UK VENUES: Welcome to the smart age - Venues are stepping up their IT investment to make it easier for exhibitors, event organisers and visitors to travel down the information superhighway. Rob McLuhan looks at the race to get smart

The term smart venue has been around for a while, but the opening of Excel in London's Docklands gives it a whole new meaning. Besides Excel's sheer size the new centre aims to awe the visitor with the scale of its communication infrastructure, which includes web-casting, office services, video conferencing, interference-free mobile phone usage and wireless links.

The term smart venue has been around for a while, but the opening of Excel in London's Docklands gives it a whole new meaning. Besides Excel's sheer size the new centre aims to awe the visitor with the scale of its communication infrastructure, which includes web-casting, office services, video conferencing, interference-free mobile phone usage and wireless links.

Laying infrastructure for the pounds 250m project involves an alliance with some big hitters including HP, NTL, and Cisco Systems. These companies are investing pounds 12.5m and are committed to reinvesting 20% of revenues over the seven-year contract period.

'We believe this partnership will give us a strong lead over other venues, and will mean we will be able to roll out new technologies as they come along,' says Excel information services director Peter Campbell.

Excel's rivals, rather than let themselves be overcome by the challenge, are hoping to match Excel in at least some areas. Top of the list is the provision of broadband Internet access.

Earls Court and Olympia Group (ECO) is investing pounds 30m to trump Excel's 64-megabit connection with a massive 2.4 gigabytes of bandwidth. ECO director of information services Rohan Paulas says the cable brings the equivalent of 100 motorways of connectivity to an exhibition stand, compared with the country lane provided by ISDN connections in other venues.

The links were successfully tested at the recent Streaming Media show. One example involved showing how a PC user could bet on a horse and see the build-up to the race on the same screen. 'This is one of the most bandwidth-hungry shows in the UK, yet it only used about a 100th of the available capacity,' says Paulas.

Although the bandwidth exceeds what clients are likely to need in the near future, it will ensure the venue stays ahead of the game as new applications are developed.

Another advantage for exhibitors will be the ability to communicate with their head office via a virtual private network. Webcasting will also be possible, so that people who fail to make it to the event can at least catch a virtual glimpse of it.

Other options at ECO include the provision of WAP technology allowing visitors to pick up train timetables from the building, for example. At some stage Paulas expects to incorporate wireless, although he feels that with so much potential interference from electronic devices an exhibition may be a poor environment for it to work successfully.

That has not been a worry at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre where a local area network installed in the summer enables visitors and exhibitors to access the Internet anywhere in the building, via a special card inserted in the back of their laptop. The facility was in use for October's UK Internet Summit attended by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Exhibitors can forget about cabling: 20 transmitters stationed around the centre provide a continuous Internet feed to LCD screens on stands.

And desktop PCs are positioned at strategic points so that conference delegates can collect email or log on to the Internet during breaks between sessions.

'The facility caters to a number of IT clients who naturally expect the best,' comments managing director Gill Price. Webcasting is becoming particularly popular to make conference sessions and product launches available to those who are unable to travel to the event. 'It means someone in Singapore can watch a conference or car launch as it happens,' she suggests. 'Or a company that provides speakers can use it to show a potential client what Will Carling looks like on the podium.'

This facility is also a priority at Wembley, which scheduled a live Internet broadcast of Spice Girl Mel C's first solo concert in November. The venue has teamed up with Brixton Academy and Shepherds Bush Empire to webcast 2,000 events annually.

Wembley sales and marketing manager Peter Tudor says: 'It's useful for artists to get to a wider audience, and for those who can only play in a few venues to be seen by people further afield.' However, you can't beat the live experience, he points out, and he does not expect fans that have access to the venue to watch it on their PC instead.

Wembley is also looking at providing massive LED screens throughout the venue, which will provide extra revenue from advertising at conferences and exhibitions. However, Tudor says the preference will be for hire rather than investment in costly installations that may quickly become obsolete.

'Keeping a finger on the pulse of what technology offers is the biggest challenge,' he says.

Elsewhere, Internet connections are fast becoming standard. The Manchester International Convention Centre, which is due to open next year, will provide ISDN lines, and the Bournemouth International Centre recently recabled the venue to provide plug-in points throughout. That is a boon for broadcasters reporting on political conferences: the south coast venue hosted the Conservatives and the Liberals back-to-back this year.

The NEC was also busy installing fibre optic cable during the summer and supplied broadband access to Ford at the Motorshow to enable it to present its web-based products.

'We are determined to keep up with the pace of change with exhibitions brought about by new technology,' says NEC Group chief executive Barry Cleverdon. 'There used to be a view from outside the industry that new communication technology might reduce the need for live events, but we have shown that the effect is actually to enhance them.'

Smaller venues are also keen to keep up. The Royal Horticultural Halls recently spent pounds 7.8m on a refurbishment and will be calling itself a smart venue from its relaunch next March. 'People will have the best of both worlds, an attractive venue with character upgraded to include modern facilities and services,' says managing director Rene Dee.

The disparity of size means Excel is not a direct rival, and the two have agreed to reciprocal referrals on an informal basis.

Line Up Communications director Phil Watton is inclined to be sceptical about so-called smart venues having had past experience of centres that sold themselves on exciting new technologies that failed to work. But he is enthusiastic about Excel's move to speed up the flow of data in and out of the building. 'That will be fantastically useful. With just about every exhibition you do these days there is a need to be on the Net,' he says.

And Watton also approves of Excel's architecture, which makes it smart in the original sense: 'It looks the business: we need venues that are cutting-edge in terms of looks and technology.'



CASE STUDY: EXCEL

Excel has commissioned e-business technology provider EDS to provide a state-of-the-art technology and communications structure at the cost of pounds 100m over seven years. Main features include:

- 68-megabit Internet link with two independent routes into the building, providing extra capacity should it be needed as well as a backup if something goes wrong. This supplies individual connectivity to exhibition stands and offers the facility for webcasts.

- 60-seat business centre where visitors can handle email and meet via videoconferencing. This aims to reassure senior executives who might otherwise pull out of a scheduled visit at the last minute because of fears that they will be out of the loop for too long.

- Local area network connecting visitors to the Internet from anywhere in the building.

- pounds 1.2m GSM microcell with antennae throughout the building to provide an interference-free environment for mobile phone users. This is expected to become increasingly important with the development of WAP and 3G services.

Excel also plans a web hosting facility for registration suppliers, so it can keep its on-line service running while the conference is in progress.

And smart links will be extended to the hotels on the 100-acre campus, for instance enabling exhibitors to keep an eye on the event from a TV in their hotel room or restaurant.



CASE STUDY: ECO

Earls Court & Olympia (ECO) Group has launched its eForce business centre, which is aimed at organisers, exhibitors, the media and visitors to its shows. It is designed to give access to a range of services including the Internet, web casting and hosting, e-mail and wireless communication.

eForce is a division of electronic solutions company Equinox. Talks between it and ECO began last year and a seven-year deal was concluded last April.

Equinox and the ECO are investing pounds 30m over that time with a staff of 30 based at the centre.

'What we are offering is a truly world class service,' says Duncan Crook managing director of Equinox. 'The technology is tremendously advanced. It works at very high speed, flexible and secure. We have also made it pleasant and straightforward for customers to use.'

The eForce centre is at the back of Earls Court 1 and next to Costa Coffee in Earls Court 2. Apart from high-tech communications the centre also provides meeting rooms, courier, printing, telephone and secretarial services.

'What impressed us with Equinox was its enthusiasm and its can-do attitude,' says ECO chief executive Andrew Morris. 'The level of commitment and investment is impressive. The communication technology on offer here will be fantastic to use.'

According to Crook 'nowhere else in the world' can offer ECO's technology.

The business centre boasts 2.4 gigabytes of technological capability, which means data can travel freely at all times on the information superhighway.

'Whatever people want to do, they can do it with no problems,' adds Crook. 'We aim to deliver good value for exhibitors and visitors.'

Morris adds: 'While other venues are just talking about its technology services, we do it so everyone can see the benefits.'






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