Alec Gilbert has called time on a 12 year career as head of the Adelaide Convention Centre.

The first time I met Alec Gilbert was about 20 years ago when he was a pimple-faced sales and marketing manager at the International Convention Centre in Durban, South Africa. Okay, so maybe I had the pimples.

He rose to become CEO of that centre before applying and accepting a role at the Adelaide Convention Centre (ACC) as its CEO, moving to South Australia with his wife and three children back in 2005.

He and his family are now Australian citizens and more often than not barrack for the Wallabies in rugby over the Springboks. When it comes to AFL, the family is equally divided between the Adelaide Crows and the Port Adelaide Football Club.

In a chat before he takes on a new challenge in the new year, he reflected on that first interview at the ACC and distinctly remembers standing on King William Street Bridge looking back at the centre and thinking that this was a place waiting to realise its full potential.

“Other than the convention centre, there was nothing there. The old [Adelaide] oval was there; everyone raved about it but I thought well, it’s got a scoreboard but it doesn’t have great stands or anything else…

“What we have now is a different kettle of fish altogether. Back then, there was no footbridge, no new hospital, none of the medical precinct that we have now, and the convention centre was terribly inward looking and had absolutely no relationship to the water.

“I think they asked me in my interview what I thought would be my success factors after three years.

“I did talk about the riverbank precinct and the fact that Adelaide needed to increase its destination appeal; I talked about a team approach; and I also spoke about the need to review our business practices and the need to address additional space. I was aware it was an issue already and at the time they were looking at increasing their ballroom space.”

Twelve years on and the Adelaide Convention Centre and the entire riverbank precinct is a different place.

“The riverbank precinct now is an enormous asset not only to the city but also us, helping to create a much more attractive conference destination. The medical precinct and the Tonsley Innovation Park are just manna from heaven in terms of chasing conferences.”

Alec quickly came to realise that it wasn’t additional ballroom space that was needed but more space generally, particularly a larger plenary hall that could work for conferences and exhibitions.

And so the lobbying began. Four years of it until just before the 2011 state election when it was announced that the proposed two phases of the ACC expansion had been given the green light.

“We went for the expansion in two phases because before we could build a new plenary hall we had to build additional space to house the business that we already had confirmed over the next five years. So we built additional space to the west and then started on the east building which houses the main plenary hall.”

He won’t admit that it has been one of his greatest achievements, preferring to say “we” rather than “I” but anybody would be hardpressed to argue that without Alec lobbying for the expansion it would have been unlikely to now be a reality.

His early background as an urban planner who wrote the first report recommending construction of the first purpose-built convention centre in South Africa would obviously have helped. Back then he recognised that convention centres could be iconic buildings for a city that helped fill nearby hotel rooms.

Many now agree, including governments, that well-run and busy convention centres can provide much more if they host the right kinds of events.

The huge 68th International Astronautical Congress held at the expanded ACC in September, for example, not only saw 4500 attendees in Adelaide visiting from around the world, filling beds and injecting an estimated $24 million into the local economy, but was the catalyst for creating an Australian space agency which could have major implications for South Australia. A number of MOU’s were also signed which could provide major development opportunities for the state’s innovation and manufacturing industries.

There will most probably be similar outcomes for events the ACC is hosting in 2018 including the Australian Tourism Exchange, the Asia Pacific Petroleum Exploration Association Conference, and LandForces, to name a few.

Stepping away from it all now, Gilbert can be a little more candid about the future in the business event sector, and agrees that global competition for meetings is becoming stronger and stronger.

“What we have [in Australia] going for us is a strong association market, however, competition is fierce particularly from Asia. Clearly the topic of bid funding is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.”

Bid funding is, to the uninitiated, a pot of money that many countries have, particularly in Asia, to assist associations in hosting events in their country. This money may help to cover the costs of venue hire and thereby reduce the registration fees for delegates, allowing more delegates to attend.

“I think Australia is a very unique destination in that while we are all competitors, we have a great collegiate approach to business. That is fairly unique and it certainly wasn’t something I encountered in South Africa to the same extent.

“Destinations are having to become more creative in how they win bids and secure business. The creation of new events, ambassador programs, centres and bureaux are having to be more creative.

“We are far more entrepreneurial here than in Europe where there is a lot more government owned venues which tend to be subsidised more.

“In Adelaide, for example, while we don’t have the critical mass of Sydney and Melbourne, we have done very well in creating our own events.”

That will soon be all behind Gilbert as he embarks on the next chapter of his career in the business event sector, establishing a consultancy to assist others with convention centre builds and the running of them.

“It’s a bit sad we’ve got all these big events and I’m not going to be here to host them,” he said.

“It’s a very strange feeling walking away from it all after 12 years. It’s not just an eight hour day. It has been a very rewarding experience and as a team we have achieved what we set out to do. We have a world beating new facility and a very high caliber team in place. My job is now done, the timing is right for new leadership and I believe Simon Burgess has the skills and experience to take the ACC forward. The future of both the Centre and the state is very bright.”

He was hoping for some time off before starting over but interest in tapping into his decades of expertise appears to be strong.

I for one hope that he can find a little time to sneak in a side door at the ACC for a looksee at some of the larger events he helped secure for the city that he and his family now call home.

New general manager for ACC

Replacing Alec Gilbert to lead the Adelaide Convention Centre as General Manager from January is Simon Burgess. A seasoned professional in the global business events industry, Burgess has more than 20 years’ experience, predominately in sales and marketing roles. For the past five years he has held the position of director, convention and exhibition sales at the ACC, working closely alongside Gilbert to oversee the transition of the venue’s expansion, including increasing levels of business to match its new capacity.

Adelaide Venue Management Board Chair Bill Spurr AO summarises the ACC’s upcoming change of leadership as follows:

“Adelaide Venue Management has been fortunate to work with Alec in its succession planning to provide for a smooth management transition. It will be a sad day when Alec hands over the baton, but Simon is well equipped to be successful in his new role given he’s learnt from the very best in the business in Alec.”