IT HAS taken more than 13 years – four years longer than it really should have done. This week will, at last, see the official unveiling of the new and improved Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC).
For Hans Rissmann, who was recruited to bring the original conference venue to fruition in 1993, its latest incarnation has been a long slog – but the results after its £80 million extension are better than he imagined.
“There was a time during construction when I used to go on site with a hard hat and a fluorescent jacket, and I used to cover my eyes and say ‘what the hell did we start here?’” recalls Rissmann, an active and forceful 60-something with genial hazelnut-coloured eyes. “But now I dance through the space like a happy young boy who has a brand new toy. It is so mind-blowing, so fascinating. The feedback we are getting from potential customers is stunning.”
That the project to extend the EICC went ahead at all is a testament to Rissmann’s natural enthusiasm and the powers of persuasion that can lend. In 2007, the project was dealt a major blow when developers Cala and AWG pulled out of the extension project, which also included plans for the seven-storey Atria building above the EICC’s new Lennox exhibition and conference suite. The office development, which had its grand opening last week, had been seen as a viable way to fund the plan to double the floor space at the City of Edinburgh Council-owned conference centre. But then the bottom dropped out from under the speculative office development market, putting the entire project at risk.
If Rissmann is bitter about the private developers being forced by economic circumstances to abandon the project, he is too much a gentleman to show it.
“They came to us nine months into the project and told us we need £10m more in order to finish this job. We asked them, ‘If we give you £10m what guarantee can you give us you won’t come back in another nine months’ time and ask for more?’” recalls Rissmann.
“They said: ‘We cannot give you that guarantee’. So we said what Mickey Mouse does in Florida and we invited them to seek their happiness elsewhere. It threw us back four years – we should have opened in 2009. It is rather unfortunate because our customers have been looking forward to our new place.”
What the debacle did was lead the project team back to the drawing board, as well as forcing it to come up with a water-tight case to convince city councillors to vote to underwrite the costs.
The proposal stretched over a 30-year finance timeframe, which stated that the EICC project would eventually bring £2.3 billion into the city’s economy.
The work required the excavation of 70,000 tonnes of hard rock.
“At the height of the excavation, 150 lorries came back and forward all day long in order to create that pit we needed in order to accommodate the additional function space,” Rissmann recalls.
Throughout the build project, the conference centre remained open – which “saved the day” Rissman said, and the impact on delegates of the vast construction works was minimised.
Asked if he lost sleep about the potential for losing ground in the highly-competitive conference market during that time, Rissmann remains robust.
“We are leading the edge again with design and technology. This will ensure EICC will have a future for the rest of the 21st century. We are not losing momentum. We are catering for a market that grows internationally by up to 4 per cent (per annum).
“We fight against six continents. And Europe has now 42 countries. So when the UK is suggested, London is too busy and too big. Delegates get distracted. Manchester and Birmingham, no. But when Edinburgh comes up, they say ‘Oh’. In the 20 years I have been selling Edinburgh I have never come across a counter argument to ‘why the hell should we go to Edinburgh?’”
The international business conferencing jetset also includes trams on its list of desirables. Rissmann recounts how Princess Anne, at a recent EICC event, pulled him aside.
Says Rissmann: “She asked me, quite pointedly, ‘What do you think of the trams?’ I said: ‘Ma’am, our delegates are looking forward to riding the trams from the airport to the city centre. It will happen and it will be good.’”
One thing that keeps Rissmann going is his approach to leadership. He describes the structure of his team at EICC as “wheel and spoke”. Leading his team his way was one of the reasons he came to Scotland. In the early 1990s, he was running the Heathrow Penta Hotel. A recruitment consultant, whose search for a head of the as-yet unbuilt EICC had so far been fruitless, realised that the man running the hotel he was staying at would fit the bill to a “T”.
Initially, Rissmann was reluctant. He had left Germany to embark on the itinerant lifestyle of all ambitious hotel managers. But the chance to run his own operation – using the latest technology and writing his own employee “bible” was too good a lure.
“Eighteen years ago we were on the verge of opening the EICC – we had built it on time and on budget and no litigation. This is what we want to copy again this time around. We are on time and on budget – and hopefully there will be no litigation. It can be done.”
Born: Germany, more than 60 years ago.
Education: College of Economics.
First job: At 11 years old, picking up bowling pins from nine-pin bowling alley.
Ambition while at school: To the distress of my economics teacher, I always wanted to become a hotel general manager.
Car: A German car.
Kindle or book? Book.
Favourite movie: The Wizard of Oz – because of the human messages throughout.
Can’t live without: Reliable and trustworthy people.
Favourite place: Costa de la Luz.
Mentors or heroes: Lord Bute, chairman of the National Trust (mentor); Mr Hilton (hero).
What makes you angry? Lack of detail making allowances for shortcomings and mediocrity.
Best thing about your job: Working with people and for people.