Recently appointed Willowbank Raceway CEO Blair Conaghan was previously venue manager at the Gabba. Picture: Tara Croser.
Recently appointed Willowbank Raceway CEO Blair Conaghan was previously venue manager at the Gabba. Picture: Tara Croser.

Experienced ’brand junkie’ reveals new course for Raceway

FROM surviving the current COVID challenges to providing an enhanced motorsport experience to keep people coming back.

Willowbank Raceway's recently appointed CEO Blair Conaghan is clear about what he hopes to achieve at the Ipswich Motorsport Precinct in coming months.

"The thing that we have out here which is fantastic is space,'' Conaghan said, having previously worked in contained concrete venues in Queensland and NSW.

"That's what is really exciting about Willowbank.''

With such a big parcel of land and unlimited imagination to work with, Conaghan was already considering future possibilities.

Given his impressive record at major organisations, Conaghan is entitled to speak confidently about his aspirations.

As venue manager at the Gabba, he oversaw the successful 2017 Adele concert which attracted more than 60,000 fans amid some fierce opposition.

"Pretty much the whole media was anti the event,'' he said. "They were worried about transport couldn't cope with it. Only Suncorp (Stadium) had runs on the board . . . the Gabba has never run concerts and all that sort of stuff.

"We planned and planned and planned this event and how its run and it ran exceedingly well.

"Everyone's expectation was met and people said the Gabba is a good venue. And that's all you need.''

While Adele won't be performing at Willowbank Raceway any time soon, Conaghan has high hopes of making a difference at the unique Ipswich venue.

"Even in the short time I've been here, people talk about the atmosphere at the track,'' Conaghan said.

"You can't buy that. You can't build that. You've just got it.

"So you can only build on that.

"That's the opportunity that we have now to then create that event experience where people get into the stands and let the drag racing to take place to have a good night.''

Top sportsman racer Nicole Doeblien. Picture: Dave Reid/dragphotos.com.au
Top sportsman racer Nicole Doeblien. Picture: Dave Reid/dragphotos.com.au

Conaghan, 51, launched his incredible sporting journey in 1992 after "the moment that changed his life''.

He was studying at the University of Wollongong and had just finished a degree when Sydney was named as host city for the 2000 Olympics.

"Being a young bloke just starting out in my career, I thought that would be a good chance to start off in a new area,'' he recalled.

After studying exercise science and nutrition, Conaghan accepted a job in 1994 as pool supervisor at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre.

He never looked back.

While being mentored by some great people at the Homebush site, he was part of the innovative Hey Hey It's Saturday live cross to the aquatic centre in 1996 featuring Queensland favourite Kieren Perkins trying to qualify for the Olympics.

"That was the first time they ever televised live swimming outside the Olympic Games,'' he said.

 

Blair Conaghan at the Gabba where he worked for 11 years. Picture: Tara Croser.
Blair Conaghan at the Gabba where he worked for 11 years. Picture: Tara Croser.

From there, the Rockhampton born go-getter worked at the 1996 World Junior Athletics Championships in Sydney before becoming events manager at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Joking that Sydney was a place for young people, he took his family north for a sea change.

He relocated to Dairy Farmers Stadium in Townsville to continue his work as a venue manager.

During his stint from 2005-07, the Cowboys hosted two major NRL finals at the venue.

In 2007, he took up the venue manager's role at the Gabba cricket ground, where he served for 11 years before taking a break.

Refreshed from a year off travelling, Conaghan seized on the opportunity to work at Willowbank having heard about Ipswich's reputation for holding major events.

"I don't know whether it's I'm brand junkie or whatever else but Willowbank Raceway, the Winternats and CMC Rocks are probably three of the strongest brands in South East Queensland corner,'' he said.

"I don't think there's too many people that wouldn't know about those events.''

Although working in the motorsport arena for the first time, Conaghan plans to use the vast skills he has from previous big event management.

Having worked in sports like rugby league, swimming and athletics, he's seen first hand the passionate sporting base. But he said more than passion was needed to draw people back, something he wants to enhance at Willowbank.

"I see my role trying to create the event experience for everybody,'' he said.

"The competitor, the patron, the media, the corporate. Make it a place where they can have an experience.

"It's only the service and quality of the whole experience that keeps you coming back.''

Blair Conaghan. Picture: Peter Wallis
Blair Conaghan. Picture: Peter Wallis

Just three weeks into his new role, Conaghan concedes Willowbank Raceway faces many challenges rising from its current situation.

"You can't sugar coat it,'' he said. "Until the restrictions are eased and the borders are open again, Willowbank is going to do it hard until that time."

However, he sees the road forward that can help Willowbank Raceway recover.

"COVID has presented any number of opportunities for the venue to kind of reset itself and make some changes to create a better experience moving forward,'' he said.

He's establishing objectives and goals building on what past Raceway administrators have achieved.

"A lot of them are kind of already in train. They're just a matter of focus and putting time lines around them,'' he said.

"Making and establishing a business plan at this point is pretty much impossible.''

Conaghan said the past six months during COVID was focused on trying to survive.

He knows motorsport, like all sporting organisations, is dealing with an audience that has a limited disposable income.

However, he is eager to build on some positive signs as spectators are allowed back at the venue.

"We just have to try and make the value proposition,'' he said.

He hopes improved online ticketing arrangements make visiting the Raceway more seamless.

Supercharged Outlaw competitor Cheyne Phillips. Picture: Dave Reid/dragphotos.com.au
Supercharged Outlaw competitor Cheyne Phillips. Picture: Dave Reid/dragphotos.com.au

Having also been a sports trainer with the Illawarra Hawks in the NBL, Conaghan shared what is the toughest part of working in venue management.

"I haven't been part of it but it's been the whole need to be agile,'' he said.

"COVID has been a classic example of people drop yourself on you and there's a bigger picture in play.

"You have to be agile enough to move to meet those changes.''

The most rewarding aspects keep him returning for more.

"To see people having a good time,'' he said, when asked what is most satisfying about event management.

"There is the stuff you can't control, which is the on-field performance stuff. But if people walk way with a smile on their face and have a good time, that to me is the greatest thing that you can have.''


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