The Big Interview: Marshall Dallas, CEO of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre
The venue – which on the back of Covid found a new role as a vaccination centre – has been open since 1995, with Sir Tom Farmer providing its first-ever event in the form of Kwik Fit’s Silver Jubilee.
It says it has to date played host to about 1.5 million delegates and more than 3,500 events, generating at least £720 million in economic impact for the Scottish capital and the surrounding areas.
Mr Dallas in November said that although the centre in Morrison Street was forced to close for most of 2020 because of the pandemic, it had used the time to secure almost £5m worth of new events for future years – while efforts are under way to create a 350-bedroom, four-star hotel, including a hotel school, onsite – as part of the £350m Haymarket Edinburgh development. The hotel has been expected to create more than 200 jobs and open as early as 2024.
The CEO began his career in London, working at the likes of The Cavendish in St James’s, later holding the food and beverage manager job at Gleneagles before joining Macdonald Hotels, and looking after the Holyrood Hotel and what was then known as The Roxburghe on Charlotte Square. Mr Dallas then moved into healthcare, working for Nuffield.
He now says: “Although I have listened to and worked with many great leaders, I have always paddled my own canoe when it comes to leading teams.”
Looking back to the onset of the pandemic, can you give me an idea of how things transpired for you, the team, and the business?
The EICC had completed a record year in 2019, when we had held big-ticket conferences like TEDSummit, which alone brought more than 1,000 delegates from across the globe and contributed around £5m to the local economy.
But then things ground to a halt when we had to close the venue in March 2020, in what we had expected to be an even stronger year, in which we were set to mark our 25th anniversary. It’s still strange to look back and realise how quickly our industry, along with so many others, came to a complete standstill.
For an international conference centre like EICC, we were suddenly in a situation where events were being postponed or cancelled for the foreseeable. That was a tough time for me, for our leadership team, and for everyone in the business.
We were all shocked, but everyone pulled together to handle the movement of our client’s events, during what was a very stressful time. In 2020, more than 300 international calls were made by our sales team, supported in many cases by EICC’s leadership team, and these took place at all times of the day and night since many clients were based in different time zones.
What’s also easy to forget is before the furlough scheme came about, we didn’t know if we would be able to retain our workforce, and that was a terrible reflection until we had a firmer idea of government support and how that would work.
We have people that have worked here since day one, and we have carefully added so many talented people over the last few years. To have lost any of those people in the wake of the pandemic seemed unthinkable, but it was something we were absolutely forced to think about. I have more than 25 years’ experience of being accountable for many different teams, but I have never had to face up to a challenge of this multitude.
What were you able to put in place during 2020 to keep the team together and the business going?
The furlough scheme enabled us to retain our team, after which we were able to get back on the front foot in a collective attempt to adapt to what people were terming the “new normal” at that point. In May 2020, we launched an online events platform, which we named Make it Edinburgh Live, to let the venue team run conferences and events entirely online or, when legislation allowed, via a combination of online and in person.
The way our team got that hybrid service off the ground so quickly was inspiring, seeing that kind of innovation and sheer determination to adapt to the most challenging environment any of us had witnessed in our careers. In spite of all the disappointments and letdowns, that was one of so many of my proud moments that keep you going when it seems that everything else is against you.
The development of an online events platform meant we could stage conferences with greater global reach. Subsequently, by harnessing the hybrid scenario when delegates returned to the venue, we believe we now have one of the best offerings of any conference centre worldwide.
As you would expect, this also required significant investment to be made into technology and related training across our team at the EICC. At a time when we had no revenue coming through the doors and no prospect of any being generated any time soon, these investment decisions were not easy to make.
In terms of getting back to “business as usual”, what level of activity do you expect to return to this year, and into 2023?
We started seeing large-scale conferences and events return in late Q3 and Q4 of 2021. The first conference to return in early September was for the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, which saw 500 delegates attending in person and another 250 joining remotely.
Then the TED-organised Countdown Summit took place in October ahead of COP26, followed by Scotland’s largest public sector IT conference, Digital Scotland, where we welcomed more than 700 delegates in November.
This year, we have even more large-scale conferences taking place, of the kind we had here pre-pandemic, a couple of those being the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress, with more than 1,000 delegates in June, and the Society for Melanoma Research’s International Annual Congress in October, where we’re expecting about the same number.
This summer we also look forward to welcoming back regular events such as the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Turing Fest and a line-up of Fringe shows via our partnership with The Pleasance.
Overall, we’re seeing that bounce-back. The lead times for many of the large UK and international associations can be two years or more down the line, but we’re really encouraged by the level of activity we’re experiencing.
The business events sector, which is valued in the region of £35 billion in the UK, will be an important driver to help reboot the economy, including in Scotland.
How does that translate to your financials, in terms of revenue and profit?
When the centre closed on March 18, 2020, we were looking at potential losses of between £5m and £6m. Because of our swift decision to pivot our business onto an online platform, combined with the re-scheduling of many face-to-face events into future months or years, and our operations team who delivered many cost-saving initiatives, we were able to significantly mitigate losses in 2020, then again last year.
When I look at the three years cumulatively from 2019, we did slightly better than break even which our board of directors and principal shareholder agreed was an incredible success in the circumstances. 2022 will see us return to revenue performance closer to our pre-pandemic numbers in 2019.
The EICC has served as a key vaccination centre – how has that been?
As you would expect, it was never something we would have envisaged before Covid hit. At the same time, one of our areas of operational expertise is how to move people safely and efficiently around the venue – so we had a good head start!
We had a lot of planning meetings and calls with the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland, NHS Lothian, all with the aim of ensuring that we could do the job to the best of our ability – and that’s another area of pride for me, how we were able to partner with NHS Lothian to help distribute vaccines at such scale over such a long period of time.
Can you provide an update on the £350m hotel and hotel school development?
The process has been years in the making, with lots of twists and turns along the way. We think the hotel and hotel school is going to be transformational for Edinburgh. It’s going to greatly benefit the EICC’s offering, it’s going to create jobs, and help produce the next generation working in the industry.
We’ve got some fantastic partners in place for the development – M&G Real Estate is our funding partner, the site will be developed by QMile Group, and the completed hotel will be operated by the EICC under a franchise agreement with Hyatt Hotels Corporation. We have also created a partnership with Edinburgh College who will help educate and drive new talent into the hotel industry.
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