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
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
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.
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
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
’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
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
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.
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
’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
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