Think Tank: London Venues - London calling

This month's panel of experts tell Mike Fletcher how the capital can do much more to woo business and explains why with a London Olympics everybody wins.

A recent Radio Five Live phone-in posed the question "Is London sucking the life-blood out of the rest of the UK?" Opinion was divided and the debate raged over the location of the national stadium, why the Olympic Torch Relay stayed inside the M25, and the impact businesses that migrate to London have on the areas they leave behind.

It was notable, however, that everyone who rang in made glowing remarks about events held in the capital - the issue to them was whether they should or could have been held elsewhere.

Tourism body Visit London believes the capital boasts the largest supply of event services of any city in the world and calculates £3.3bn is spent on events in London every year. With more than 1,000 venues to choose from, it is not hard to see why London is a popular choice for everything from business AGMs to product launches and trade fairs.

Visit London commercial director David Hornby believes the £3.3bn figure may in fact be much higher as only events that form part of measured business tourism are included. "Events take place in London all the time and there is still much to do to measure the impact," he says.

Excel deputy chief executive and commercial director Kevin Murphy cites a blue-chip company that hosted a two-day AGM for 6,500 staff at the Docklands venue in June. He says: "We aren't allowed to talk about it but those delegates paid £230 a night at local hotels and made a significant contribution to the local economy and nobody knows."

Venues that double up as tourist attractions such as the BA London Eye, benefit from the ripple effect that these events cause. But London Eye managing director David Sharpe believes more can be done. "There is a danger that London is not capitalising on the relationship between the events and the satellite activity available, such as trip on the Eye or a river cruise," he says.

Sharpe calls for more joined-up thinking to boost London's appeal as a business destination. "It's about packaging the event offer together with restaurants and art galleries so that visitors don't end up with a disjointed experience," he says. "We're in talks with County Hall so that we can combine a ride on the Eye with a banquet for up to 1,000 guests."

A more joined-up approach to business tourism is what The Exhibiting Show organiser Simon Burton hopes to achieve from his latest venture, London Venue Expo, in partnership with Visit London. With about seven million overseas visitors coming to the UK each year on business, Burton hopes organisers will see the benefits of a show that packages event elements from the wide range of exhibiting venues.

"With Visit London on board the show's marketing will stress that London rocks and organisers shouldn't consider any other city - just come along to the show and work out how to make the event work," he says. "By bringing venues together we can offer the total London experience."

London Venue Expo will run alongside The Exhibiting Show at Excel from 29-30 June 2005, by which time the capital will be nearer a decision on a dedicated convention centre. The London International Convention Centre (ICC) Mayoral Commission, backed by the London Development Agency has been set up to assess the business case and find possible sites. But our expert panel is split on the issue.

Dedicated to the cause

Visit London's Hornby is, unsurprisingly, all for a dedicated convention centre that can handle large-scale events, which currently go to other European destinations such as Barcelona and Paris. "We are turning away huge business opportunities because we don't have a big enough venue," he states.

But Excel's Murphy disagrees. He believes the UK does not need a fixed auditorium and says the 65,000 sq m of flexible floor space that Excel can offer together with 51 meeting rooms and 300 convention areas should be enough of a draw. "The problem is that as soon as Excel installs a fixed auditorium at a huge capital investment it will be in the wrong part of the venue for the organiser," he says. "We can set up an auditorium in any configuration in one of our halls and with six hotels on site, 2,500 car parking spaces, City Airport and 2,100 bedrooms we tick every box on the ICC brief."

World-class destination

Burton fears that the business case for a dedicated convention centre may not stack up because it won't generate significant revenue, but insists such a facility would make a statement to the rest of the world. "A convention centre would cement London's position as a world-class destination," he remarks.

The panel may be divided on this issue, but there is one subject that brings everyone together - London's bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games.

"We were the only city in the world that staged celebratory events to welcome the Olympic flame to London," says Hornby. "And our commitment plus the event expertise on display in the Mall finale last month prove that we can win with this bid."

If Murphy had to choose between Paris and London, there is only one contender in his eyes. "It has to be London and the financial benefits of a successful Olympic Games bid will last for decades," he states.

Fighting the cynics

The panel further agrees that the only thing likely to hold London back in its bid to stage the Games is a cynical public and media.

"Why is it that we feel London does not have the expertise?" asks Sharpe, who recently carried out a people management exercise at the Eye using the London firm that worked with Sydney's Olympic committee to ensure the success of the 2000 Games. Hornby agrees saying: "It was London's Metropolitan Police that provided the security expertise for Sydney and it's a UK caterer, Rhubarb, that is doing most of the catering in Athens."

Burton believes apathy is another hurdle that a successful bid will have to overcome.

"The missing ingredient is an upsurge in passion from all corners," he says. "Civic pride does exist - as shown by the crowd's reaction to the Torch relay events - but we need to all become engaged in presenting London as the first choice Olympic city.

"This means London businesses need a greater understanding of the diversity of the city's offer, the media must collectively get behind the bid and those people and businesses outside the capital have to develop the mindset that a London Olympics will benefit the whole country."

Mayoral support

According to Hornby, one person who needs no encouragement in getting behind business tourism is London Mayor Ken Livingstone. "He opened World Travel Market last year and understands the benefit to London of 40,000 visitors spending about £20m," he says. "When it comes to event strategy the Greater London Assembly provides the lead in terms of experience."

Providing a lead in terms of security is the Metropolitan Police, which having offered its expertise to the people who put the Sydney Olympics together, also advises event organisers across the globe.

"London is incredibly safe. Event and meeting organisers are not reading about terrorist activity here because it is not happening due to the way we run our businesses," boasts Murphy.

So maybe the next time Radio Five Live decides to run a phone-in it should pose the question "How do we inject more life-blood into a city that is considered one of the best places in the world to host an event?"

The answer according to Murphy is: "Bigger budgets and a louder united voice led by the cavalry that rides into the capital proudly waving the Visit London logo on their flags."

THE PANEL

Simon Burton, organiser, London Venue Expo

Launched The Exhibiting Show in 2004 having worked in marketing for organisers and contractors.

David Sharpe, managing director, BA London Eye

Spent 15 years in the hotel industry at Marriott and then Hilton. Was headhunted for the general manager post at BA London Eye.

Kevin Murphy, deputy chief executive and commercial director, Excel

A former Emap divisional director, he has more than 20 years' experience in events.

David Hornby, commercial director, Visit London

Works to develop tourism in the capital and to bring business buyers into London.

SOUNDBITES

"There is a danger that London is not capitalising on the relationship between the events and satellite activity available, such as trip on the Eye or a river cruise" - David Sharpe

"A convention centre would cement London's mark as a world-class destination" - Simon Burton

"We are turning away huge business opportunities because we don't have a large enough venue to cope with the demand" - David Hornby

"The financial benefits of a successful Olympic bid will last for decades" - Kevin Murphy.


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