A lot of pain for very little gain, says meetings industry veteran
by Nate Cochran
It won’t be completed for five years, but already NSW’s shuttering of its premier Sydney convention precinct for a revamp has been labelled as half the size it needs to be and lacking vision to meet the state’s needs in 20 years.
And in closing the Darling Harbour exhibition centre for three years while it was rebuilt, Roslyn McLeod, managing director of professional conference organiser Arinex, said the plan for 40,000 square meters in the proposed redevelopment due in 2016 was already well under what the industry needed. The current space is 27,000 sqm.
She adds her voice to Philip Cox, the Sulman Medal-winning architect of the exhibition centre who likened the tear down to “horrendous vandalism”. SMH 18th April 2012
McLeod said the shutdown of Australia’s major conference and convention precinct would cost jobs; she will let about a quarter of her 117 staff go during the transition. And the professional with 42 years experience said “there was not a real thought” for the future “25-year plan in conferences”.
“If we build this site with 40,000 sqm of space, that part of the building will be at capacity by 2019 – it doesn’t make sense to put us out of business for three years only to be in same position in 2019,” McLeod said, likening the decision to the 1989-‘90 Bicentennial hangover that put the industry into recession.
She advocated a modular approach to building the precinct, bringing capacity on tap in stages.
“I’m not prescribing how they (the development consortium and NSW Government) do it – that’s not my area of expertise – but by at least 2025 if not earlier it needs to be 60,000 sqm and by 2030 it needs to be 80,000 sqm.
“If they built an 80,000 sqm centre they would find ways to use it.”
She said her thoughts were informed by conference organisers who were already turning aside business too big to be accommodated in the consortiums’ redevelopment plans.
“Many of the shows want more space but there’s no more space to be had.”
She said complex conferences might attract more than 6000 visitors but not all in the one room at the same time because often related congresses ran in parallel, requiring individually smaller meeting areas, but many more of them. At the other end of the scale, auditoriums such as the Entertainment Centre were needed to accommodate more than 6000 for plenaries, she said.
“The challenge here is the lack of vision – I’m not a town planner so I expect the State Government to develop the infrastructure and all the composite needs that exist.
“I’m meeting this resistance from everyone that’s it’s a confined space and you can’t do it and (but) in industry there’s solutions for everything and things need to be approached differently and that probably means Government cooperation in looking beyond current limitations – what are they and how to lift them and how much will it cost?
“Nothing is impossible, it just costs more.”
And she criticised the lack of accommodation options for the area, noting that successful venues overseas had integrated hotels of varying levels of quality up to and beyond five stars. “You really need at least 750 rooms, four-star and five-star – we’re missing out on high yield, high-end meetings.”
Speaking at an earlier information session for the industry, Infrastructure NSW project manager for the redevelopment Tim Parker conceded issues such as an integrated transport plan for the state including movements at Sydney airport, which is at capacity, and public transport were outside his remit. That was despite plans to greatly increase the number of movements in and around the new development and Tourism Australia’s plan to double income to nearly $16 billion a year around the time the precinct reopens for business.
The State Government is attempting to scuttle a decision to build a second Sydney airport, preferring to develop houses at Badgery’s Creek, the site long held to be the preferred location for a second air gateway to the city.
Parker defended the current transport arrangements to the convention precinct including the decision to replace the monorail with light rail.
“There’s a misnomer about Darling Harbour – it’s six minutes from Town Hall,” Parker said. “Acquisition of light rail is very important so Government can control services.”
But he acknowledged that although Darling Harbour was close to the public transport spine that ran through the CBD it wasn’t always obvious to visitors how to make their way.
“One of the problems with Darling Harbour is everyone knows where it is but it’s hard to get to – come out of the train station and then where do you go?”
And although a business case was written for the project, he was coy on whether it would be released to the public.
He said Sydney was experiencing a steady decline in meetings business and only a complete redevelopment would arrest it, he said. An option to spend six years redeveloping the site in stages was rejected for a big bang approach that he said would deliver it in half the time.
“The original strategy was a staged development,” Parker said. “We saw that would take us to 2019 and we looked at what that would do to the industry if people came to a site that was half demolished and the view from the industry was (not supportive).”
He said there were “substantial penalties” if the consortium partners failed to deliver on time.
50 alternatives to Darling Harbour
Business Events Sydney chief executive officer Lyn Lewis-Smith told delegates to the Meetings and Events Association conference held at the soon-to-be-demolished Sydney Convention Centre that an audit found 50 sites in the “greater Sydney area” able to handle more than 800 people.
“There are plenty of venues here and in NSW and the clients are very loyal to Sydney and obviously they are very loyal to Darling Harbour however we want to work with other states” to relocate events for the benefit of the broader Australian Business Events industry, she said.
For those conferences that exceeded Sydney’s alternative venues, the Bureau would seek to relocate conferences interstate, she said.
But with the nation’s biggest conference organiser, CeBIT threatening to pull out of Australia and reinvigoration of conference venues in Melbourne and Brisbane, some NSW events professionals were worried the business may not come back to the state.
“The critical thing about this development for Australia is it will give the Federal Government a single view of strategic events as part of broader economic strategy – I’m hoping business events can stand out on its own,” Lewis-Smith said.
The alternative locations identified by Business Events Sydney in the “greater Sydney region” include
- Olympic Park
- Moore Park
- Sydney hotels
- Australian Technology Park, Redfern
Timeline: Rebuilding Sydney’s convention centre
April 2012 – RFP released
Mid 2012 – Timetable completion for finalisation of alternate arrangements
Aug 2012 – Submission of bids
Dec 2012 – Preferred bidder announced
H1 2013 – Planning approval process
Mid 2013 – Preparation of alternate facilities
Nov 2013 – Closure of existing Darling Harbour facilities
Dec 2013 – Work begins
2016 – New Convention and exhibition precinct reopens