North of England: The bright stars up in the north

Urban regeneration has fostered a sense of confidence in cities that were once considered deprived, writes Stephanie Siegle.

A European Capital of Culture and a Lonely Planet endorsement for "one of the world's most exciting cities" are accolades most likely to be associated with Paris, Barcelona or Rome - but it's Liverpool and Manchester respectively that have achieved that status and earned that praise.

Northern English cities have seen their venue portfolio expand and investment in events facilities and marketing rise in the past few years. What is more, investment is continuing as the north looks to challenge the rest of the UK for major events. One selling point is accessibility; Newcastle airport has added about 18 new routes in as many months, Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield welcomed its first flights in March this year and Manchester Airport handles 22m passengers a year from more than 200 destinations.

All eyes have been on the north-west since Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture, and its programme of themed years and events in the run-up - this is the Year of the Sea, then comes the Year of Performance, and 2007 is the city's 800th birthday - has certainly put it in the spotlight.

Yet while the city's image as an events destination has come on strongly, at the moment it is under-resourced in terms of venues, claims Liverpool Culture Company head of events Lee Forde. "But it's an issue currently being redressed so in a couple of years we should catch up with Manchester in regards to what we can offer the event industry," he says. He points to the Waterfront development currently under construction, which, when completed at the end of 2007, will be home to a 9,000-seat multi-purpose arena, a 7,600sqm exhibition facility, 1,350-seater conference centre and public piazza.

Having its own purpose-built exhibition and convention centre will allow Liverpool to compete more directly with Manchester, which is taking its own steps to boost the income generated by exhibitions and events that are currently worth £80m each year. The city council is negotiating to acquire the G-Mex complex from its current owners, which, believes Marketing Manchester chief executive Andrew Stokes, will enable increased marketing and investment in facilities.

G-Mex, which hosts events such as Tool Fair Elex, the Property Investor Show North and Manchester Furniture Show, forms part of Manchester's conference quarter, encompassing neighbouring MICC, Bridgewater Hall, the Midland and Radisson Edwardian hotels, and the five-star Hilton hotel when it opens in 2006.

Last year, in association with organisers Arena Events, it brought Christmas in Vegas - a series of glitzy parties complete with a disco, indoor dodgems and a fun casino - to the city in the run-up to 25 December, attracting more than 6,000 revellers.

"The acquisition of this venue by Manchester City Council will greatly enhance the exhibition, conference and event business for the city," says G-Mex general manager David Mallard. "Manchester is definitely a main contender in the UK now, especially after the success of the Commonwealth Games, the regeneration of the city and the introduction of the conference quarter."

However, despite Manchester's well-established status as an events destination, apart from G-Mex/MICC and Manchester United's Old Trafford ground the number of venues that can host more than 700 people is limited.

Technical producer and director Chris Teague from event production agency APS - whose clients include Umbro and Newsco - says: "We're working with Marketing Manchester to address the need for more large-scale venues.

But the ongoing development, such as the new Hilton hotel, plus talk of a casino district opening at the City of Manchester Stadium, will all help. Encouragingly, Manchester is brimming with unusual venues suitable for events: the Lowry Centre, the Imperial War Museum and Urbis, for example."

The latter - a glass-structured museum exploring the cities of today and tomorrow - provides space for up to 150. It has been the backdrop for product launches including Louis Vuitton, Bentley, David Beckham's DB7 clothing range, Qatar airlines and TIGI hair products, attracting more than 13,000 guests in the past year.

Urbis acting corporate event manager Cherryl Seabrook says: "With millions of pounds invested in regeneration over the past few years, Manchester is becoming a huge contender to London in the events market. Not only that, but the city has a prestigious retail environment, the BBC has relocated various departments up north and even central government is relocating away from the capital. It's all happening here."

Also noticeable is the continued steady promotion of Newcastle and Gateshead, with around £1m spent each year on marketing its venues and services.

Ian Taylor, commercial director of the area's convention bureau, says: "Over the past couple of years Newcastle's profile has risen, attracting events such as World Music Expo and the Labour Party, and we now compete for business against the likes of Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

"We're also working with Visit Britain to attract more business here and we'll be investing around £55m until 2020 in our programme Cultural10, which looks to attract world-class events, festivals and exhibitions to the region."

Spotlight set to shine

Newcastle and Gateshead have their own fair share of attractions, too, with dedicated event space ranging from the contemporary Centre for Life, Baltic Archive, Newcastle United Football Ground and newcomer Sage Gateshead to the more heritage-style venues of the Assembly Rooms and Turbine Hall.

Meanwhile, more than 100 miles away in South Yorkshire, Sheffield is also experiencing something of a revival. October will see the reopening of Sheffield City Hall repositioned as an events venue, and the £130m Heart of the City project that kicked off in 1995 is almost complete.

It now includes a gallery, public spaces, a new four-star MacDonald Hotel and the refurbishment of existing venues.

The Sheffield Tourism and Conference Bureau also looks after neighbouring Rotherham, home to the Magna Science Adventure Centre visitor attraction.

Mercedes and Goodyear recently held product launches at the converted steelworks, while Cadbury's, O2, Britvic and AG Electrical Company have also used its facilities. These encompass the 2,024sqm Big Hall and Magna Arena, with vehicular access directly into the hall, the multimedia, multi-storey Face of Steel, the Red Hall and O2 Bubble, all of which can be used for product launches, award ceremonies and parties.

Its marketing manager, Gini Rodgers, says: "We've also hosted a FTSE 100 exhibition and an exhibition and event with our local NHS service.

Hosting exhibitions is certainly an area we're looking at developing, and we hope to raise our profile partly through attendance at trade events, such as the National Venue Show."

All of which means that Manchester's glowing endorsement from a guidebook looks likely to be duplicated elsewhere. Given the renewed vigour in investment, marketing and reinvention from the venues and the cities themselves, the spotlight seems set to shine on the region for some considerable time to come.

NEW AND IMPROVED

Investment in facilities and refocused marketing drives are seen as key to the north's success. The next few years will see a diverse range of new venues changing the skyline in a number of cities - Liverpool will have its own dedicated exhibition and convention centre, for example, and Manchester will welcome a new five-star property to its conference quarter - but there have been significant changes already.

Until last year Sheffield City Hall was mainly a concert hall and nightclub, but a £12.5m refurbishment and renovation will see a marked change in focus when it reopens in October. Its marketing manager David Thornton explains: "While the City Hall will retain its original 1930s architecture, the concert hall and the nightclub facility, the space is being changed considerably so that we can attract the exhibitions, events and conference market from local, regional national companies and organisations."

Located in the heart of the city centre, the hall will offer a ballroom and two interconnecting halls providing 450sqm of exhibition space that can also seat 400 for gala dinners. The smaller area to the back of the ballroom, which used to be a raked-seating theatre, will become a flattened floor suitable for exhibitions with its own dedicated entrance. Elsewhere the Memorial Hall offers a demountable stage and flexible seating configuration for a variety of events, while the Oval Hall auditorium seats 2,237.

"While we accept that Sheffield might not be the first place that is considered for events, if you count the whole area around the City Hall, including the other venues and hotels available for events, we're a similar size to Birmingham's NEC, and all within walking distance of each other," adds Thornton.

Renovation has also been a key focus for Leeds, whose town hall reopened in April following a £4m refurbishment. Its 13 rooms, primarily targeted at conferences, are also available for exhibitions and evening events with capacity for up to 400 seated for dinner.

Exhibition facilities have recently been added to one of Cumbria's largest convention venues, Rheged, a grass-covered building in Penrith. The two purpose-built exhibition halls offer 588sqm of dedicated exhibition space, both with vehicular access allowing for car launches.

A newer, more unusual facility is the Sir Norman Foster-designed Sage Gateshead, which first welcomed the public and events in December last year. Although its primary focus is on musical performances and education, it is also available for corporate hire, from product launches to gala evenings, with capacity for 1,700. Understandably, the events team is keen to find opportunities to link music with these events, including booking musicians or incorporating a concert into the timetable.


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