On its 4th birthday, ACC Liverpool boss Bob Prattey tells David Bartlett it’s time to expand
IT’S just celebrated four magnificent years on Liverpool’s waterfront, but the chief executive of city success story the Echo Arena and BT Convention Centre is already eyeing a massive expansion.
ACC Liverpool has transformed the city’s tourism industry and has boosted the local economy by £500m.
And now Bob Prattey is putting the finishing touches to a £40m plan to double the size of his empire.
A new exhibition hall is crucial to plans to expand into the international market for conferences, and bring vital new visitors to the city.
Tender papers will be sent out to potential contractors in March, and the exhibition hall will open by autumn 2014 on derelict land next to the arena.
“At the moment if we get a big conference coming in that has a large exhibition element to it, then we have to go into the arena,” said Mr Prattey.
“That means there is a lack of continuity for the concert market.
“Concerts are more profitable for the venue, while conferences are more profitable for the city. So in that context the exhibition hall will allow us to be all things to all people.
“Up to December last year we have created £500m of economic impact for the city. That is not a pie in the sky figure, but a real industry figure.”
The exhibition hall will include three separate spaces which can be opened up into one massive venue, with a total floor space of around 8,100 square metres. At present the arena and convention centre have a combined floorspace of 7,125 sq m.
“We have earned our place in the UK associations market, like dentists and physicians. Our next move is into the European and world market.
“I want us to be working on 30 to 40 bids for international or big national conferences a year, because some have a lead-in time of 10 to 15 years.
“We have now got business booked in beyond 2020.”
In UK terms it does not get much bigger than hosting the party conference of one of the main three parties.
The Labour party held their main conference here last year, and the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
“We are in dialogue with all three parties on a regular basis, we are holding potential dates for potential years, but so too are many venues,” is all Mr Prattey will say when asked whether the Conservative party has been persuaded to hold its conference here.
“We are in a very competitive market. Arenas in particular are the new town halls. Every city aspires to have one. Leeds has got one opening soon.”
But he is not worried by increased competition as the venue, owned by Liverpool council, has managed to be a financial success.
“Really we have known nothing else than a recession because 2008 was when the economic problems started.
“Hopefully when the upturn comes we can take the business even further.”
ACC has just posted a £250,000 profit on a £14.5m turnover – but things could have been very different.
“In the run up to Capital of Culture the city council said they wanted the opening of Capital of Culture to be held in the arena,” said Mr Prattey.
“I said to them ‘It is going to be really tight’, and I was told ‘It’s not an option not to be ready’.”
It meant more resources had to be pumped into the arena, and the convention centre was not open for business until the end of April 2008.
Mr Prattey was forced to tell groups who had already booked to use the convention centre it would not be ready and they would have to use temporary boxes inside the arena instead, including the Lib-Dems who were hosting their spring conference there.
“That was a very challenging period. If we had not got it right, our reputation would have been shot from the beginning. Not one of the groups that had booked cancelled.
“The UK Chamber of Commerce was the first conference in the convention centre. Literally the night before we were laying carpet tiles. Me and the rest of team were there with Stanley knives.”
Mr Prattey arrived in the city in May 2005, leaving a secure job managing the NEC Group in his home city of Birmingham.
“I remember doing a photo call walking round what was then a car park before ACC had started to be built, thinking ‘This is going to work, isn’t it?’
“Sitting here now it is one of the best things I have ever done. It has been a fantastic journey.”
It is a career that has allowed him to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in showbusiness.
In December he presented the venue’s first ever Icon Award to Sir Paul McCartney – but was this just an excuse to meet the legend?
“Not at all. Having the opportunity to have a Beatle in Liverpool was a big thing for us. In 20 years in the business I have never asked for an autograph, and it means I can say to the staff it is not something we do here.
“Sir Paul was doing a limited world tour and Liverpool was not originally one of the dates. We pretty much camped outside the promoter’s office and persuaded him to come.
“We wanted to mark it in some shape or form and gave him Icon Award number one.
“The arena will probably not give one out every year, and it will have to be to a significant world artist.”
He said he stopped counting the number of gigs he has been to after number 2,000.
“It is a bit like a busman’s holiday because you are always worried about making sure everything is running OK. I am privileged because of the job we do. I have to say to my staff ‘if you are standing in the Paul McCartney gig and the hairs on the back of your neck are not standing up, you might as well go and do something else’.
“When people put on a conference or an event it is probably the biggest thing they will do all year so it is important that we get it right. We should never become blasé or complacent. This is a mixture of showbusiness and hospitality, and we try to make it special for everyone.”