By Brad Foster

That’s the economic benefit to Queensland that the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre provides each year. And the man that’s been there since before it opened is GM Bob O’Keeffe, who Brad Foster spoke to recently.

I call to talk to Bob O’Keeffe at the appointed time only to be told by his EA that Bob has just taken a call from ASM Global local Chairman and Chief Executive, Harvey Lister. ASM Global is the company that manages the centre.

“Well, you’d better tell him to hang up then,” I quip.

I call back 30 minutes later.

This time Bob’s ready, I’m ready, and we get right to it. Although getting right to it when you’ve been working at the same place for 25 years – 27 if you count the two years of pre-opening – isn’t real easy.

Where to start? Favourite events the centre’s hosted? The changes he’s seen? Recounting some of the “firsts” the centre has undertaken in an industry that is always changing? Where he came from?

Yes, let’s go there. When his two daughters were just toddlers Bob and his wife Julie lived in Sydney, with Bob working at the Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre. He was given an opportunity to open the soon to be constructed Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre and the family moved.

At that time he considered it would be a five year stay. When those first five years came and went he asked his wife whether they should consider moving back to Sydney. His wife said he was welcome to but she and the kids wouldn’t be coming.

They loved Brisbane, the city, the lifestyle, the pace, the lack of traffic, and they liked what they saw happening around them. As well as the convention centre and the whole South Bank development, the airport had upgraded, there were great restaurants opening, and the people – oh, the people – were friendly. You went for a walk and people said hello.

“And they still do,” says Bob.

With the kids now all grown up and working and his wife entrenched at Suncorp Stadium, Sydney is a place they now might visit but have no plans to return to.

Brisbane city, whilst smaller in population compared to Sydney and Melbourne, has and is on the move.

And, if we’re being honest here, Bob and his convention centre has played a part in that.

Before Expo 88, Brisbane was seen to those in the South as a big country town. Following its success and the opening of the BCEC in 1995, it started to take off.

When I lived there growing up, the river was considered an eyesore. You knew you were getting close to town when you passed the XXXX factory and could smell the hops. A family meal out would have you eating Chinese.

Today, the winding stretches of the Brisbane River from the west, through town, under the Story Bridge and beyond are truly beautiful. Rivercats traverse it and gleaming apartment buildings and office towers line its banks, giving it a glimmering effect that is hard to beat in Australia or really anywhere else in the world.

Since opening, the BCEC has welcome nearly 19 million visitors through the doors and hosted more than 22,000 events.

And Bob O’Keeffe has been there from the get-go.

He was recognised last year around this time when he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Awards for outstanding services to tourism and business in Queensland.

Queensland Tourism Industry Development Minister, Kate Jones, described Bob at the announcement as pivotal to Queensland’s tourism industry.

“He is the reason that the convention centre has won 180 awards, which is more than six awards for every year he has been in charge,” she said.

“Today we recognise that Bob has received one of Australia’s highest accolades by joining the Order of Australia as a Member and in the 27 years he’s run the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre Bob has been a pivotal figure in Queensland’s tourism industry.”

Bob, however, is far more circumspect on his achievements, citing numerous times throughout our interview that it is the people who he works with who help make things happen and keep the BCEC at the forefront of the industry.

Early on it was the effervescence and hard work of people like Malu Barrios who paved the way for today’s staff that now numbers 214 full-time and 700 casuals (whose combined hours equate to another 200 full-timers).

In 2020 it is individuals like our Director of Sales, Alison Gardiner – instrumental in launching the centre’s successful Advocates program – and Executive Chef, David Pugh and his team’s award-winning food that continue to keep the centre on its upward trajectory of success, Bob explains.

I am very proud that the Centre has developed a great pool of talent, many of whom have gone onto on to senior roles at other venues and those who have stepped into their places. Three of our current Sous Chefs undertook their apprenticeships at BCEC.

“Having a really good team around you makes life so much easier.”

Particularly when the events industry changes so profoundly and rapidly.

“David, our Executive Chef was a former Queensland Ambassador Chef and named Courier Mail Food Awards Icon of the Year in 2019. He was a pioneer in fine dining in Brisbane and has brought his passion to the centre, particularly with a focus on utilising local produce and in the area of dietary requirements.”

Eighty per cent of the BCEC’s mains and entrees on the banquet menu are now gluten and dairy free, with the need to provide additional dietary meals reduced by 30 per cent.

It was a process started by former Executive Chef, Martin Latter, who now works at ASM Global Head Office and consults to many ASM Global managed venues here and internationally.

The shift demonstrates the BCEC’s willingness to lead from the front, a strategy that can also be recognised by the centre’s creation of its own Advocates program.

“Alison [Gardiner] pioneered BCEC development into a Bidding Centre when funding to our Convention Bureau was reduced around 10 years ago. BCEC already had in place Overseas Representation and a research team and it was a logical move to prepare and present the International Convention Bids. The development of The Advocates Partnership program by Alison really enhanced our connections into the universities and research institutions in Brisbane.

BCEC Advocates are some of Queensland’s most brilliant and successful individuals, many of whom are involved in world leading scientific and medical research. Our Advocates share a vision and a passion to champion the cause of Brisbane, showing the world the breadth of our knowledge, creativity and innovation.

The BCEC currently has 82 Advocates and the BCEC has hosted 118 Advocate assisted conferences, with an economic value of $163 million.

“It’s probably our most successful initiative,” Bob says.

But of course not the only one. Work in sustainability is now a big thing.

BCEC was one of the early advocates of operating a sustainable venue. The Centre joined the Federal Government’s Greenhouse Challenge in 2001 and developed its own Carbon Calculator for measuring event emissions in 2008.

This month the centre switched on new solar panels that will power 40 per cent of the BCEC on Grey Street conference and event spaces. LED lighting is now throughout the centre, dramatically cutting down on power usage, and smart lighting is installed which can be turned on and off at the touch of an App.

The centre also has an organic waste dehydrator that converts 400kg of organic waste into 40kg of organic biomass soil enhancer which is distributed in the South Bank and Roma Street Parklands, reducing food waste to landfill by 54,000kg per year.

It also has 30 different waste streams, with 60 per cent of waste generated diverted as recycled materials.

“On top of this, if there is any food that hasn’t gone out to an event we contact Foodbank and OzHarvest to distribute to those in need.”

Best events?

Understandably, for Bob to choose his best event after 25 years, is no mean feat.

Certainly the G20 Leaders Summit in 2014 was a standout.

“I don’t know if I was excited or concerned when we won it but in the end it was a very successful, seamless event. It was just amazing to be involved.

“The Brisbane Truck Show, each event is always fantastic, in scale and size and the sheer logistics of the event.

“There have been so many great events, including charity events. Lifeline does a bookfest here twice a year and this year marks their 45th event. We are very happy to support them.

“We just held our 11th Salvation Army Christmas Lunch for around 500 people who wouldn’t otherwise be having a Christmas lunch, all prepared and served by staff volunteers with product and gifts provided by suppliers at no charge.

“It’s just a fantastic business to be involved in.”

We’ve run out of space to talk about the expansion of the centre in 2012 with the construction of Grey Street which delivered the BCEC a 52 per cent increase in convention space.

That was another first, with Bob and his team examining what kind of business the centre had held since opening and what could be expected over the next 10 and 20 years. International Congress and Convention Association data was showing that while meeting numbers were on the rise, the meetings would be smaller in terms of delegate numbers.

Development of BCEC on Grey Street would therefore cater to this new market requirement. And it’s done that and contributed more than projected in the initial business case.

So any plans to do something else Bob?

“Not at this time. There’s still so much to do here.”