RDS wants State to help with €60m revamp of famed venue

Interview: Michael Duffy

CEO Michael Duffy says naming rights are one financing option the RDS has. Photo: Gerry Mooney
CEO Michael Duffy says naming rights are one financing option the RDS has. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As views from the office go Michael Duffy’s is hard to top. The RDS chief executive is based in the corner of the Anglesey Stand, looking out over the verdant expanse of the RDS arena.

The arena has just played host to a Paul Simon concert with 35,000 attendees. Now the ground staff’s job is to get the place ready for the Dublin Horse Show – running from August 8 to August 12.

If Mr Duffy gets his way it could be one of the last horse shows taking place in the arena as currently constituted.

He wants to redevelop the Anglesey stand and turn the arena into a modern stadium.

This will help the RDS maintain its long-running relationship with Leinster Rugby who play their home games in the arena.

It’s all part of a general renovation programme expected to cost €60m over the next five-to-10 years.

The idea is to provide a solid commercial platform on which to base the society’s activities.

For many, the RDS is most associated with major events like the Horse Show, the Young Scientist Expedition or in recent years, the Web Summit.

That probably serves to obscure its core purpose – contributing to Ireland’s “economic and social development”.

It’s a charity, with a large focus now on helping talented young people progress in science or the arts, with projects like the Primary Science Fair for 4th-6th class kids, or the Visual Arts awards.

This is what the commercial activity is supposed to support.

The Horse Show comes under the philanthropic umbrella too – it’s designed to show off the Irish equestrian industry to the world.

Mr Duffy says the RDS is happy if the event breaks even – last year almost €5m was spent on it.

“Half of the people who come here come because of the equestrian programme, but the other half come because they just want to enjoy the day out,” Mr Duffy says, adding that the society is trying to broaden the event’s appeal to people whose first love may not be horses.

A lot of money has been spent in recent years to improve the facilities at the Ballsbridge campus.

But there’s a long way to go in an upgrade programme which has three pillars: the main arena redevelopment, an upgrade for the Simmonscourt hall, and general improvements in areas like IT, energy and drainage.

A key piece of the puzzle is figuring out how much government support the society will be able to draw on.

“We have planning permission, we have all the design done and everything like that. Once we know the level of support from Government and what’s required to make the project happen, we will be pressing the button,” Mr Duffy says.

The support scheme in question is the new €100m Large Scale Sports Infrastructure Fund established by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

“We’re waiting for that to basically open for applications. We’ll be applying to that for government assistance.

“We’ll be contributing well over half [the cost] and the mix will be RDS resources, naming rights, and government funding.

“We need to get that funding right to do it.”

Total income for the society last year was just shy of €20m. Most of that (€14m) came from events, while €4.4m came from renting out a 100,000 sq ft office development adjacent to the RDS campus.

Planning permission exists for another 100,000 sq ft but is due to lapse next year.

“There’s no doubt – we will come back to that,” Mr Duffy says, adding that the society had chosen to commit towards the arena redevelopment. The rest of the society’s income comes from subscriptions from its 3,500 members – both individual memberships, which Mr Duffy calls “the core” and corporate memberships are available.

The office development helped sustain the society through the recession, being completed just in time.

“Events are normally funded out of the marketing budget and of course when you go into a recession one of the budgets that gets cut is marketing. We saw a very significant drop in the number of events going through 2009, 2010, 2011,” says Mr Duffy.

“We had got [the office block] away, built and fully let and that really provided us with the financial underpinning to take us through the worst of the recession.

“And then with the recovery things have got back to normal.”

The society now plays host to around 300-350 events a year. Part of the plan to boost that is to redevelop the Simmonscourt hall, associated by many with the torture of university exams.

“We want to make it more of a multi-purpose complex so you can run different events there at the same time,” Mr Mr Duffy says, adding that this part of the project will cost €5m or €6m.

Simmonscourt was the home to the centre stage of the Web Summit until its departure a couple of years ago. The event hit the headlines for problems with the wifi – Mr Duffy says this was down to the volume of people in attendance rather than any issue with the venue.

“It’s a density issue. And they had problems with wifi in Lisbon. We know the physics of it.

“If you put that many people and that many devices into an area you’re going to have wifi problems,” Mr Mr Duffy says. He doesn’t believe the issue did the society’s attractiveness any damage.

“We always felt really pleased about the role that we played in the Web Summit. It came here as a very, very small venture and grew very significantly and we were delighted to be a part of that.”

Indeed, Web Summit sister event Moneyconf, which focuses on fintech and cryptocurrency, was held in the RDS this year and will be back next year.

Nor does Mr Mr Duffy feel the society is being hindered by capacity issues in Dublin.

A much-discussed shortage of hotel rooms in the city is not manifesting itself – perhaps because the society has partnerships with local hotels like the Intercontinental (formerly the Four Seasons), the Clayton Ballsbridge (formerly Bewley’s) and the Ballsbridge Hotel (formerly Jury’s).

“I can’t say that we have any feedback that says we lost business because of [a hotel shortage].

“From a calendar point of view all of our key dates are booked out for next year. Fortunately with the recovering economy, the demand is very, very strong.”

As our interview takes place the ground staff have begun to get the place ready for the arrival of the horse show following Paul Simon’s appearance.

With 100,000 people and 1,600 horses to be accommodated over the five days, Mr Duffy and his colleagues are going to be very busy.

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