Gareth James left an amazing legacy in the venue industry. He was, in effect, the Charles A. McElravy of the Venue Management Association of Australia. Just as McElravy saw a need of an association of auditorium managers in 1924, if for no other reason than to exchange ideas and viewpoints related to facility management, resulting in what is now IAVM, James did likewise.
As per Linton Lethlean’s detailed obituary of the visionary and industry leader, who passed away Nov. 18, James “envisaged that an Association of those involved in the venue management industry, particularly sports stadiums and entertainment centres, would provide an opportunity for its members to share their knowledge and experience in the management issues they dealt with on a daily basis.”
That vision resulted in formation of the VMA.
A leader at venues from Melbourne to Sydney, most recently Olympic Park Trust in Melbourne from 1997 until his retirement in 2005, James mentored many in the industry. His contributions and extraordinary life story are detailed in Lethlean’s collaborative goodbye, found below
Gareth Anthony William James
3 May 1949 – 18 November 2023
Gareth was the son of RAF pilot Hugh Glanffrywd James and Elizabeth James (nee Jones) and had three siblings Robert, Jennifer & Jeffrey and two half siblings Sarah and Huw. His dad’s official log book records the birth at 11.35 Zulu. That note explains Gareth’s later attention to detail!
Brother Jeff describes his and Gareth’s siblings’ childhood as peripatetic moving every two years around RAF bases in southern England including a two year stint in Alaska during the 1950’s. During his school years he moved from Kesgrave Prep in Woodbridge Suffolk to boarding at Christ College Brecon some 65kms north of Penarth, Cardiff in Wales where the family had settled in 1962. This movement according to Jeff disrupted his education much to Gareth’s chagrin but it also inspired his zealous appetite for learning, history and literature and wider horizons (and partly explains his zealous endeavors to establish the VMS in later years).
Whilst not a sporting hero at school he excelled outside of school hours in yachting, fly fishing, hill walking and cadet training in the Brecon Beacons landscape and was a recipient, along with a small team of boys, of a Duke of Edinburgh Award Gold medal in his final year as an A1 level student which was presented to him at Buckingham Palace.
1968 he started his first job as a trainee clerk with Lloyds Bank in Cardiff and after two years moved to head office in London and stayed there until early 1971.
Gareth was always interested in travel and was inspired by the round the world sailors Francis Chichester and Robert Knox-Johnson and so when he left the bank he hitchhiked to Spain and worked as a barman for close to a year in Lloret de Mar. Returning to the UK in 1972 he worked in a variety of jobs in and around London including a stint with HR Owen the leading Rolls Royce and Bentley dealer and amused himself driving the showroom cars.
Then after a brief working experience in the steelworks in Cardiff as a strike breaker he decided to try his luck in Australia not as a 10 pound Pom but on a self-financed 100 pound fly/sail excursion ticket to Perth via Singapore (where he was subject to a compulsory haircut under the entrance rules of Premier Lee Kwan Yu). After landing in Perth he hitchhiked across the Nullarbor to Sydney and on to Melbourne and so began his career in show business.
After a time in the finance department of JC Williamson Theatres he was transferred to the position of Assistant Manager of the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. It was here that he was known to wear a purple suit to work on alternative days to his co-worker Fred Hunter wearing it on the other days! Then followed positions with show promoters Kenn Brodziak (of Beatles fame) and Malcom Cooke.
In 1974 he worked as a Tour Manager (treasurer) for a number of Michael Edgley’s shows including Shirley Bassey and the Georgian Dancers, a position he handed over in 1975 to Peter Payne, who later on was one of the early members of the Venue Managers Association. He then became Treasurer/House Manager of the Perth Entertainment Centre from December 1975 to August 1980. He then was appointed Theatre Manager of His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth for twelve months until he returned to the Perth Entertainment Centre as its Manager from August 1981 to June 1983.
It was during those years in Perth that he formed a long term friendship with Stacy Mitchell which endured with her and her four boys up until his death.
In 1983 he returned to Melbourne as Assistant Director at Olympic Park responsible for the management of its Sports and Entertainment Centre and the Glasshouse. In 1984 he was appointed General Manager of the Sydney Entertainment Centre and after two years in that role he returned to Olympic Park as its Chief Executive a position he held for the next ten years until December 1996.
During those early days he was also closely associated with Andrew Guild, Greg Hall, Wayne Stevens, Jim Cranfield and Fred Hunter who retained contact with him in the years to follow.
There was a short period from January 1997 to June of that year when Gareth joined Ogden IFC to manage Stadium Australia in Sydney in the lead up to the Olympics but when the opportunity presented itself to him to manage the amalgamated Olympic Park Trust and Flinders Park – the Melbourne and Olympic Park Trust he returned to Melbourne as CEO of that organization from 1997 until his retirement in 2005. The foundations of the extraordinary sporting and entertainment complex that it is today was laid by Gareth and his team.
The Venue Management Association
It was during the early 80’s, based on his then Australia wide experience in management of venues that Gareth envisaged that an Association of those involved in the venue management industry, particularly sports stadiums and entertainment centres, would provide an opportunity for its members to share their knowledge and experience in the management issues they dealt with on a daily basis.
Having had a number of conversations with various industry participants over a period of time in the mid 80’s he held a meeting at his office at Olympic Park in March 1987 at which 12 entertainment and sporting venue managers considered the establishment of an association.
That initial meeting gave Gareth the green light to go ahead with his plan and led to the first formal conference of venue industry leaders at Olympic Park Melbourne in 1989 from November 6th to November 9th under the banner of The Australian Venue Managers Conference. In that two and one half year period word had spread and ninety one delegates from every State and Territory of Australia were in attendance representing all types of venues, clubs and industry suppliers and contractors. The attendance list reads like a Who’s Who of every manager of every publicly used venue in Australia at the time. And later it drew in members from the Asia Pacific region including, in particular, a number of New Zealanders.
The inaugural address was delivered by Michael Edgley followed by a keynote address by Al Antee, CVE, then President of the International Association of Auditorium Managers (IAAM now IAVM), commencing what was to become a strong connection with that US based organization.
It is fair to say that what was to become the Venue Management Association (the VMA), which today has 1,000+ members, was conceived in 1987 and born in 1989. It is to Gareth James whose vision and commitment brought it about, that credit is due.
Gareth as host and Convenor of the 1989 Conference
Following that conference, plans were put in place for regular events to draw the industry together, and in 1991, the Sydney Entertainment Centre, 1992 Melbourne’s then Flinders Park and 1993 Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building hosted a conference followed in 1994 by the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, the Sydney Showgrounds 1995 and the New Zealand’s Wellington Festival & Convention Centre in 1996.
It was in 1992 that the planning committee appointed an exhibition manager for the trade show associated with the conference, which was an important step in developing a revenue base for the VMA. 1992 was also the year the VMA was officially incorporated with Gareth, Shane Hewitt, and the writer being subscribers to the original incorporation documents. Its objective was to provide managers of public assembly facilities in the Asia Pacific region with an organization dedicated to their professional development and to the growth and success of the industry.
Upon incorporation, certain formalities had to be addressed with the appointment/election of directors and office bearers. Many of us assumed that Gareth would put his hand up to lead the VMA as its first President – but Gareth in, what the writer was to see over many years, his typical trademark unassuming way, dismissed that suggestion and suggested that Maddie Whitworth the General Manager of the Sydney Entertainment Centre should get the gig. So high was our regard for both Gareth and Maddie that she took up the role unopposed as the inaugural VMA President leading a team of directors being the late Bob Carr (Secretary), Bill Hindson (Newsletter) Shane Hewitt (Treasurer and Membership Secretary), the writer, John Benett (Q), Gillian Houser (NZ), Jacqueline Kueck (Singapore) & Daryl Cullen (Tas). Other key participants in those early years were the late Lyn Hunter (Vic), Christine Howe (SA), Laurie Jackson (NSW), Len McPherson (SA), Susan Molloy (Vic) Colin Sanders (NSW), Ian Fraser (SA), Rod Pilbeam (Q), Harvey Lister (Q), Lyn Hunter (Vic), Ian Perth (WA), Colin Dyer (NZ), Gordon Ragg (NZ), Michael Ryle (Vic) and Tim Worton (NSW).
And so Gareth, having overseen the establishment of the VMA without seeking any set leadership role, quietly went about putting his stamp on how the VMA should run, sitting unobserved as Vice President and keeping his team in order. The writer followed Maddie in the role the following year only to be tapped on the shoulder two years later and told “it’s Shane Hewitt’s turn”. Such was one’s trust and faith in Gareth’s subtle ability as kingmaker that his views were always accepted. It was only a year or so later when Shane stepped down to take on the Executive Officer role of the VMA that Gareth reluctantly filled the President’s role until the next conference when John Benett who was later to take over from Shane Hewitt as Executive Officer, became President.
By 1994 the future of the VMA was well established and it was in the hands of its members with an active board of Directors and with various subcommittees covering such activities as a newsletter, the school, the convention and trade show, membership, secretarial services and finance. By then Shane Hewitt as Executive Director was also being ably assisted by Sally Greaves in the many administrative tasks.
The leading role he played in the establishment and early management of the VMA was one of Gareth’s three outstanding and significant contributions to the industry.
The Public Venue Management School (VMS)
His second contribution was the implementation of his plan for the establishment of the VMS assisted by academics Jim Kable and Jennifer Radbourne from the Business Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology. It was modeled on the IAVM’s successful Oglebay school. His specially formed subcommittee wasted no time in getting the VMS started in late 1994 at Kooralbyn Resort Hotel some 90 kms inland from the Gold Coast using a team of instructors from within the ranks of the VMA membership and IAVM’s Oglebay school. Participants have been able to enhance their network of professional contacts within the venue industry, learn advanced management practices and leadership.
The International Association of Venue Managers (IAAM – now IAVM)
Gareth’s third contribution was the connection he made with the IAVM (the US/Canada venue managers organisation) and the assistance he obtained from it in those early years.
As regular attendees at the IAVM annual conference and Trade shows Gareth and the writer accepted an invitation to address an IAVM Board meeting in Los Angeles in 1992 to present the VMA case for
IAVM support of the VMA in its formative years. Gareth eloquently presented such a strong case that a succession of IAVM Presidents and lecturers from its school came to Australia for many years. In addition IAVM accepted all VMA members as associate members of IAVM. Subsequently Gareth became so well regarded by the IAVM that he was invited to join its Board as the first non-American mainland Director. Gareth put the International into the IAVM which had a number of overseas members but tended to focus on its USA and Canadian membership and activities.
He forged particularly strong relationships with two of its Presidents, namely the late Dick Walsh from Los Angeles and Dexter King, CVE, from Boise Idaho, so much so that their personal involvement and commitment to the VMA led to them being honoured as Life Members.
That strong bond between the IAVM and the VMA still exists today and memories of those early IAVM contributions namely by Dick & Dexter, Denis Finfrock, CVE, Bob Mayer, CVE, Warren Buckley, Al Antee, CVE, Cliff Wallace, CVE, Dick Shaff, Frank Russo, CVE, John Swinburne and John Christison, CVE, remains today.
The Later Years
After retirement from the Trust he re-joined Ogden IFC as Coordinator of the venue management component for the Singapore Sports Hub Bid in 2006 & 2007 and as a venue development consultant in Abu Dhabi. He was also for a short time the CEO of the statutory authority responsible for the Falls Creek Alpine Region and its facilities.
In about 2004 Gareth had been diagnosed with throat cancer and for nearly 20 years courageously battled the ongoing limitations and afflictions that beset him.
He was the patron of a small group of retired Melbourne based VMA participants (the Feather Dusters) consisting of Shane Hewitt, Peter Payne , John Howie, the writer and Gareth. The group met two or three times a year for lunch at its clubhouse in North Melbourne and Gareth despite his inability to consume anything other than some warm soup and a cup of tea always contributed to the conversation if his raspy vocal cords allowed. He never once looked for pity or sympathy and remained a keen attendee at all times.
As Dexter King recently wrote to John Benett –
“This man Gareth James was truly a visionary and stalwart venue professional with a passion for enhancing both organisation and individual success. He was the standout example of genuine interest of individual and corporate hospitality. A servant leader he widely gained the trust and faith of all his colleagues and acquaintances. We became good friends, allied with a mutual view of what the benefits of a global network of venues might achieve. During my tenure as President and then CEO of IAVM I was often reminded of the foundation that was established by Gareth forming the incredible relationship between VMA and IAVM today. Thank you Gareth. You will be missed and in memory always cherished”.
Apart from family, one’s best friends tend to be those you see on a regular basis where you live, work, or relax. But then there are those keep in touch with after you have gone your separate ways and yet always pick up the conversation where you left off the last time you met. Gareth James was one of those. The VMA, IAVM and all of us, have lost one of our best friends.
And during all those development phases – the formation of the VMA, the establishment of the School and the development of the relationship with IAVM – there was always a shared camaradarie at the conferences and in committees in whatever city they were held. It is summed up in the writer’s view by the title to a great old documentary about the music group the Seekers entitled “Wasn’t that a Time!”.
Notwithstanding the work load, we all had a considerable amount of fun and met new friends in all parts of Australia, the Asia Pacific and North America.
Vale Gareth and thanks for the companionship and the memories.
Mae’n amser i orffwys nawr. (It’s time to rest now)
Obituary written by – Linton R. Lethlean, VMA President 1993 – 1995 (With welcome input from Gareth’s siblings Robert & Jeff James, Stacy Mitchell and VMA friends Peter Payne, Shane Hewitt, Rod Pilbeam, Laurie & Maddie Jackson & Meg Walker).