We caught up with Raymond Robinson, Head of Conferencing & Operations at the Assembly Buildings Conference Centre.
The venue is over 115 years old but has boasted impressive tech and an outstanding in-house team for years. They look forward to leading the way in hybrid.
Who have you been in lockdown with and what have you been doing to keep yourself positive?
I have been locked down with my wonderful wife Julie. She is a physiotherapist and we’ve both been fortunate enough to carry on working during lockdown, which has kept us busy.
I am generally a positive person and I’ve been using music to keep myself sane and express myself – music is my passion and I’ve been enjoying recording and composing in my home studio.
Raymond plays a whole range of wind instruments and in his spare time has toured extensively worldwide with various groups and artists. He’s performed in every major concert hall in Belfast including the Assembly Buildings where he now works. His ear for music has had an unmistakable influence in the venue’s facilities and he enjoys working with the Centre’s Professional Audio Visual Engineers.
What has been the hardest thing about lockdown for you?
Like most people, the hardest thing has been missing family and friends. Having become a grandparent for the first time in January, it’s been especially tough to keep a distance from key close relationships, especially those who are at risk.
Although I have been working throughout, I’ve missed our clients and colleagues, including the buzz of events and having people in the building.
What the current situation has brought back to everyone is the importance of connections. Northern Irish people are relationship people, always chatting, meeting and working together which Covid-19 has impacted.
Lockdown has helped us to realize what is important in life and that which we cannot cope without. The things we argued over and thought were problematic have lost significance now and I think people are listening more and taking more care of each other.
Alongside conferencing, the Assembly Buildings is also the home for the central administration of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Across the headquarters and the conference facilities, there is a team of approximately 100 people. Currently around two thirds of the team are on furlough, awaiting the opportunity to reopen fully.
What have you and the conferencing team been working on during lockdown and what have you got planned for the future of the venue when audiences return?
We have been looking at this as a pause in market, which has allowed us to consider future market conditions, examining opportunities and how we can minimize the impact of Covid-19. We have always been very focused on our technology, with an amazing in-house IT team and arguably the best AV in the country but we’ve been investing even further to adapt the building and our capabilities for the future.
We were always hybrid ready so we have just been expanding on our existing facilities to create additional opportunities for clients and create space. Investing in expanding our video conferencing facilities and upgrades to screens and projectors allows for additional flexibility in the use of the building. Organizers can choose to stream sessions across multiple rooms and to an online audience, significantly increasing our capacity.
The venue has a very long history and faced many changes and challenges in the past, what are your biggest challenges now and how will that resilience see you through the coming months?
We are very fortunate that there are no organizational or venue issues and we are in a good position for reopening with flexibility for clients. The interesting thing about working in a historic building is that you can look back at what major world events and challenges the people before you faced.
Coronavirus has been horrible but our history as a venue since 1905 reminds me that we will get through this. History shows that we find a way and people work together to find solutions. To quote Nelson Mandela – “it always seems impossible until it is done”.
What opportunities and lessons from lockdown will you be taking forward into the future?
Relationships have been reemphasized for me and we will be working together more than ever. Lockdown has made us reflect and realize that no venue can stand on their own and I think that’s the future for Belfast.
The city was on an accelerated growth trajectory and if we want to see the industry growing again it will take the good will, willingness and heart of people who want it to succeed. The desire for people to visit the city and the culture of cooperation is still there. We have the unique positon and opportunity to be able to work together to deliver events across multiple venues seamlessly and will all benefit if we work together.
We’ve always had a willingness to work together, it’s in our nature. The concept of a city-wide conference has always been there but this is an opportunity to have a more defined look at it and create a package for the entire city.
Thinking ahead a year or two, do you think that we will eventually go back to “normal” or what do you think will be different in the post-Covid world? How will events be changed?
I don’t think there is ever a “normal”, humans are always developing, learning new skills and adapting. The world is changing and people by nature are creative and change too.
I think the future of events will be enhanced. We will analyze what we went through and establish what positives we can take away from it. People will have a new focus on working together, sincerely listening and delivering experiences that make a difference.
This is an opportunity for us to develop how we deliver conferences and meetings. The potential to reach worldwide is greater than ever, as people are more accepting of using tech and seeing each other on screens and it’s not a fad. Hybrid meetings will certainly be more commonplace and the online audience will be bigger.
Technology makes the world smaller, it’s been impressive to see how specialists and companies have been able to adapt and achieve great things in a restrictive world. I think this will continue – sharing skills and developments for all sectors will accelerate change and growth.