Bob O’Keeffe looks back on BCEC’s legacy as he moves into new role

bob o'keeffe

CIM spoke with Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre’s (BCEC) Bob O’Keeffe about stepping away from the general manager role he has held since the centre opened to a new dual role with ASM Global APAC and BCEC.

Which are some of your most memorable events? The first thing that springs to mind is the opening of BCEC on Merivale Street, mainly for the experience it gave me to not contemplate such a major opening again.

But the opening of the Centre was a major event for Brisbane and its economy. The operation of the Centre to date has created more than $4.9 billion in economic benefit for Queensland.

Looking back, it was an amazing leadup to the opening. We had Channel 7 televising from the Centre for a week before the event, Queensland on show in two exhibition halls and a Fun Fair in our other two exhibition halls. We had a fully conducted individually placed seated televised concert with 25 selected top performing artists which had to be approved by the Network.

We also had the building open to the public for the lead up to the event.

When we came to do the opening of BCEC on Grey Street, we determined to add our opening to an Australia Day celebration which was a much less stressful opportunity.

G20 would have to be one of the most memorable events. We had 195 site inspections prior to the event taking place and the scale of the event took all of the Centre’s space, both Merivale Street and Grey Street Centres as well as the Car Park.

We were fortunate to have great relationships with the Prime Minister’s Department who managed the event and ExpoNet who were the stand builder and supplier of all furniture and theming which looked fantastic.

The event was not without its challenges, given that the temperatures in Brisbane for the days of the event were around 45 degrees, which doesn’t usually happen. This put significant pressure on air conditioning and other systems within the Centre, which held up particularly well.

One of the very special memorable times was the amazing resilience of the team following the 2011 floods. They all turned up and pitched in with the cleaning up which allowed us to be one of the first businesses to return to operations. We would provide updates each lunchtime with the chef cooking on the front steps on a barbecue – as we had no electricity!

The Brisbane Truck Show is always a highlight and takes almost all of the Centre and brings in a large number of people. It was great to see that in May 2021 during a period when COVID was certainly still around, the event was held, and attracted a similar number of people to that in pre-COVID periods.

One of the things that gives rise to the longevity of staff remaining at convention centres is the large number and variety of events that happen in the building. Lots of different things happening every day and plenty of opportunities for innovation and change.

Has BCEC grown the way you expected? In many cases it did. We spent a lot of time in the pre-opening period establishing the BCEC culture which encapsulated the post-Expo desire of the Brisbane people to come together and work on large projects. We believe this culture still remains almost 30 years later and is one of the reasons for the success of the Centre.

When BCEC opened there was significant development happening within Brisbane with the new International Airport and the Treasury Casino opening at the same time, so there certainly was a buzz in development and a feeling of opportunity within the city.

The expansion of the facility was in the pipeline in the 3-5 years form the opening of Merivale Street. Our original plan was to create a further exhibition and tiered seating space on Merivale Street opposite the Exhibition Centre, but an analysis showed that the development opportunities were in conventions and particularly smaller conventions, and this led us to revise our plans to create the boutique Convention Centre on Grey Street.

Over the years we have continued to evolve based on circumstances and projections. BCEC is one of the few centres that does convention bidding for the city and we have developed an excellent relationship with stakeholders including our Convention Bureau, Queensland Hotels Association and Tourism Queensland over this period, which certainly assisted the Convention Centres being included for funding under the post-COVID Tourism Recovery Plan.

bob o'keeffe
BCEC’s Grey Street expansion.

How has the Centre evolved with the city itself? The Centre’s business has continued to grow and has been supported by the increasing awareness of Brisbane and Queensland. Being located in the entertainment and cultural precinct of South Bank has also been an asset to the Centre. South Bank has been reimagined several times since the Centre opened and we are very fortunate to have a selection of great hotels and restaurants plus our Performing Arts Centre, Museum and Art Galleries within a five minute walk from the Centre.

We have also worked closely with a number of our partners to maximise the opportunities of the area. In particular, our relationship with Queensland Ballet has been in place for nine years. The Centre hosts opening nights for the Ballet which are in the Performing Arts Centre and a parade of attendees take the short walk from QPAC across the road to BCEC to celebrate another wonderful performance.

Further opportunities have come to pass with our cultural neighbours with the Centre hosting regular events with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, particularly the Harry Potter. Presents series. The size of the Centre’s Great Hall gives greater opportunities for the QSO and exposure for BCEC in areas other than conventions and exhibitions.

Our Advocates Partnership has been a spectacular success and is regarded by our Chairman Harvey Lister as the best program of its kind. This program has evolved from the continuing development of Brisbane’s world-leading scientists and researchers.

The Advocates Partnership supports State Government key development areas and has assisted in securing 135 conventions worth $190 million of business for the Centre and Queensland since its inception.

Brisbane is in the middle of further evolution with the Brisbane Airport having added a second runway, the Queen’s Wharf development nearing completion which is changing the face of the city and will be linked to BCEC by a pedestrian bridge and of course, the Olympics will make a significant difference to the city between now and 2032.

How important is the Brisbane Olympics in 2032? This event is a turning point for Brisbane. The opportunity for international awareness of the destination will increase exponentially. Research undertaken by ASM Global into hosting of conventions in previous Olympic cities has determined two peak times for opportunities and growing business. BCEC is setting up its Olympic Task Force to continue to plan for the opportunities and growth of the future.

We see that, whilst there is no need to make any significant adjustments to the Centre to host the four Olympic sports and four Paralympic sports as well as the Media Centre, we believe there will be opportunities for significant upgrades to the Centre’s external façade and entrances, as well as the incorporation of usual technological changes that will take place over the next 10 years.

What aspects will you be dealing with in your new role? My new role as Chief Operating Officer – Venue Operations, ASM Global APAC is charged with overseeing all operational aspects of venues in the ASM Global APAC portfolio. The role has developed to provide strategic leadership, management and vision to support the ongoing growth and development of the ASM Global APAC portfolio of venues across the region.

This will cover dealing with operating convention centres, arenas and stadiums throughout Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Middle East.

I will also retain involvement directly with BCEC in the new position of CEO following the appointment of Kym Guesdon as general manager.