Exhibition Halls: A prosperous year for all

Adam Woods casts an eye over recent developments at some of the UK's leading exhibition venues, asking major players how they view the past year's event activity and looking ahead to what's in store for 2008.

EXCEL LONDON

It would have taken a real optimist to predict that proximity to the one-time Millennium Dome might one day prove to be a major asset to Excel London, but with the rebranded O2 arena thriving, Excel suddenly finds itself in the hot part of town. Given the fresh wave of construction in nearby Canary Wharf and the inevitable impact of the 2012 Olympics - in which Excel will be playing a role as the boxing, judo and weightlifting arena - the area increasingly referred to as London's east side looks like it will remain the place to be for quite some time.

Which isn't to say that Excel necessarily needs that much help in attracting business. Since it opened in November 2000, Excel has hosted more than 2,000 trade and consumer exhibitions, conferences, meetings and award ceremonies and welcomed around five million visitors.

Associations in particular have been a staple in 2007. The annual conference of BIBA (the British Insurance Brokers' Association) in May saw an increase of 60% in visitor numbers, and June's EAGE (European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers) conference and exhibition saw delegate volumes rise by 28% compared with last year, giving the highest attendance in its 69-year history.

In March, Excel launched a dedicated association package, Association Plus, which offers marketing assistance to association event organisers. Pre-event support includes information on promotional marketing and materials and help in finding sponsorship and off-site hospitality venues, while support during the event extends to welcome desks at London City Airport and partner hotels, tourist information for delegates and an on-site taxi service.

"We are the only venue in London to offer this kind of scale and flexibility in an area that is fast becoming the newest leisure and business hotspot," says Vanessa Cotton, Excel London managing director, conference and events division. "We want to educate and inspire association event organisers about all the new and exciting opportunities and facilities this destination and venue have to offer."

The blueprint for phase two of the venue's development has yet to be announced, but the ultimate goal is to expand the hall by 36,000sqm, bringing the total event space to 100,000sqm by the end of 2009.

EC&O VENUES

The Earls Court and Olympia Group ended the summer with a new co-owner after months of speculation over the future of the venues. Roman Abramovich had reportedly expressed an interest in building a new home for Chelsea FC on the Earls Court site, but an offer from Capital & Counties, the non-shopping centre division of property giant Liberty International, ultimately safeguarded the venues and the 2,000 events they host each year.

Under the terms of the deal signed in July, Capco bought 50% of EC&O Venues for a sum which, taking debt, assets and other liabilities into account, valued the company at around £380m. The remaining half stays in the hands of St James Capital, a private equity consortium owned by property tycoons Anthony Lyons, Simon Conway and David Coffer. The deal has been branded very much a joint venture by Lyons, who says: "We love the assets and if we sold these 55 acres of west London there is nothing left to buy."

Earmarked for redevelopment

Such major upheavals have inevitably overshadowed the day-to-day goings-on at Earls Court and Olympia, which have included the Great British Beer Festival, Discover Dogs, MPH and the Daily Mail Ideal Home Show in the latter and new arrivals such as the Retirement Show and the Restaurant Show. Staples such as the Ideal Home Show, the London Book Fair and PLASA, meanwhile, are booked into Earls Court well into the next decade, and if, as is rumoured, sections of the partly-listed site are ultimately earmarked for redevelopment, nothing is likely to happen until after 2012, when Earls Court has fulfilled its obligations as the volleyball arena for the Olympics.

NEC

The NEC Group's financial results for 2006/07, released in July, made for impressive reading, declaring an operating profit of £44.6m for the year ending on 31 March - an increase of £12m on the previous year.

The group pointed to exhibitions such as quadrennial printing show IPEX and biennial machine-tool show MACH as some of the drivers behind the health of the venues, which are estimated to generate an economic impact worth £1.3bn across the west midlands. The figure is based on a calculation that for every £1 of group revenue, another 10 is spent locally by visitors, exhibitors and organisers.

Looking forward, the calendar is sufficiently busy to suggest that continued growth is on the cards. The NEC hosts more than 160 exhibitions and brings more than 4.5m visitors to Birmingham every year, and around half of those events take place between September and the end of December. During this period a show will either be built up, opened or in breakdown every day.

The programme for the coming months includes well-known consumer events such as Grand Designs Live, BBC Clothes Show Live, the National Wedding Show and trade exhibitions such as the National Venue Show, the National Incentive Show and Interbuild 2007.

Dynamic feel

"It is an exciting time of year for the NEC and we have got a great mix of events running right up until Christmas," says Michael Watton, NEC sales director, exhibitions and conferences. "The Magic of Christmas will be the last show to close before the holiday on 23 December."

In the past 12 months, the NEC has added 30 new shows to its exhibition calendar, including the European Limousine and Chauffeur Show, the UK Bet Show and Property Ladder Live.

A £40m investment programme is underway to inject a younger, more dynamic feel into the venue, focusing on its facilities and brand image: £23.8m has already been spent on a programme that has seen the Piazza and some of the centre's oldest halls refloored, with new lighting, plasma screens, extra seating and new toilets added, car parks upgraded, the NEC's catering business rebranded and the restaurants in halls 1-5 refurbished.

SECC

In a period of flux, with a £50m, Norman Foster-designed indoor arena in the pipeline, Glasgow's SECC has managed to steer itself safely through potentially choppy waters. At its AGM in September, turnover of £15.7m was announced - up 14 % on the previous year - and net profits before tax stood at £2.1 million.

The results were the latest in a series of success stories for Scottish Exhibition Centre Limited, which earlier in the year revealed that an economic impact study by KPMG showed that the venue generated £347m a year for Glasgow, compared with the £127m quoted in 2006.

Exhibitions account for far from the largest share of the venue's overall activities. These run to 233 events, including concerts, conferences and sporting occasions. But the picture was still very healthy, with 37 exhibitions over the course of the financial year - a figure slightly down on the 2005/06 total, but which generated a slightly increased turnover compared with that period. Events this year included the Scottish Wedding Show and Homes & Interiors Scotland, both in September, the British Franchise Exhibition in June and hospitality and food service event ScotHot in March.

"Exhibitions have fared well over the last year, especially consumer lifestyle events, which made up 64% of all exhibitions," says Morag Lawson, SECC director, exhibitions and events. "The trend looks set to continue, with the BBC Good Food Show and Whisky Live! running concurrently in November, which will complement each other well."

The addition of the SECC Arena - or Scotland's National Arena - with a capacity of 12,500, will provide a much-needed alternative to Hall 4, the largest of the SECC's existing halls, which has a capacity of 10,000, but which loses the centre up to 70 days a year in transitions from exhibition to concert layout. The SECC has now received planning permission for the development, part of QD2, the over-arching £622m redevelopment of the Queen's Dock area, as well as a contribution of £25m towards its construction, approved by Scottish Enterprise Glasgow.

Sporting events were also a star of the last financial year, contributing to the overall total of 142 concerts and events staged over the period. "Sporting events such as Premier League darts and the Betfred Premier League Snooker featured heavily, and they brought new audiences to the venue," says Lawson.

MANCHESTER CENTRAL

The Manchester International Convention Centre and G-Mex tags having been discarded these days at the renamed Manchester Central. It's all part of a rebranding launched this January to bring the exhibition venue and the conference centre under a single umbrella.

The repositioning was designed to make the most of Manchester's international reputation as a world-class city, and the arrival of the Labour Party conference in September last year, with return visits already booked for 2008 and 2010, augurs well at a national level. With 12,000 delegates, 2,000 representatives of the media and 6,000 additional visitors and Manchester Central as the hub of the convention 'village', the conference saw the venue operating successfully at close to full stretch in full view of the world at large.

European Microwave Week and the Creative Partnerships Annual Conference followed and the calendar has been packed ever since, with events such as A Place In The Sun Live in February and the Association of Surgeons' Annual Scientific Meeting in April.

Trade events are a major priority moving forward, with, Austravel Live, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's British Pharmaceutical Conference 2007 and the British Orthopaedic Association's annual congress in September, while this autumn's schedule includes Centaur's Money Marketing Live 07 in October, the Community Transport Association's Accessible Transport Event and The Actuarial Profession's 2007 Life Convention and Exhibition in November and NICE 2007, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence's annual gathering, in December.

Meanwhile, the venues continue to develop their offering. July saw the introduction of a Bluetooth system known as Bluepoint, the first of its kind to be permanently installed in a UK conference venue, enabling organisers to send messages about their event directly to delegates' mobile phones.


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