Shaun Hinds, CEO of Manchester Central Convention Centre
Friday November 11th 2022 at Chapel Golf Club.
We were delighted to welcome Shaun Hinds, CEO of Manchester Central Convention Centre, who came to our breakfast meeting on 11 November (he’s the tall guy in the middle of the picture above). Shaun joined the business over 5 years ago; in a previous life he had been an exhibitor.
MCCC started life as the Central Rail station in 1880, connecting Manchester direct to London via Matlock Bath and Derby to St Pancras (later Marylebone). Shaun had a remarkable collection of old photos to show us; he’d like to get them digitalised, and I suggested he tried crowdfunding to achieve that excellent objective. Early journeys to London took 6 hours then reduced to 3 hr 38 mins; today (when all is well) it’s a two hour sprint from Piccadilly to Euston via the West Coast Main Line. Central closed in 1969 and the route through the Peak District National Park is the Monsal Trail, though there are campaigners would like it to be a railway again (the tunnels are too small, at a guess).
For many years in the 1970s Central was an eyesore, an NCP car park, with no investment and no future – much like the surrounding city. In that state it featured on The Smiths’ early album covers. Then the 10 Manchester councils took it over and turned it into GMEX (Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre) which opened in 1986. Many will remember some great pop concerts there (“terrible acoustics, but 10,000 people standing” – what a mosh pit!). Great sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games in 2002, with more recently HYROX fitness competitions and ITV’s Ninja Warrior has been filmed there.
It became Manchester Central in 2007, with seamless links to the Conference centre nearby and an auditorium for 800 people, all on one level so it is truly accessible. This year they’ve hosted the One Young World Global Youth Summit addressed by Prince Harry and Meghan, Bob Geldof and the Director-General of the UN – it was supposed to be in Tokyo, but at very short notice was switched to Manchester. That’s quite a coup.
So how is it staffed? That’s where the unique nature of such a venue shines through. Permanent full-time staff number only about 95, but up to 500 people can be called in to help set up and cater for a busy conference – often the same people each time. Efforts are made to recruit locally and to source foodstuffs locally too, with very few exceptions; only security and cleaning are sourced on a national scale. When there’s a quick turnaround, a small army is at work in there.
He told us with pride about the creation of the Nightingale Hospital; how the Army phoned the day before the first lockdown in March 2020 and effectively took over, though the construction was done by many of their regular contractors. Three weeks later it was ready with 750 beds and piped oxygen. Many regular staff came in for the duration as volunteers or paid helpers. In the end however, like the other Nightingales, whilst thankfully it was never fully used, it was the busiest Nightingale treating 450 patients during the year of its existence. It hadn’t been appreciated how complex the needs of many Covid patients would be, and hospitals were naturally reluctant to release Covid patients to the Nightingale, or to send the scarce specialist staff to care for them. But Shaun is proud that they rose to the challenge in such difficult times.
We asked further about security, given the current inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing five years ago. Shaun said that he had immediately ordered a security review to identify any potential vulnerabilities, such as the area where the bomber waited at the Arena. But there’s a difference: access to the Convention Centre is via a limited number of entry points where airport style security can be used, compared with a huge venue with multiple doors and exits. He welcomes the proposed “Protect Duty” legislation (which would place the onus on venue operators to protect all visitors) – that, he feels, would be good for business. But governments seem to have other things on their plate right now.
We asked about the costs of energy in such a vast place and Shaun winced. They are part of a combined heat and power large energy centre with other nearby buildings; he was able to replace 19 legacy boilers with a single, more efficient one. But his bill has still tripled since 2020. “And with a building as large as ours, with a metal and glass roof, the potential to insulate is limited,” he added.
We returned to what makes a successful conference. “It’s the antithesis of Zoom,” he said. Thousands of people descend on the Centre for days of learning, training, networking and deal making. Some 600,000 – 700,000 business visitors come into Manchester in a typical year, spending 3 -4 times what regular tourists spend, in the hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs. It’s been calculated that the value of the deals done at events in Manchester over a 5 year period pre Covid was in excess of £1.5 billion.
One example from last May was the British Insurance Brokers’ Association, BIBA, where 20,000 insurance industry delegates congregated in Manchester. Typically half book for exhibitions, the rest are there because everyone else is, producing an estimated £4-5 million impact on the city during that one week.
So the old GMEX, in its modernised form, is part of an entire thriving Manchester eco-system. When visitors have a great time both inside the Centre and in the city, they want to come again. Other venues are competing, but it’s that hinterland that makes the difference. And as far as Party Conferences are concerned, many cities are keen to attract them, but many lack Manchester’s unique infrastructure to provide the kind of experience delegates now expect. IMHO, Blackpool just doesn’t compare.