The past decade has witnessed a crucial transition in the UK's purpose-built venues market. A combination of venue acquisitions, redevelopments and the introduction of expansive structures such as Excel London and the 'armadillo-shaped' Scottish Exhibition Conference Centre (SECC) have overhauled the offering for organisers and visitors alike.
And the investment isn't set to stop. With all eyes on the UK in the lead-up to the Olympics in 2012, there's a raft of new venues and expansions on the agenda, with the Arena and Convention Centre (ACC) Liverpool acting as vanguard. It will open in time for the city's tenure as European City of Culture in 2008.
The benefits that innovative venues bring can be seen in Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow. Edinburgh International Conference Centre head of sales Lesley Stephen describes the design of the SECC, which opened at the end of 1997, as "the urban regeneration symbol for Glasgow's neglected riverside". Some £620m is being injected into the Queens Dock area around the SECC.
Manchester has also undergone an extensive regeneration in the past 10 years, which Blackpool Tourism conference manager Natalie Wyatt believes will be mirrored in Liverpool. She says: "Manchester has really made a success of itself and used its unique selling points. It's accessible and compact. Liverpool's development will follow in the footsteps of Manchester and make other venues rethink their future plans. They can either refurbish or suffer a loss of business."
Following such success, Manchester's G-Mex and MICC complex has been renamed Manchester Central. This year it celebrates its 21st anniversary and can boast an impressive history. Its large-scale events have included the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which placed the city on the international business tourism map.
Manchester Central client services director Heather Bell intends to grow the scope of events it can hold. The coup of securing the Labour Party conference last September has been a catalyst. She says: "The Labour Party is coming back in 2008 and 2010. We'll never be in the NEC or Excel league when it comes to exhibitions, but if we utilise all areas, Manchester Central can offer 12,500 sqm of space."
Waterfront Hall in Belfast also celebrated its 10th anniversary in January.
Its conference and business manager Jennifer Patterson says: "Waterfront Hall was the first purpose-built conference and concert hall in the city.
Belfast is a developing city and there is a lot of investment going into it. The hotel's offerings have grown and with more active air routes coming into George Best City Airport, it is growing as a business tourism destination."
Lucy Fraser, sales and marketing manager at Belfast's Kings Hall, says the development of Excel and the NEC made Northern Ireland more aware of the benefits of holding exhibitions and thereby helped to open up the area's business opportunities.
Patterson adds: "During the past six years more than £600m has been spent on the tourism infrastructure in Northern Ireland. The city's skyline is ever-changing due to investment in development, air routes have improved immensely and we can proactively compete against Europe and North America."
Before Excel London opened, the industry voiced concerns that the expansive venue could produce an oversupply of space. However, reports since then have found that it benefited the events industry by increasing competition.
Rival venues soon enhanced features and improved customer service offerings.
ACC Liverpool arena general manager Tim Banfield says: "Excel was a breath of fresh air for the exhibition industry in a number of ways. There is no doubt that the additional 90,000 sqm of event space increased competition."
Louise Brady, communications manager at the SECC, says when Excel first opened it "initially resulted in the SECC falling off the radar for a while, but over time the SECC started to attract major events such as organiser Upper Street Events' Country Living Fair, from April 2004, and the DMG World Media organised Vitality Show, from April 2006."
Excel has proved a strong contender against both Earls Court & Olympia and the NEC, with major shows such as the Motor Show and the Boat Show moving over to Excel. The Motor Show attracted 411,000 visitors, a 24% increase from Birmingham's 2004 Motor Show (Event, September 2006). The London Boat Show, which took place from 5-14 January, was given a new look and format with consultant creative director Tim Pyne brought on board. The introduction of innovative features resulted in record visitor numbers during the show's opening weekend.
Excel deputy chief executive Kevin Murphy says: "When Excel opened it created overcapacity in the market so venues had to be more creative to grow their business. As a venue, it realised the importance of the conference and live events market and has seen a growth in that side of the market. Excel now hosts international events of up to 15,000 delegates."
The expansion at the NEC strengthened that venue's offering and was a result of demand from organisers, for example, for additional floor space at Emap's Spring and Autumn Fairs. Excel's Murphy adds: "The expansion did give the Midlands and the UK a very large facility that met the demand at the time."
NEC Group chief executive Paul Thandi says: "With 200,000 sqm of exhibition space in 21 interconnecting halls, the venue has more than doubled from its original 90,000 sqm in five halls. With each investment the NEC has secured its future by ensuring it delivers what organisers and visitors need."
ACC Liverpool's Banfield says: "There has been pressure on the NEC to fills its space and become more innovative in the way it attracts business, as can be seen by the Clarion joint venture."
When Andrew Morris bought EC&O in 1999 for £180m it resulted in a necessary rise in standards at the venue.
Business Design Centre commercial director Graham Stephenson says: "I think Andrew Morris buying EC&O had a positive impact on the industry. I think his vision was to re-energise and reinvigorate the staff at the venues. And EC&O has moved on as part of the ownership and to this day is in a better position."
The NEC's Thandi adds: "Andrew did what should have been happening at EC&O all along - he made it more customer-oriented. With Excel waiting in the wings, it certainly provided him with a platform to deliver change."
Venue provider Etc Venues managing director Alistair Stewart argues that a private equity investment usually benefits a venue more than a property-led sale, as the latter "is not usually led by people who understand events".
He also backed a private equity buyout of Etc Venues in July 2006 (Event, July 2006) and says there are more financial investors than trade buyers investing in the venues business.
Another impact on competition within the purpose-built venue market is the bid for a supercasino. The shortlist of potential locations includes Cardiff, Glasgow, Blackpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and the London boroughs of Brent and Greenwich. A decision is due soon and will have a major impact on venues, whether they win or lose. Blackpool Tourism's Wyatt says, for example, that the plans to build a new convention and exhibition centre on the site of the Conference and Casino cluster is dependent on the success of the bid. If Blackpool loses out, a new venue will not be created.
If Blackpool is awarded the contract, it will kick-start the regeneration initiated by development agency ReBlackpool. Wyatt says Blackpool is the only town, as opposed to city, within the shortlist and believes it is one of the most deserving. "London already has the Olympics with a lot of investment happening there already and Glasgow has a great regeneration project," she says.
Function and versatility
The external aesthetics of a building don't normally top a venue's priority list, but the inner workings are another story. Excel's Murphy says: "Each venue works with its architect to create a design which works with the venue. It is function and versatility, rather than aesthetics, which are important. Our design ethic is about versatility, flexibility and the usefulness of space."
ACC Liverpool's Banfield agrees and says the visitor experience and customer service are what really sustain business.
The venue's green initiative is testament to the raised awareness of sustainability within the events industry. The £146m building will have a windfarm to help power it, will collect rainwater for use in the toilet blocks and will purchase energy from sustainable sources through Scottish Power. Banfield adds: "This makes good commercial sense as we can assist organisers in meeting corporate social responsibility goals."
Excel has undertaken a three-year sustainability programme that includes a new building management system to ensure it runs as efficiently as possible.
It has also purchased an onsite energy centre. Murphy says: "By controlling our own energy costs, the substantial savings have allowed us to commit to future energy reduction projects. We will also be making some major announcements in the next month with regards to Excel's environmental projects."
Etc Venues' Stewart says the green issue is "embedded' in the company's values: "We don't provide company cars, all our staff use public transport. And I am in talks to create a scheme where a tree is planted as a direct result of carbon emissions created by travelling to meetings and events."
Innovative venues such as the ACC Liverpool will only improve the purpose-built venue market. Blackpool Tourism's Wyatt says: "I think the ACC is a fantastic development and will strengthen the regional products in the north west. Even if Blackpool does win the right to build a purpose-built venue, I don't think it will dilute the market."
It's a sentiment that Manchester Central's Bell agrees with. She says it always looks to other venues as a benchmark, as "if you don't change, you die".
The Bournemouth International Centre reopened in January 2006 following a £22m upgrade. Its head of conferences, exhibitions and entertainments, Clive Tyers, says: "We've always recognised that it is important to invest in the building to maintain the position as a leading venue. This year we've invested a further £100,000 to install a WiFi system throughout the whole building. And plans are in place for more investment."
Such moves ultimately increase competition among venues and will serve as a benefit to the end user. The SECC's Brady says: "More venues will increase competition, which is a great catalyst for improving standards."
The majority opinion is that any new venues will not only benefit the domestic market but also boost the UK's pull as an international business destination. Etc Venues' Stewart says: "If you aim, as I do, to grow the UK's slice of the European event, meetings and conference cake, improved and new venues will attract inbound business and ultimately help the UK compete more successfully. Glasgow is a good example of this, as it doesn't see itself as competing against Birmingham but as competing against Vienna."
Visit Scotland's Robertson reinforces this: "The UK is competing with China, New York and other cities in the world. Visitors might visit Liverpool first then choose another UK city for the next event or conference. More investment put into Britain will only benefit the events industry for the future."
NEW VENUES AND REFURBISHMENTS
Saviles Hall - Named after the Jim'll Fix It star Sir Jimmy Savile, who was born in Leeds, the £5m development is due to open in April 2007 and will be located at the city's Clarence Dock, next to the Royal Armouries Museum. It will feature 2,508 sqm of exhibition space, five galleries, a 1,650-space car park, and a 130-bed Express by Holiday Inn.
Leeds also hopes to build a £20m multi-purpose arena but the development programme is still in its early stages as a preferred developer and site will have to be selected. The predicted timescale for this is May 2008.
The leader of Leeds City Council, Andrew Carter, says: "An arena can play a key role in raising the profile of Leeds, helping it fulfil its role as the focus of the city region and go up a league to be recognised as a major European city."
Blackpool - If Blackpool is awarded the licence for a supercasino, the £359.5m construction will be spread across three phases, beginning this year and expected to reach completion by 2010. The conference and casino cluster will feature leisure entertainment, food and drink, retail facilities, hotel accommodation and gambling, all integrated with a conference and exhibition complex. Blackpool's seafront will be redesigned and seven design teams have already been shortlisted.
ACC Liverpool - Due for completion in January 2008, the venue will have 7,000 sqm of exhibition space, combining the Arena and Hall 2 on one level.
It will provide 1,600 car park spaces. The Arena has 10,000 seats and 3,400 sqm of exhibition space, plus 22 VIP boxes. The Convention Centre will have a 1,350-seat main auditorium, 18 breakout rooms, 3,700 sqm of exhibition space and a capacity for 1,800 banqueting-style.
The NEC - The venue is investing £40m over three years. It has already completed the £8m revamp of the piazza area and introduced new catering facilities, such as an upmarket delicatessen called Piazza Deli. Some £2m has also been spent on revamping the car parks.
NEC Group chief executive Paul Thandi says: "All the improvements are in direct response to customer feedback, and any investment in our facilities is an investment in the industry as a whole."
Excel - The second phase of development will provide the venue with more than 100,000 sqm of flexible space. It currently has 90,000 sqm, which includes 65,000 sqm of event halls. Completion is due at the end of 2009.
Deputy chief executive Kevin Murphy says: "We anticipate phase two will provide around 36,000 sqm multi-purpose space with supporting hotel, leisure and entertainment facilities."
EICC - The EICC's £30m redevelopment started this year and is due for completion in 2009. Total conference and event space is currently 5,016 sqm.
The new expansion space will provide an additional 3,251 sqm.
The main hall will feature a computer-controlled moving floor that can transform a flat-floor event or banqueting area into a raked auditorium for 1,600 delegates in a fraction of the usual set-up time. There will also be 11 breakout rooms added to the conference area.