The EICC has hosted more than 3,000 events under Hans Rissmann’s stewardship. Now, after two decades at the helm, he has cleared his desk, writes Kristy Dorsey.
The story of the man and the venue have been intertwined for around two decades, but that came to an end on Friday when Hans Rissmann cleared his desk in the chief executive’s office of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC).
Planned well in advance, Rissmann’s retirement follows what he describes as the most difficult period in the history of the Morrison Street meeting place – a £30 million extension designed to see the EICC through the first half of the 21st century. Delayed by the fall-out from the start of the recession in 2007, the project came in four years late when it was finally completed last year.
Projected increases in revenues didn’t materialise as soon as expected, putting the EICC £1m into the red in 2013, with similar losses expected in the current year.
But with the chaos of building work now firmly in the past, Rissmann is confident the EICC will get back on track.
“Delays to the delivery of the expansion space have had a knock-on effect, but a strong new business pipeline means we will make up the lost ground from 2016 if not before,” he says.
Despite these difficulties, the council-owned EICC continues to fulfil its primary objective of bringing in money-spinning summits. It hosted 135 events last year, generating a record-breaking £50m in economic uplift for the city.
With three grandchildren and a “horrible” golfing handicap of 24 that he would like to bring down, the 70-year-old says it’s the right time to leave. The EICC’s first and only chief executive until now, Rissmann hands over to his successor, Marshall Dallas.
“After 21 years, it is mixed feelings,” he says. “On the one hand, it is sad, and on the other hand it is job done – mission accomplished.”
Plans for a meeting place in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle had been many years in the making by 1993, when city councillors began looking for someone to run the forthcoming venture. Rissmann at that time was in charge of the Heathrow Penta Hotel, and came on the radar by chance while the council’s headhunter was staying there.
The original £42m project came in “on time, on budget, and with no litigation”, much to Rissmann’s pride, opening on 17 September, 1995 after two-and-a-half years of construction. The first conference was held by Sir Tom Farmer, the founder and former head of Kwik-Fit, who brought 1,400 of his employees to the capital for two days of team-building and sales training.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t care when you are opening, you tell me when, and I will be there’ – and he was,” Rissmann recalls.
It was the first of an initial 100 bookings covering a span of eight years. That tally has now grown to more than 3,000 events which have generated a total estimated economic impact of more than £430m.
Prime ministers, presidents and royals have all crossed the venue’s threshold through the years, starting with the Queen, who officially opened the EICC on 6 July, 1996. The day included lunch with 400 guests – an event Rissmann recalls fondly – though the highlight of his EICC career was undoubtedly the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1997.
It was there that he met Nelson Mandela, a man who “made his own timetable and always came late”. Ten minutes after the Queen and Prime Minister had already been escorted in for pre-dinner drinks, the South African president arrived with only Rissmann on hand to greet him.
“I did bring to his attention that he was a wee bit late, and he said ‘Oh young man, take me to the Queen, I must apologise’,” Rissmann recalls.
“He had difficulties with his legs – his toes had been broken during his time in prison – and he couldn’t walk very well. I asked whether he wanted to go to the drinks reception or up to the dining room, and he said ‘Give me your arm and we will go upstairs, shall we?’
“It was slow, but there was still no one there when we arrived. I had 20 minutes talking to the man on my own – not a government official in sight.”
Following the EICC’s expansion last May, there is now room to host dinner for as many as 1,700 people, a mark that has been pushed to capacity by events such as the Scottish Business Awards. There is also room to run two major events simultaneously, with the previous limit of 1,800 delegates now up at 3,000.
The effects of this were felt last month when the EICC hosted both the World Congress on Cancers of the Skin and the World Congress of Reproductive Biology. With a combined delegate count of 1,500, the two generated an estimated £2.7m in economic activity in a single week.
This is key, says Rissmann, as the size and duration of an event is more important than the total number of events.
“It was difficult and frustrating at times, but in order for the EICC to survive and have a place on the world stage of conferences and international meetings, we had to expand. It will now survive through the 21st century.”
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