Conferences and exhibitions: ExCel challenges London’s venues - The capital’s events facilities square up to 90,000sq m of new space

A status quo has existed among London’s conferences and exhibitions venue market for many years now, but come autumn, it is going to be disrupted in dramatic fashion.

A status quo has existed among London’s conferences and exhibitions

venue market for many years now, but come autumn, it is going to be

disrupted in dramatic fashion.



Some furious building activity in the Docklands will see the birth of

ExCel, where the Royal Docks once sat. But with 90,000sq m of events

space when it opens and a further 155,000sq m to be added by September

2003, ExCel will still be only half the size it should be to properly

address the needs of a space-hungry exhibition market, says John Fish,

managing director of John Fish Exhibitions. Even so, there is no getting

away from the fact that ExCel will stand as the largest events facility

the City has ever had.



But what does the arrival of ExCel mean for long-established venues in

London, and what are their battle plans in the face of this

competition?



Some don’t see ExCel as direct competition because of the difference in

capacity. ’We can’t offer more than 6000sq m,’ says Martin Mochan, venue

sales manager at the Business Design Centre in Islington.



’We are too small for the large exhibition organisers to consider us in

the first place - they are looking at space covering 8000sq m to

10,000sq m-plus. Our niche is mainly business-to-business trade events

and a sprinkling of consumer shows.’



Preparing for the forthcoming monster landing on its Docklands’

doorstep, the London Arena, with 9000sq m of space, has also been

weighing up the pros and cons of ExCel. The fact that it is a much

bigger building and predominantly an exhibition-led venue, whereas the

Arena can cater for anything in the sporting, entertainment and

corporate worlds, sets the venues apart.



A pounds 10m investment in 1998 has certainly been a boost for the

Arena, too, and it is now preparing to spread its marketing net wider,

looking beyond the confines of the UK to European and US clients.



But leaving nothing to chance, sales director James Rees says: ’We have

become more targeted as the competition has built up. In the early days

we had no profile at all, but now we are sensible in our approach to the

sort of events we are looking to attract and we do turn events away if

we feel they are not the right fit.’



The likes of Earls Court and Olympia and, to a lesser extent, Wembley,

while still smaller in size than ExCel, are watching the situation more

closely. For events requiring more than 12,000sq m of space, the range

of venues in London has always been restricted. Exhibitions needing up

to 30,000sq m have had Earls Court or Olympia to choose from, unless

they went to Birmingham’s NEC. ExCel will curb that London duopoly.



’It will put pressure on existing venues to do something different, be

it in pricing or the choice of premium slots,’ says Wembley’s London

managing director, Janet Garner, adding, ’ExCel will be a catalyst for

action’.



Exhibition organisers are already switching allegiances. The DIY and

Garden Show will move from Olympia to ExCel in March 2001 and John Fish

Exhibitions has decided to take its annual Holiday and Travel Show there

in March 2001, having shunned the area in the past in favour of G-Mex in

Manchester and the SECC in Glasgow because of congestion and parking

difficulties. The fact that the ExCel site will feature parking for more

5000 cars means the capital becomes a viable option.



Meanwhile, communication technology is the prime draw for global project

management company, Management Support Services (MNS), which anticipates

using ExCel every four months for conferences.



Karl Williams, MNS’s European marketing director, says: ’We want to be

able to pull data directly into the venue from any office in the world.

Most venues in London are having to modernise their buildings. Companies

now operate globally and they want to be able to communicate on that

basis during an event.’ He adds: ’We want flexibility and configurable

space, too, and I am not convinced that current venues have the

provision or the scope for that.’



With ExCel being physically bigger, more technologically advanced and

offering extensive parking and, ultimately, more than 1000 rooms on

site, existing venues will have to compete on what is fast becoming an

uneven playing field.





Ousting apathy



Andrew Morris, who was hired as chief executive of the Earls Court

Olympia Group last October, following its pounds 183m buy-out by

Candover Investments and The Morris Family, acknowledges that in the

past there was a degree of apathy at the venue.



’The previous management here had a monopoly and weren’t as sympathetic

to customers as they could have been,’ he admits. ’There was sufficient

business to fill the calendar with a substantial amount being turned

away, so they didn’t have to be proactive.’



However, Morris refuses to believe that Earls Court and Olympia have met

their match, and he is now knocking the group into shape.



He believes that the market will have some difficulty in filling the

increased capacity in London until 2003, when he anticipates that

business will level out. He says: ’We have to be far more proactive, go

out to the marketplace and stimulate organisers into coming here.’



A pounds 60m improvement programme will stand both venues in good stead.

More important however, says Morris, is the group’s relationship with

its customers. ’Negotiations with customers are radically altering and

we will be responding more to their needs. We have increased customer

relations and service over the past three years and that will

continue.’





Long-term reputation



A further step toward countering competition will be to build on the

reputation of Earls Court and Olympia. The leading venue brand in the

UK, 87% of people in the UK know about Earls Court and Olympia, and 50%

of Londoners have visited the venues at least once in the past five

years.



’The brand has power because of its longevity,’ says Morris. ’I see

ExCel in a similar vein to the NEC - big, efficient, but rather bland.

Exhibitions are largely about experiences and creating a buzz will be

more of a challenge for ExCel than it is for us. We have the ability to

inject character into events, and the location and public perception of

the buildings give them tremendous status.’



But Wembley’s Garner agrees that existing venues cannot stand still, and

will announce plans for new events facilities in April. Wembley Arena is

more than 60 years old, the conference centre is 21 years old, and the

exhibition facilities would benefit from an extra 10,000sq m.



’If we have not built something different in three to five years’ time,

we will no longer be in the marketplace,’ she says. ’We will be sitting

on the doorstep of the new national stadium. Our ambition is to

redevelop and invest at the same time as it is built.’



Until then, she is keen to dispel perceptions that the Arena is nothing

but a rock and pop venue - it can, in fact, seat 12,000 people for a

conference. Following the sale of the stadium last March and the

consequent merging of the remainder of the venue, Wembley has a 43-acre

events site to offer.



Previously, the conference and exhibition centre, the Arena and the

three exhibition halls were marketed and operated separately, but the

staff now work across all the facilities and the venue is promoting the

fact that it can accommodate a variety of events in different

combinations.



Neither is it difficult to inter-connect the facilities. BBC Fashion

Week, for example, has staged a live show in the Arena and an exhibition

in the exhibition halls.



’We’re talking about total events these days - events with exhibitions,

workshops and interactive visual stage shows,’ Garner says, ’so we’re

taking a new approach. There is a huge marketplace out there for

multi-combination events that we have not even been trying to tap

into.’



Hotel groups are also drawing up battle plans, and a sudden glut of

large-scale developments will offer extensive meetings and banqueting

space in pockets of London hitherto untouched.



Most notable is the pounds 15m face-lift being given to the Novotel

London West in Hammersmith, as well as work at the Shaw Park Plaza in

north London and the centrally-based Hilton London Metropole.





Hotel refurbishments



Relaunched last September, the Novotel has responded to client demands

for more meeting space by transforming the hotel into a 3500 capacity

venue, making it one of London’s largest. The exhibition centre now

offers 1400sq m of space, while the largest suite has increased its

capacity to 900 and will seat 1600 for a banquet.



Last autumn, the International Park Plaza Hotels Group made its debut in

the UK with the opening of the Shaw Park Plaza on Euston Road. Besides

featuring a suite for 300, a refurbished auditorium will open in March

which, with tiered seating for 466, will become a unique selling

point.



’It will attract people who may usually go to convention centres because

they have difficulty in finding a raised auditorium of this size,’ says

Glenn Carroll, Shaw Park Plaza’s director of sales and marketing.



By far the largest project, though, is the extension to the Hilton

London Metropole, which will give it the distinction of being the

largest specialist convention hotel in Europe. Scheduled to be completed

by October, it will have 4100sq m of pillar-free conference space.



The hotel’s public relations manager, Leslie McGibbon, reports that

business is already booked at the Metropole until 2001 and that the

hotel is expecting to exceed its budget targets by at least 60%. ’We

estimate that we have knocked back pounds 60m worth of business because

we didn’t have the space before,’ he says.



While the glut of venues may have to fight for market share over the

next few years until, as Morris predicts, business levels out in 2003,

the presence of ExCel will undoubtedly act as a catalyst for the

development and growth of the industry.



Indeed, ExCel’s director of customer services and sales, Carolyn Hurley,

goes so far as to say that all the venues will learn to co-operate to

grow business in London as a whole.



’The exhibition business is growing by 8% year-on-year and that is what

has driven the creation of ExCel in the first instance,’ she says.

’Ultimately, each venue will find its own niche and marketplace. Each

will have its own idiosyncrasies.’



LONDON’S KEY VENUES

ExCel Capacity: 90,000sq m

Processing & Packaging Machinery

Exhibition - September 2001

The Holiday Show - March 2001

London Arena

Capacity: 9000sq m

Event Expo - January

London Marathon Exhibition - April

Earls Court Exhibition Centre

Earls Court 1 capacity: 41,805sq m

Earls Court 2 capacity: 17,000sq m

Daily Mail Ideal Home

Exhibition - March/April

London Motor Show - October

World Travel Market - November

Olympia Exhibition Centre

Capacity: 40,268sq m

Daily Telegraph House and Garden Fair - June

National Wedding Show - March

Wembley Capacity: 17,000sq m in exhibition halls; clear floor space of

3000sq m in Arena

Horse of the Year Show - September



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