Sunday 17 June 2007

Lofty aims for €380m Centre

The long-awaited Dublin Convention Centre will be officially launched this week, with high hopes of making a major impact on business tourism, writes Ian Kehoe.

This Tuesday, several hundred members of Ireland’s political, business and academic classes will gather in the state apartments in Dublin Castle for the official launch of the National Conference Centre.

The highlight of the event will be a presentation by the centre’s management team, detailing all aspects of the €380 million project - from construction deadlines right through to the rationale behind the centre’s new abstract corporate logo.

The first thing on the agenda, however, will be informing the assembled masses that the National Conference Centre will no longer be known by that name. From Tuesday onwards, the facility in Spencer Dock in Dublin will be known as the Convention Centre, Dublin.

‘‘As of Tuesday, we are basically open for business,” said Dermod Dwyer, executive chairman of the Spencer Dock Convention Centre, Dublin, the Treasury Holdings-led consortium that was awarded the state contract to build and manage the facility.

The audience, which will include Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, will also be told the official opening date for the new facility - September 1, 2010. Preliminary building and excavation work has already started on the site at Spencer Dock in the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC), on the north side of the River Liffey.

‘‘At the moment, the tower cranes are on the site, the basement slab has been poured, and the piling has been done. The building is starting to come out of the ground,” said Dwyer. ‘‘It has been a long time coming, but we are happy to finally get the show on the road.”

Within hours of finishing the Dublin launch, the centre’s management will move on to London for further meetings. Up to 85 per cent of the centre’s business will come from international conferences, and the management team are making a particular effort to court the British market.

‘‘Tuesday will be about launching our new brand and our new name,” said Dwyer, a Harvard-educated veteran of the tourism industry.

‘‘Up to now, it has been known as the National Conference Centre, but the word ‘conference’ is very limiting and the word ‘national’ is very limiting. The Convention Centre, Dublin is a strong statement; it does what it says on the tin.”

The renaming exercise will also allow the project to offload some negative associations from the past. The centre has been on the radar of successive governments for more than 15 years, but plans have been hit by numerous delays, disputes and controversies.

When the original tender document for the development of the centre was first issued in November 2003, it stated the project would be ready by the start of 2008. But the date was subsequently changed and the actual tender document was altered on 66 separate occasions before the contract was awarded earlier this year.

The Spencer Dock consortium finally signed formal contracts with the state in April, after beating rival bidder, Anna Livia, a consortium backed by Bennett Construction.

A third potential bidder, led by the Michael McNamara Group, withdrew from the process in 2005.

The Spencer Dock consortium includes Treasury Holdings owners Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, and businessman Harry Crosbie, who owns the Point Theatre venue in Dublin. CIE, the state rail agency, is also a partner in the project.

In addition to building the centre, the consortium also won the contract to maintain and operate it for 25 years, after which it will return to state control. Over that 25 years, the state will pay the consortium a total of €380million.

When finished, the centre will have the capacity for 8,000 conference delegates. Its focal point will be the Auditorium, a 2,000-seater venue with a 400 square metre stage. There will also be two so-called ‘‘flat floor’’ spaces, which can be used for exhibitions, conventions, and banqueting.

The larger of the two, which will be called the Forum, is 2,700 square metres in size and can fit approximately 2,000 people for one dinner sitting.

At 1,700 square metres, the Liffey Room is slightly smaller, but can still hold a banquet for 1,500 people.

In total, there will be 25 different rooms and meeting places in the 46,500 square metre, five-storey premises.

The centre will also include a 250-bedroom hotel. ‘‘We already have our first contracted event, which is the British Orthopaedic Convention in 2011,” said Nick Waight, the new chief executive of the centre.

‘‘There are 15 other smaller events booked onto our diary as well. This is even before we have started to market the product. There is a huge demand out there for conferences to come across to Ireland.”

Although the chief executive title is relatively new, Waight has been involved with the Spencer Dock project since 1998.He has worked with the NEC Group in Britain for more than a decade, and is also chief executive of the International Conference Centre (ICC) in Birmingham.

According to Waight, no conflict of interest arises over his new job in Dublin and the retention of his role as chief executive of the ICC. If anything, he said, it will create greater synergies. ‘‘They are actually two distinctly different markets,” he said.

‘‘Birmingham deals with an awful lot of national conventions - up to 85per cent are national. Dublin will be the reverse of that, as we will be going after international business,” he said.

As part of that process, Waight and his team are conducting a detailed study of the international conference sector, which involves identifying which conferences will be up for grabs over the coming five-to-seven years and preparing detailed pitches in an effort to secure them.

While the ICC in Birmingham hosts more than 500 events annually, Waight said he expected the Dublin centre to stage about 200 events each year. The majority of those will be events with between 1,500 and 3,500 delegates.

‘‘We can cater for up to 8,000, but there are not that many 8,000-people conferences you can actually get. We will specifically target markets such as the medical, IT, finance, and legal markets - those type of high-profile events. Those people have more disposable income and will have a better effect on the overall Irish economy,” he said.

Ensuring the centre lures a significant number of conferences and conventions to Dublin is crucial for both Waight and Dwyer. Under the terms of the Public Private Partnership (PPP), the government can penalise the Spencer Dock consortium if it does not attract 30,000 international conference delegates to Ireland each year.

‘‘30,000 is a tough target but it is achievable,” said Waight. ‘‘It is not going to happen overnight and it is something that we have to work up to. We are not daunted by it.”

If this figure is not achieved, the government can withhold certain portions of its €360 million payment. The consortium will also be obliged to absorb any losses the centre makes, but if it is successful, the consortium gets to keep all the profits.

One potential problem has surfaced in the past 18months. A number of Dublin’s top hotels - including the Burlington, the Berkeley Court, the Montrose, and Jurys Ballsbridge - have been acquired by property developers and are set to close their doors in the near future.

As such, the number of hotel rooms available for potential conference delegates is falling quickly. ‘‘Obviously it is a concern and there is no point denying that ,” said Dwyer.

However, he said a number of new hotels were due to open, including a 200-bedroomhotel at the redeveloped Point Theatre, and a 250-bedroom hotel across the road from the centre on Grand Canal Dock.

In addition, the consortium will build a five-star hotel with 250 bedrooms as part of the convention centre. Dwyer said the group was in talks with a number of international hotel operators, one of which would ultimately be chosen to manage it.

Between the conference centre and the hotel, the project will create 250 new full-time jobs, 300 part-time posts and indirectly support an additional 2,000 jobs. The aim, according to Dwyer, is to ensure at least 20 per cent of the workforce come from the docklands area.

‘‘If we can, we will hire more than that,” he said. ‘‘This is where Ireland puts its best foot forward to greet the world.”

Sunday Business Post

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