BET­TING ON BRIS­BANE

Queen’s Wharf will be truly trans­for­ma­tive, not only for Bris­bane, but also for the Aus­tralian com­pany driv­ing the de­vel­op­ment – Echo En­ter­tain­ment

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - ECHO ENTERTAINMENT -

It’s the city’s un­like­li­est lo­ca­tion for an ur­ban oa­sis.

Un­der­neath the River­side Ex­press­way, the bi­tu­men mega­lith that cuts an ugly swathe along the north­ern bank of our river city, is a derelict and un­wel­com­ing con­crete void.

But here, at the for­got­ten birth­place of Bris­bane Town, the city’s re­birth is be­ing planned with a river­front de­vel­op­ment promis­ing to gift Bris­bane an in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised icon.

On the site of the city’s con­vict-era pe­nal set­tle­ment, Queen’s Wharf Bris­bane will rise like a mi­rage – a casino and re­sort with a sta­tis­ti­cally mind-bog­gling premise: 1100 pre­mium ho­tel rooms, 50 new restau­rants and bars, event spa­ces for 60,000 peo­ple, jobs for 8000 work­ers, 2000 apart­ments and 12 foot­ball fields of pub­lic space.

It will be truly trans­for­ma­tive, not only for the waste­land on the CBD’s north­ern river­front, but also for the Aus­tralian com­pany driv­ing the de­vel­op­ment – Echo En­ter­tain­ment.

It was only a few years ago that the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand Echo’s 20-year-old op­er­a­tion at Bris­bane’s Trea­sury Casino and Ho­tel were con­sid­ered against the odds.

The Trea­sury of­fer­ing des­per­ately needed up­grad­ing, but, land­locked be­tween Ge­orge and Wil­liam streets with build­ings vir­tu­ally un­touch­able un­der strict her­itage laws, the busi­ness was frus­trated.

Then, in Oc­to­ber 2013, the New­man govern­ment an­nounced a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion op­por­tu­nity to de­velop the Wil­liam Street govern­ment precinct, of­fer­ing up a casino li­cence for an in­te­grated re­sort.

And on July 21 this year, Echo hit the jack­pot, win­ning the bid and the right to de­velop the nine hectares of river­front from the Land Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing to Par­lia­ment House.

It was a shared win for Echo, own­ers of Jupiters Ho­tel and Casino on the Gold Coast and The Star in Syd­ney, which part­nered with Hong Kong en­ti­ties Chow Tai Fook En­ter­prises and Far East Con­sor­tium to cre­ate the Des­ti­na­tion Bris­bane Con­sor­tium.

Un­der the trio’s Queen’s Wharf plan, the her­itage-listed Trea­sury Casino will be reimag­ined as pre­mium re­tail and the Trea­sury Ho­tel will be­come a six-star Ritz-Carl­ton ho­tel.

The govern­ment build­ings on the river­front will give way to a ho­tel tower, casino and res­i­den­tial precinct, in­clud­ing the state­ment “Arc” build­ing fea­tur­ing a wrap-around Sky Deck with restau­rants and bars.

River­side pub­lic event and recre­ation spa­ces will host light and wa­ter shows and will con­nect to South Bank via a new pedes­trian bridge.

When the doors open in 2022, Echo will have re­lo­cated its Syd­ney head­quar­ters to Bris­bane and be­come one of the state’s largest com­pa­nies, big­gest em­ploy­ers and a key con­duit for un­leash­ing a wave of Chi­nese tourism on the state.

THE OP­POR­TU­NITY OF A LIFE­TIME

The mam­moth un­der­tak­ing rep­re­sents by far the most ex­pen­sive and am­bi­tious project to date for the now four-year-old com­pany, which spun out of wa­ger­ing gi­ant Tab­corp in 2011.

While the Queen’s Wharf win was a wa­ter­shed for the rel­a­tively young en­ter­prise, it

was also a must-win for Bris­bane’s in­cum­bent casino and for its pa­tient in­vestors.

“When peo­ple say to me ‘what does it mean to the com­pany’, the words trans­for­ma­tion and game-changer are used reg­u­larly… what­ever the de­scrip­tion this was sim­ply a must-win,” Echo’s chair­man John O’Neill said.

“Another way of ap­proach­ing it is ‘what if we’d lost?’ And that doesn’t bear think­ing about.”

In the past 12 months, Echo has been on the as­cen­dancy af­ter a wob­bly start to life out­side the Tab­corp nest.

An $870 mil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment of Syd­ney’s Star is now pay­ing div­i­dends and the com­pany’s share price has bounced back from a low of $2.13 at the be­gin­ning of 2014 to $5.18 this month.

Ear­lier this month, the com­pany’s full year earn­ings re­vealed net profit hit $169.3 mil­lion, up from $106.3 mil­lion a year ear­lier and with broad im­prove­ment across Echo’s op­er­a­tions.

Cap­i­tal in­vest­ments are also un­der way on the Gold Coast, with a $345 mil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment of Jupiters, and in Syd­ney, with another $500 mil­lion com­mit­ted to The Star over five years.

It’s part of Echo’s plan to ma­ture the busi­ness from a pure casino player into an in­te­grated re­sort op­er­a­tor.

While casi­nos re­main the com­pany’s en­gine room, lo­cal and global trends show in­te­grated re­sorts of­fer­ing non-gaming at­trac­tions such as great hotels, plus myr­iad events, din­ing and re­tail – as well as gaming – pro­vide a more mod­ern and ap­peal­ing propo­si­tion.

“The fo­cus over the past 20 to 30 years was mainly about casi­nos, but over time the in­te­grated re­sort model re­ally de-em­pha­sised the casino as­pect,” O’Neill said.

It also pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to stake a claim as a des­ti­na­tion of choice for China’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle classes who are not only earn­ing more but also spend­ing a greater pro­por­tion of their dis­cre­tionary in­come on travel, leisure and en­ter­tain­ment.

Aus­tralia is top of the list for as­pi­ra­tional Chi­nese trav­ellers, but only ranks 14th in terms of ac­tual des­ti­na­tions vis­ited, cre­at­ing a huge pipe­line of de­mand.

Matt Bekier, Echo’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, pre­dicts this largely un­tapped re­source will be­come Aus­tralia’s new min­ing boom.

“If you look at how the wealth is de­vel­op­ing, there is a mas­sive wave com­ing our way,” he said. “We’ve hardly scratched the sur­face of that tourism op­por­tu­nity.

“I re­ally be­lieve that in the next 20 years that po­ten­tial can, and should, be prop­erly har­nessed. I can re­al­is­ti­cally see, down the track, my kids work­ing in hos­pi­tal­ity be­cause it’s go­ing to be a mas­sive op­por­tu­nity for this coun­try.”

Those pre­dic­tions also un­der­line why Echo has no am­bi­tions for global ex­pan­sion and be­lieves, in­stead, that an Aus­tralian fo­cus is the key.

“In for­mu­lat­ing a strat­egy as to how you can best cap­i­talise on the op­por­tu­ni­ties we see, there is the op­tion of tak­ing our of­fer­ings offshore,” Bekier said. “But the re­search is over­whelm­ing that these mid­dle classes in Asia ac­tu­ally want to travel, they ac­tu­ally want to come here.

“So we will in­vest all of our money, all of our ef­fort into wel­com­ing those cus­tomers.

“We want to be the Aus­tralian hub that re­ally

par­tic­i­pates in that tourism growth. There’s no in­ter­est in go­ing offshore, it’s all about Aus­tralia.”

And it’s not a stretch to see why, with Echo re­search es­ti­mat­ing the Queen’s Wharf de­vel­op­ment will lead to an ex­tra 1.39 mil­lion vis­i­tors to Queens­land each year, bring­ing a $1.69 bil­lion an­nual in­crease to state tourism and adding $4 bil­lion to gross state prod­uct.

“We’re proud to say that our mis­sion and our vi­sion is to be the best in­te­grated re­sort busi­ness in Aus­tralia,” O’Neill said.

“We see what oth­ers have to of­fer and we ac­knowl­edge that we’ve got to pro­duce the best be­cause peo­ple, whether they are lo­cally, in­ter­state or in­ter­na­tion­ally based, shop around. It is a very com­pet­i­tive space.”

GLOBAL VI­SION HAS A LO­CAL FO­CUS

Un­der Echo’s model, the way to be the best is to marry a world view with a com­mu­nity fo­cus.

“We said from the out­set that this project was by Queens­land, for Queens­land,” Bekier said. “It will be a world-class de­vel­op­ment of which Bris­bane and Queens­land will be right­fully proud and one which will pro­vide lo­cals, first and fore­most, with ex­pe­ri­ences and life­style ameni­ties that will not only be last­ing but will set new stan­dards.

“We have al­ways been mind­ful of the need to pro­vide an in­te­grated, con­nected and ac­ces­si­ble de­vel­op­ment, with state-of-the-art at­trac­tions and quintessen­tially Queens­land char­ac­ter­is­tics that will be em­braced by Bris­bane and the broader com­mu­nity.”

This lo­cal affin­ity ex­tends from the drive to cre­ate that au­then­tic Queens­land ex­pe­ri­ence at Queen’s Wharf to Echo’s sup­port of lo­cal events and char­i­ties.

Bekier says there has been a re­newed fo­cus on be­ing a good neigh­bour, not only to mo­ti­vate its em­ploy­ees but in recog­ni­tion that it will cre­ate a more sus­tain­able busi­ness.

The Trea­sury prop­erty is en­gaged with lo­cal events from the Queens­land Ma­roons State of Ori­gin team to Bris­bane Fes­ti­val, and has sup­ported Surf Life Sav­ing Queens­land for 21 years, the Cere­bral Palsy League of Queens­land for 13 years, and re­cently com­mit­ted $3 mil­lion over three years to Ron­ald McDon­ald House South-East Queens­land.

“The work with the com­mu­nity and char­i­ta­ble ar­eas, the stuff we do in re­spon­si­ble gam­bling, the way we in­vest and rein­vest in our staff, the way we now en­gage with a much broader group of stake­hold­ers, that’s all be­cause we live in these com­mu­ni­ties, we’re go­ing to be around in these com­mu­ni­ties and our guests largely come out of these com­mu­ni­ties,’’ Bekier said.

“We need to be cred­i­ble par­tic­i­pants and that’s a bit of a shift from where we were a few years ago where it was much more short-term.”

Both Bekier and O’Neill stress the com­pany’s plan to move its head­quar­ters to Bris­bane is not lip ser­vice and rep­re­sents a gen­uine com­mit­ment to the state. It will also give head­quar­ters a bird’s-eye view over the as­sem­bly of the work­force needed to op­er­ate the Queen’s Wharf prop­er­ties and the open­ing of a tourism and hos­pi­tal­ity school on the Gold Coast.

With 2000 jobs to be cre­ated in the con­struc­tion phase of the project and 8000 when the doors open, the de­mand from prospec­tive staff has al­ready started.

Univer­sity stu­dents, engi­neers and ar­chi­tects who want to leave a “legacy” be­hind have been knock­ing on Echo’s door.

“It has been quite touch­ing,” Bekier said. “It’s ob­vi­ously meant a lot to a lot of peo­ple.”

That seal of ap­proval is par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing af­ter the en­ergy spent en­sur­ing the design of Queen’s Wharf demon­strated a true lo­cal affin­ity.

DIS­TINC­TIVE AND ICONIC DESIGN

The former New­man govern­ment re­peat­edly em­pha­sised it ex­pected bid­ders to cre­ate more than just a casino, de­mand­ing a city-defin­ing de­vel­op­ment and en­cour­ag­ing ap­pli­cants and stake­hold­ers to col­lab­o­rate.

Dur­ing the 21-month-long ten­der process, the con­sor­tium went through a num­ber of design it­er­a­tions and used key stake­hold­ers as tem­per­a­ture checks.

“If I go back to the orig­i­nal design that we had, it was quite dif­fer­ent from the fi­nal one,’’ Bekier said.

“There was also the no­tion of com­ing up with some­thing that was uniquely Bris­bane, quite dis­tinc­tive, and cer­tainly iconic. Some­thing that re­ally lever­ages the fan­tas­tic cli­mate through out­doors, through restau­rants, and it’s through those con­ver­sa­tions that we ended up de­sign­ing the Sky Deck. We needed and wanted some­thing that is pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble and cel­e­brates these won­der­ful Bris­bane char­ac­ter­is­tics.”

At 109m, the Sky Deck will crown the ho­tel de­vel­op­ment, fea­tur­ing pub­lic restau­rants and bars with a 360-de­gree view of the city.

But the design was not just a nod to the home town.

The con­sor­tium’s ar­chi­tects stressed that pub­lic spa­ces would be crit­i­cal to bring­ing the new de­vel­op­ment alive, and mar­ket re­search dis­cov­ered a lo­cal flavour, rather than a ho­mo­ge­neous re­sort feel, was what vis­i­tors wanted too.

“Par­tic­u­larly Asian cus­tomers, they say quite clearly they want to go to a place that’s at­trac­tive to lo­cals and full of lo­cal at­mos­phere; they don’t want to be in soul­less sur­rounds, how­ever beau­ti­ful they might be,” Bekier said.

The con­sor­tium handed the chal­lenge to cre­ate an ex­cit­ing and di­verse recre­ational space to Stephen Pate, di­rec­tor of CUSP Land­scape Ar­chi­tec­ture and Ur­ban Design, who treats the river as Bris­bane’s Eif­fel Tower.

It’s hard to rec­on­cile his artists’ im­pres­sions of chil­dren at play, city work­ers on a cof­fee stop and cou­ples lan­guid on the green shores of the river with the chain-link fenc­ing and con­crete paths that blight the river­front now.

“We’ve de­signed this space to be fully pro­gram­mable, mean­ing in the day­time chil­dren and fam­i­lies can lie around on grassy knolls in shade on the edge of the river on a new river­bank, but at night the area can be an au­di­to­rium or an am­phithe­atre for the river be­ing the stage,” he said.

And it im­pressed the Palaszczuk Govern­ment, which in award­ing the ten­der said it was the group’s plans for pub­lic space that “set them apart”.

The casino may be the money-spin­ner, but Echo is pas­sion­ate about reimag­in­ing the river’s north bank.

“If you think about that patch un­der the mo­tor­way, it’s ter­ri­ble,’’ Bekier said.

“If we get in there and ex­tend and ac­ti­vate it by putting in pop-up restau­rants and great pub­lic event spa­ces … and you get peo­ple to ac­tu­ally use the space, it will be val­ued and it will have much greater longevity than any­thing else, so I think it’s ac­tu­ally a good way for govern­ment to get us to in­vest.”

And it’s an in­vest­ment Echo is con­fi­dent will pay off for it and its share­hold­ers too.

It may be the com­pany’s most au­da­cious roll of the dice yet, but O’Neill says Queen’s Wharf will de­liver: “Peo­ple say, ‘is that a leap of faith?’ But we have our eyes wide open … and we think this is a pretty safe bet.”

BET­TING ON BRIS­BANE: Echo En­ter­tain­ment man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Matt Bekier and Echo chair­man John O’Neill.

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