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The changing needs of delegates looking for a more interactive and immersive experience are pushing new convention centres to think beyond four walls, writes Sheridan Randall.

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Photo: Left: Food from ICC Sydney’s ‘Smart’ menu; Right: ICC Sydney; Artist’s impression of MCEC expansion.

Photo: Left: Food from ICC Sydney’s ‘Smart’ menu; Right: ICC Sydney; Artist’s impression of MCEC expansion.

Four walls, a roof to keep the rain out and wi-fi. That might have been the template for a convention centre back in the 20th century, but how are this century’s convention centres going to look? One keyword being bandied around is flexibility. The delegate of today wants an interactive experience and venues are stepping up to the plate to meet the changing needs of organisers looking to create events that deliver engaging experiences.

As long distance destinations Australia and New Zealand have to be global leaders in the convention centre space. Up against other destinations armed with cash incentives, Australasian venues compete by being the best with a number of new build convention centres and redevelopment of existing centres set to take that reputation to another level.

First cab off the rank is International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney) which is already well into its testing phase before officially opening its doors in December.

“Delegate expectations are high, and three key areas we are seeing rapidly evolve from a delegate demand point of view are technology, cuisine and destination experience,” says ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy.

ICC Sydney has been created from the ground up, making it a purpose-built digital venue underpinned by a 10Gbps optical fibre backbone. The convention centre and entertainment precinct has also combined its ICT and AV departments to deliver a frictionless digital experience. There is also an in-built contingency plan to proactively mitigate any potential device failure.

“This intelligent design provides us with a highly adaptable digital environment, and the power to truly lift the bar in terms of industry standards,” says Donaghy. Following on from technology, food is next on the list under the eye of executive chef Tony Panetta who has created a “smart food” menu.

“Good nutrition has emerged as a key factor in business success,” says Donaghy. “ICC Sydney has embraced an industry-first ‘Feeding Your Performance’ philosophy to deliver ‘smart’ menus comprising fresh, seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients, expertly combined to drive physical and mental performance.”
Finally comes location, with ICC Sydney blessed with its Darling Harbour location.

“Outside an event, we know that attendees will be here for a limited time and are looking for a ‘local’ experience,” he adds. “One of the best things we can offer them is the ability to capture the authentic flavour of the city during their visit. ICC Sydney’s central location is a definite factor in its global appeal for delegates.”

With its eye on a 25 year horizon, ICC Sydney has flexibility built into its DNA.

“We are increasingly seeing the convergence of exhibitions and conventions, with delegates seeking a more diverse event program – one that includes plenary sessions, workshops, seminars and industry forums. Clients are also requesting more and more bespoke event designs,” says Donaghy.

“In this respect, ICC Sydney is intrinsically future proof. The integrated precinct will open with 70 meeting rooms, 2400sqm of multi-purpose space, and 40 per cent more usable exhibition space on the same site as the former venue. It will also be capable of hosting three major conventions simultaneously, each with their own dedicated plenary, exhibition space, meeting rooms and catering areas, plus a dedicated support team to assist through every step of an event.”

But beyond the venue itself, ICC Sydney is part of broader investment in Sydney’s CBD, with a whole of city approach looking to attract more big international meetings.

“It is imperative that convention centres and the broader city organisations work together so that they can continue to attract international conventions and exhibitions to their shores,” he says. “You need to create a seamless experience, from the moment your delegates arrive at the host city to the second they leave.”

Adelaide Convention Centre is also in the final stages of its $400 million transformation that is another piece in the massive revamp of the Riverside Precinct. A pioneer in increasing public engagement, chief executive Alec Gilbert says that they have a responsibility to continually educate the public and community about the role the Centre plays “economically, socially and culturally”.

“Opening up the Centre for more public events (our own and others) and creating community partnerships to bring in a wider audience have assisted in helping to change perceptions of the Centre and what we do,” he says.

That increase in public awareness on the role convention centres play in the broader social and economic picture coincides with a rapidly evolving industry.
“The conference industry continues to evolve with technologies changing quicker than at any time in the industry’s history,” says Gilbert.

“The nature and configuration of conferences is also changing with a general trend towards smaller but more frequent conferences or business meetings. Also, organisers want the ability to quickly reconfigure space during a conference and this is leading to convention centres being designed to be much more flexible and adaptable.

“In part, conference and exhibition organisers are demanding flexibility to enhance delegate experience, as they’re seeking to create more dynamic and interesting spaces. Creating smaller, more intimate spaces within a large conference environment is an increasingly popular trend.”

Given Adelaide’s reputation as a foodie capital it is no surprise that the Centre’s catering experience needs to reflect that with a focus on high quality seasonal produce. It’s “Soils and Seasons” food philosophy celebrates the provenance of food and in particular how regional soil, climate and production methods influence the flavour of the food. The wellness trend is also influencing menus at the Centre, which recently launched its Vitality Menu to cater for the more health conscious delegate.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s (MCEC) food has long been a key strength of its offering, but new expansion plans in the works have signalled a change across many touch points for event organisers.

“We’re planning for adaptability, so that no matter what the future holds, we’re able to easily accommodate and deliver any event,” says Anne Jamieson, MCEC’s director of customer experience and optimisation.

“Our focus is on continuing to evolve and innovate our offering, so that rather than trying to plan what the future holds, we’re part of its creation. It is important that we continue to offer our customer new, exciting ideas and opportunities, as well as supporting their own creations.”

The new extension is not just about adding more space, Jamieson says. Rather it is focused on the changing needs of the industry.

“Over the past year, we have been busy making some exciting changes that have streamlined the way we do business – all with the aim of making it easier for our customers to plan and deliver their events,” she adds.
“We conducted extensive research into
the wants and needs of our customers and mapped out every stage of interaction each different customer type has with our business. It became apparent that there were areas within our business that we could change to better meet the needs of our customers.
“This brought about a new internal organisational structure at MCEC and the creation of a new team to manage end-to-end process for our customers.”
In New Zealand plans are afoot for a number of new convention centres, with the much anticipated New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC) the biggest of the venues set to come online in the next few years.

“The NZICC have placed people at the heart of their mission,” says Callum Mallett, NZICC’s general manager operations.

“The innovative design has harnessed smart technology and thinking to focus on how best to make the NZICC not just a convention centre, but an experience.

“Every touch point in the design process was an opportunity to put our customers at the core, to keep us true to delivering an authentic experience every time. Hopefully this will mean that everything we deliver will be relevant and ‘future proofed’ when we open in 2019, giving our customers a great venue that works for them and helps them host a successful event.”

Extensive research in the design stage helped shape every touch point of the NZICC, with the goal of designing a choreographed end-to-end experience for users, according to Mallett.

“The results are evident – from incorporating into the design of the building the ability for direct truck access off the street on to the exhibition floor, to increasing the weight bearing capacity of our lifts for service suppliers, to the way we create and share information with partners,” he says.

“The opportunities for technology that are burgeoning in the horizon are immense and exciting; however answering the needs for our customers is more exciting. The creation of our interactive building model is a great example of future planning for the NZICC.”

Architects Warren & Mahoney brought an experienced design company into the NZICC project early on, where the team asked professional conference organisers, delegates, audio-visual producers, caterers and members of the Auckland public, what they looked for in a building, in a conference experience, in a city experience, and what would make it good for them.

“This is particularly important in the case of international visitors – what would help make them fly halfway across the world when they could potentially just catch the speakers on the internet?” says Mallet.

“PCOs were really clear with us about what they wanted, which resulted in large spaces that can then reconfigure in to smaller spaces easily and quickly. Having a central circulation spine along with well thought-out access and entry points over the four levels allow our event organisers to plan how they can have concurrent sessions and move people from space to space with ease and without losing precious time.”

The project team has also focused on making the NZICC an accessible, open, people-friendly space for all.

“Continued collaboration throughout the design as it develops means we are on track to achieving a welcoming building that is going to work for people,” he says.
“We know that people want to experience the city around when they arrive in a new country for a conference, and that, along with being walking distance to the knowledge hubs, universities and businesses HQs in the area for networking is a great aspect people are loving about the NZICC. Gone are the days of remote and unconnected convention centres.”

Christchurch is also building a new convention centre, with the team bringing in leading convention centre design specialists from around the world to give a global perspective on what is happening outside of the Asia Pacific region.

Rob McIntyre, general manager of Christchurch Convention & Exhibition Centre, concedes it is getting harder to predict future trends.

“But as long as you acknowledge that the future is going to look very different to today you can design flexibility into your venue to allow adaptation and changing to future trends much easier,” he says.

“I don’t think [the needs of future delegates] have changed so much as become more refined, and there’s a greater awareness of what will and won’t work. There is so much choice for delegates they won’t accept a sub-par venue anymore.”

Designing the centre to allow several events to happen at once without crossover or even delegate awareness of other events happening at the centre at the same time was a key element in the design process. Technology was also a major factor, however acknowledging that the “state of the art” system you put in today will be obsolete tomorrow and not pretending that it won’t be is critical, according to McIntyre.

“It is crucial to recognise that the core infrastructure needs to be designed with the key understanding that over its 25 to 30 year life cycle it will remain largely unchanged, but the applications, technologies and systems its supports are likely to change up to five times based on a typical technology refresh cycle being between five to eight years,” he says.

“Things as simple as ensuring that server rooms are sized in a way to accommodate possible increased space demand. Thinking through all aspects of delegates’ needs now and what possible changes could eventuate in the decades ahead, so the Centre can be best adapted with the least cost to allow it to keep up. Without question there is a large element of crystal ball gazing required, but you have to do it and push the boundaries at design stage to allow you be even remotely relevant in 25 to 30 years’ time.”

Again a whole of city approach is critical to attracting significant international conferences.

“In many ways the actual convention centre is only the last piece of the puzzle that attracts conferences,” he says. “The region, the city and its people are the real drawcard. Convention centres need the city behind them first and foremost to be even remotely successful.”

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  • Published: 9 months ago on December 1, 2016
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  • Last Modified: December 1, 2016 @ 1:49 pm
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