Bob O’Keefe AM, General Manager of Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre (BCEC), tells CMW about his illustrious career.
How did you first come into the meetings industry?
After graduating in economics from the University of Sydney and qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, I was working with an investment company which specialised in purchasing under-performing businesses and transforming them to be sold at a higher price.
Several years on, after making an offer to buy another business, that business made a counter offer and the company I worked for was sold. I sought something different and the recently opened Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre was looking for a Finance Director.
It was a great time to join and to meet the key players in the industry.
Who was an early mentor and what important lessons would you pass on to today’s young industry professionals?
I have been fortunate to have had a number of mentors. One was the MD of the very first company I worked for and one of the things he taught me was to strategically leave a pause in conversation and let other people fill in the gaps.
Moving to Brisbane, initially the Chairman of South Bank Corporation, Ron Paul was a great mentor. He was a very tough but fair businessman and a particularly strong negotiator.
Harvey Lister and Rod Pilbeam from ASM Global, Manager of the BCEC, who I have been fortunate to work with for the last 25 years. Always ahead of the game on strategy and innovation, Harvey and Rod are happy to put their trust in a management team and are always available to offer support.
My advice to people starting out in this industry is to find yourself a good mentor. Also take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from everyone you work with. Having sound financial knowledge is important as it lets you ask the right questions.
What was an early career challenge?
Moving to Brisbane and opening the Centre. We were a team of only five, all having moved from Sydney at the same time. We were dealing with builders, architects and government owners who had hundreds of staff and, as the project was a design and construction, everything had to be signed off by us before it could be built.
We kept focused and made sure that we worked hard to get all the important inclusions into the project.
You are one of Australia’s longest serving convention centre GMs. It is a centre that has won the world’s best convention centre in the AIPC APEX Awards 2016–2018 – how would you define your management style?
I am very lucky to work in an industry I love. I recall in the early days a consultant who was working with us said ‘life is very lonely at the top’ and I thought at that stage that it was not going to be much fun. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I found that by employing the right people and putting my faith in them, we were able to create a great team and culture.
What major changes have you seen in the international venue market in recent years?
We focus heavily on attracting international association conferences, and we can definitely see the changes in how these organisations adapt and change in line with the global economic outlook. As they work harder to be more relevant to their members and to thrive, we have seen a shift in how they want to work and do business with us – more and more they are looking for a partnership approach.
We are also seeing a big shift back to where the environment and sustainability are key factors in how associations choose their venues and cities. We will see this becoming more pointed in the next few years. Cities and venues without a strong sustainability baseline will start to be left out of the short and long lists.
At a building level I think many venues are thinking more about what it ‘feels’ like to experience our buildings. Soft design elements, lighting effects, texture and natural products have such a direct effect on how a room or space feels for our customers and I believe we will continue to pay attention to that in a much stronger way.
What venue trends do you see coming to the fore in 2020 and beyond?
Trends will come and go, particularly in technology, innovation, food and sustainability, and I believe Australia will continue to develop and even lead these changes. There is no doubt that the speed in which technology changes impacts the way we communicate with our clients and this is one of the areas we see continuing to move with some pace.
You must be very proud to have recently received the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the year’s Australia Day Awards for outstanding services to tourism and business in Queensland?
I was very proud and humbled to be recognised in this way particularly for doing something I love. I hope it will help in some way to shine the spotlight on the importance of the Business Events industry which drives international visitors to our shores.
What of the enduring value of the meetings industry and venues specifically to deliver for their local economies?
Beyond the tourism benefits, Business Events is a sector that is now globally recognised to have wide and enduring benefits associated with business relationships, knowledge transfer, employment and industry growth and development.
We continue to work together as industry leaders to ensure our governments understand the value of this sector.
International scientific and medical conferences are also well acknowledged vehicles for local universities and researchers to showcase their research and expertise to the world.
BCEC’s successful Convention Advocates Partnership, which is comprised of many of Queensland’s top scientists, academics and business leaders, was set up to drive growth and put Brisbane on the global meetings map. This collaboration is critical to attracting international scientific meetings to Brisbane.
The legacy of this initiative goes far beyond the economic factor.
The BCEC delivers some A$300m to the Queensland economy a year. What is the USP of the region for international organisers?
I think Brisbane has always ‘punched above its weight’ We do things slightly differently to other states and have great partnerships with Brisbane Marketing and Tourism and Events Queensland to focus on our core roles – so for the client we act as a ‘one team’ support for them.
Brisbane is a city where the star is undisputedly on the rise with the biggest infrastructure boom in our history, including a second runway for Brisbane Airport delivering a capacity similar to Hong Kong and Singapore, new leisure and entertainment precincts, new international brand hotels; and Brisbane Live which will be a new world-class arena.
Confidence is reflected in Queensland’s bid for the 2032 Olympic Games
But it all boils down to world-class convention infrastructure in a burgeoning city with world-leading researchers and technical leaders, an idyllic climate and most of Australia’s bucket list activities within an hour.
BCEC has been praised for its initiatives in event catering.
I believe all convention centres in Australia do an excellent job in catering. BCEC has won 180 awards, 74 for catering. Dietary requirements can make up 30% of an event’s food and beverage requirements.
We reviewed our menu offerings to suit the changing environment. We are fortunate to have one of Australia’s leading chefs, David Pugh, a former Queensland Ambassador Chef who spearheaded the setting up of the special Dietary Kitchen.
By providing menus tailored to the demographic of events, we have been able to reduce dietary requirements by over 50% of our entrees, and main courses on our banqueting menus are gluten-free.
What of regional competitors and how does BCEC fit into the national strategy?
Convention centres in Australia compete among ourselves for international events. At BCEC, we target segments where Queensland is particularly strong. We have a very strong Advocates programme which has delivered amazing results.
Our main sectors are science, technology, health, agriculture, robotics, drone technology.
In our experience international associations do not choose a country first as a location for their conference. They generally choose a city and the city would then need to be strong in the particular field and have expertise to suit the association.
How do you relax when not working?
My wife, who also works with ASM Global, uses her strong organising skills to arrange holidays for us. She is now planning one to work in with a significant anniversary.
The event you are most proud of hosting?
The G20 Leaders Forum in 2014. As the largest Business Event in the world, it was a great showcase for Brisbane and BCEC. It was extraordinary to have 27 world leaders and heads of all the major international organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund in the building at one time. There were 2.5 years of planning and 195 visitations by countries and organisations during the build up to the event.
The team did a fantastic job. One of our National Convention Sales Managers volunteered to drive a lift and was very excited to be jokingly asked by US President Barack Obama if he knew how to drive.