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
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.