiative of co-sponsoring and participating in a global study about the future of the convention industry. “It’s interesting. The study demonstrated very clearly that the industry is here to stay.”

Electronic communication, he says, is likely to enhance meetings rather than replace them. “I am very bullish about it – but the emphasis of meetings is changing. At the end of the day, people want to meet and network with their peers and colleagues, and I think the convention centre of the future is about facilitating this whilst at the same time allowing delegates to remain in touch with their business through readily available technology, rather than the “sit and listen” approach of the traditional conference. If we get that right, it won’t be an issue.”

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December 16, 2018, 3:52 PM AEDT