October 15, 2021 | By Graeme Kemlo

Originally announced to reopen on November 5 with a limit of 150 people in its 6,000-seat plenary space, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) CEO Peter King now expects the centre will open sooner and with larger capacities.

Having described the 150-pax restriction last week as “uneconomic” he confirmed discussions with government took place earlier this week.

In a subsequent radio interview he told me, “We had some really positive conversations with the government. We are obviously a significant venue in Melbourne with the scale and the scope of the spaces we’ve got, so I think the restrictions are going to be altered pretty quickly. I think we’ll be back to business a little earlier than we thought and at a scale bigger than we thought.”

During lockdown, the venue beside the Yarra River was originally earmarked to be transformed into a major Intensive Care Unit for Melbourne in the fight against COVID-19, but it became the major vaccination hub instead.

“We’re really proud of that. We’re a very important part of the community, the fabric of Melbourne and for us to be able to open up the space to get hundreds of thousands of people vaccinated has been a huge exercise and one that’s been really beneficial to the people of Melbourne, which is great,” said King.

MCEC hosts three to three and a half million people a year, he said, of which about 800,000 are typically conference delegates. Beyond business events, MCEC hosts public events, consumer exhibitions, concerts, festivals, graduation ceremonies and charity events.

But in a period of reflection and with revenues only 10 percent of previous years, King flagged change.

“The whole economics behind a convention centre like this is international visitation…and that is obviously incredibly important because that fills the restaurants, fills the bars and fills the hotels when you’ve got 800,000 delegates coming from interstate and overseas.  But as the business evolves it really is more about Melbourne, about Victoria and being a place for people to gather…it has got a much broader community perspective I think.”

He said one of the four key pillars of MCEC’s strategy was “to work on what we are calling our ‘impact’…so what’s our economic impact, our social impact. We are working with the government and the people of Melbourne to drive that, so yes, it has changed a bit since the original concept.”

Asked whether in a post-COVID scenario some things may have changed forever for MCEC, he said, “Yes, I think so”.

“For sure. We are certainly looking at the customers and the potential partners. We had a very predictable business model before COVID. It was a really solid pipeline of business out for three, four or five years, 70 per cent of our business was repeat business so it was very predictable. And we knew how to run it too.”

But flagging change, King said “we see the world very differently now” and he predicted new partnerships, new relationships and joint ventures with a different commercial prospect to the way business was done in the past.

During lockdown MCEC partnered with Village Cinemas to stage a successful drive-in theatre with cars driven into exhibition space where there was a massive screen and stereo audio beamed into each car via FM radio.

Describing the drive-in as “a great initiative” he said it had fostered a good relationship with Village who wanted to pursue the idea further.  Apart from the concept of repurposing empty space, what appealed to people was the fact that you could sit in your car, have food and drink brought to you and watch daytime sessions instead of waiting for the sun to set.

While the drive-in brought people to the centre who would otherwise probably not have visited, King is expecting a different clientele again for The Lume, a digital art gallery that is expected to open next month with a Van Gogh exhibition.

King said MCEC would be back in full swing by February or March with the return of business events.