By the time The O2 launched on 24 June, it had already sold more than 1m advance tickets. On the other side of London, the new Wembley Stadium opened its doors to glowing reviews. Neither was developed without controversy, but for the event-management industry and the brands it represents, both have proved a godsend. Moreover, they have laid down the gauntlet for the rest of the UK's venues.
'Forget the bad press that centred on their construction, London's two newest venues are absolutely world class,' says Lee Farrant, partner at brand experience agency RPM. 'The biggest advantage they have is space - The O2 is equivalent in size to 13 Royal Albert Halls. It gives brands the opportunity to use non-traditional media and experiential or interactive marketing in innovative ways.'
One of the key things event organisers look for when picking a venue is flexibility. While they can often provide the technology, organisers need a versatile space in which to put on a show. The main arena of The O2 has been built with this in mind, and can be set up to seat as many as 20,000 people or as few as 2000. The indigO2 area, meanwhile, can accommodate up to 2350 visitors, with a public open space on the ground floor and an amphitheatre-style conference room on the first floor.
In terms of branding, there are several options available; big screens line the approach to the venue as well as the main entrance, while illuminated screens are positioned along the perimeter, all accompanied by localised sound systems. At Wembley, meanwhile, there are ambient-media screens throughout the concourse, escalators and lifts to the lofty positions of the upper seating levels and hospitality boxes.
Since opening, The O2 has proved a popular addition to the venue circuit. It will house up to 150 events in the main arena every year and corporate bookings are welcomed in between, such as a conference it recently hosted for LloydsTSB, involving 1000 of the bank's employees.
The corporate opportunities on offer extend beyond a stand-alone conference or hospitality at a gig. Brands can also showcase their products and services by sponsoring the venue. The O2's Blue Room, for example, allows O2 customers and three guests access to an exclusive bar area. Brand experience agency Sledge has created a mobile projection wall in the space, with which guests can interact via their mobile phones, providing immersion in the O2 brand.
Similarly, the venue's other brand partners, which include BMW, AOL and NEC, each have a different experiential element. NEC, for example, has a demonstration area in the heart of the building, while BMW has a VIP corridor, where its guests are ushered along a branded route into the venue.
'From the sponsor's point of view it provides an opportunity to present its brand in an interesting way. It brings each of those brands to big groups of people, rather than waiting for the customer to come to them,' says Lesley Saville, chief marketing officer for the venue's owner AEG Europe.
High-profile projects such as The O2 are also raising awareness of UK venues internationally and they are inevitably affecting the fortunes of existing venues, particularly large-scale peers such as Twickenham, which had absorbed some of the events made homeless by the closure of the old Wembley stadium. These venues are now suffering as these events return to their traditional homes and the ripple effect may also have an impact on smaller spaces. Now Wembley and The O2 have raised the bar of what clients can expect from venues, the pressure is on for venues of all sizes to innovate.
One criticism levelled at the UK events industry is that smaller venues have failed to keep pace with client demand. 'There is a severe deficit of good-calibre mid-sized venues with 4000 to 8000 capacity,' says Fred Porro, UK managing director of event agency Ignition, whose executive chairman Kevin Wall recently produced the Live Earth gigs. 'There are only a handful of this type of venue, which is rare for a market as big as the UK. Furthermore, out of all the mid-sized venues, I would rate only a few as top-notch, which makes things even more difficult.'
The need for more venues extends even further down the chain, according to Jack Morton Worldwide project director Paul Dawson. 'London also needs good-quality venues such as hotels that can accommodate 500 to 1000-plus delegates.'
This may be one reason why brands are becoming more daring in their choice of location; car parks, disused warehouses and parks have all played host to big brands looking to attain a certain kudos by straying from the norm.
Cameron Day, business development director at Iris Experience, which recently handled Sony Ericsson's collaboration with Orange at a 'Best of Festivals' event at Camden Lock in London, believes existing venues have to work harder to stay afloat. 'The reason that venues die in the UK is because they are poorly managed,' he says. 'But if the venue is efficient, it will ensure that brands keep coming back.'
Porro, meanwhile, argues that venues must stay fresh and offer unusual alternatives for brands if they are to remain competitive. 'Venues won't be affected as much if they have heritage. However, innovation can have a huge impact if it is just another "typical" venue,' he says. 'Event spaces are similar to artists in that they need to keep reinventing themselves if they want to continue to be successful. Unfortunately, many venues do not do this and end up getting lost in the clutter.'
Clients, then, should be looking for venues willing to invest in a clear point of difference. For example, central London venue The Brewery, which has recently hosted events for Orange and Euromoney, underwent a £1.5m refurbishment last year that introduced a permanent LED lighting system across its space. The purpose was to give it a unique selling point and gain advantage over similar-sized competitors.
According to the venue's general manager, Claire Lawson, the investment is paying dividends. 'The lighting system makes it easier for production managers to come and simply plug in their kit and ensures the turnaround time is much quicker. It also allows us to "wash" the room in a brand's corporate colours,' she says. 'It has been a phenomenal success in converting business that we may not otherwise have won because it appeals both to the corporate organiser and production firms.'
Hotels are another sector having to raise their game. They are hosting increasingly unusual experiential work, and are broadening their offering to accommodate large-scale events that break away from typical theatre-style presentations, plenary sessions and breakout rooms.
'Boutique hotels is a particularly active sector where, driven by customer demand, there is a high level of motivation to maintain their USP and provide the high standards of style and atmosphere they are renowned for,' says Dawson.
Of course, it is not just the decor and ambience of the surroundings that make an event work. The technology behind it can be key to marketing an event more widely. This summer's Live Earth concerts, for example, were broadcast online via MSN and on TV in more than 100 countries. There were more than 54m online video streams throughout the concert, allowing the event to straddle numerous marketing media.
Using technology to engage with the target audience has become a fundamental part of event marketing, and mobile communications firms seem be at the forefront of development in this area. For example, as Bluetooth handsets have become standard, more brands are using the technology to cement dialogue with consumers during events, and venues that can facilitate this will have an advantage over their rivals.
The pressure on venues to adapt will remain intense, especially in London, where the 2012 Olympics will have an enormous impact on the sector. Indeed, with so many event spaces being built from scratch, the Games could provide the perfect opportunity to design locations with the needs of brands in mind.
Such forethought is crucial if these venues are to survive post 2012, according to Dawson. 'Now is the time to think about sustainability to ensure that these new venues truly consider how they can be used after the Olympics,' he concludes. 'This means thinking about and budgeting for their practical use, not just their design.' If this wish is fulfilled, UK brands may find themselves with a host of new world-class venues from which to choose.
CASE STUDY - THE ROUNDHOUSE
The Roundhouse in North London is an example of a venue innovating to compete. Its key attraction is its status as a landmark building, but to the delight of events organisers, it has been refurbished to offer greater flexibility.
The venue, which reopened in 2006 following a two-year, £29.7m redevelopment, hosted the UK launch of the Fiat Bravo on 13 and 14 June, handled by integrated agency GSP. On the first night 700 guests, including journalists and celebrities, attended the unveiling of the car marque's latest model.
The following day the space was transformed to accommodate a 250-delegate conference. This time the audience consisted of the 'Fiat family', largely made up of its dealers.
Within hours of the conference finale, guests returned to the Roundhouse for an event that mirrored that of the previous night, and at which eight cars were unveiled.
'The brief requested a car launch that was out of the ordinary. It required a flexible venue that could host all three events, and the iconic Roundhouse building offers a large circular space that was open to our interpretation,' says Jules Stevenson, co-founder of GSP. 'It also allowed us to take advantage of the branding opportunities on the billboards outside the venue.'