London hasn’t been a top event destination for nearly 40 years, but refurbished venues and new attractions could change all this – high costs and traffic permitting, of course, argues Ian Whiteling
It is no exaggeration to describe London as a global business centre, and David Hornby should know, as he is commercial director of Visit London, the Government organisation with the task of promoting the capital to domestic and overseas visitors and businesses. “London is the European capital of finance and commerce, and 33% of Fortune Global 500 companies have their European headquarters here,” he says. “As a leading city in the world economy, London is a natural meeting point for the world’s business networks. Its global trading makes it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. London is also one of the world’s best connected cities, with 160 daily direct international flights from across the world, and five international air- ports serving 273 destinations.”
As such, it would not be unfair to expect London to be the world’s premier destination for events. Sadly, this is not the case. In fact, London doesn’t even make the top ten.
“We did once lead the world, but that was in the 1970s,” says Neil Berry, managing director of integrated design consultancy Juice. “London now languishes in the late teens, according to a 2005 report by the International Congress and Convention Association [ICCA]. However, since the report was published, the events landscape has changed. The Olympic Games have been confirmed for 2012, the Docklands exhibition centre ExCeL has developed its ‘phase two’ venue and The O2 arena – formerly the Millennium Dome – is scheduled to open in 2007 and will seat up to 23,000.”
Hornby believes The O2 will be a stunning venue. “It will offer great opportunities for combining meetings and events with corporate entertainment. As well as the main arena, there will be a live music club, 1,800-seat theatre, flexible exhibition space, multi-screen cinema, restaurants, cafÃ©s and bars,” he says.
To cope with the additional visitors the development is expected to generate, London City Airport is looking at expansion and Stratford is set to become an international rail station by 2007 – and this is only East London, where the Olympic Games will be focused.
West London is also experiencing growth in venue activity. When the Wembley Stadium is finally completed, it will boast “the capital’s newest and largest event facilities”, according to Jackie Boughton, the venue’s head of sales, conference and banqueting, who adds: “It will offer space for 3,250 people for receptions and 1,000 for conferences.”
Meanwhile, EC&O Venues, which own Earls Court and Olympia, has created The Museum Hall, “a new, purpose-built 19,500 sq ft exhibition space within Earls Court, designed to house semi-permanent exhibitions and entertainment events,” explains Nigel Nathan, the company’s group commercial director.
There is also a mouth-watering prospect at the planning stage – Battersea Power Station is being transformed into a leisure and business venue, with resort and conference hotels, a 2,000-seat theatre and auditorium, cafÃ©s, restaurants and bars, all due to open in 2010.
On top of the major venues and classic conference facilities, London is blessed with a number of unusual spaces that are growing in popularity as audiences increasingly demand originality from events. Global events company Jack Morton Worldwide uses London for many of its projects, and its head of logistics Pamela Berners-Price has her favourite unusual venues in the capital. “The Energy Clinic in East London is a striking space, and the Laban Centre in South-east London has been described as the coolest piece of architecture in the city.”
However, the venue Berners-Price is most excited about is The Roundhouse in North London, a Grade II listed building originally built in 1846 as an engine shed. “It reopened this month after extensive refurbishment,” she says. “Both unusual and exciting, it can be used for anything from parties to meetings and launches.”
Meanwhile, Stephen Norcliffe, commercial director at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (QEIICC), is very bullish about the prospects for his venue – and London generally – as an events destination. “The QEIICC’s financial results for 2005/06 were the strongest yet, generating a turnover of more than &£10m, 3% up on 2004/05,” he says. “We also held more than 450 events during 2005, which is higher than previous years. These results, coupled with events due to be held in London, especially the 2012 Olympics, show that activity is certainly not on the decrease.”
Cause for optimism?
Visit London has also experienced an upsurge in interest. “The number of calls coming into our venue enquiry service was up 21% in 2005/06, while the total economic benefit of events booked through Visit London was up by 80%, to &£77.3m,” says Hornby.
However, Mindy Hanzlik, live events design director at motivation and communications company BI, is not so optimistic. “The evidence suggests that while events in London may not be on the decrease, they are certainly not on the increase,” she claims. “BI ran only five events to London out of a total of 19 it organised in the UK in 2005. What’s more, in the Meetings and Incentive Travel Survey 2006, London does not feature in any of the top ten worldwide destination surveys, under any measurement.”
Perhaps London has reached critical mass when it comes to â¢ venues and events. Although there is plenty to attract people to the capital, there are also a number of factors that do the reverse.â¢
“Research shows that, after location, the critical selection criteria for conference organisers are price and value for money,” says Tony Rogers, chief executive of the British Association of Conference Destinations and executive director of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers. “There’s no getting away from the fact that London is an expensive destination, although it is still possible to negotiate some good deals, especially when relationships between organiser and venue are developed over a period of time. For some, concerns about security issues and terrorist threats can also mitigate against London.”
Matthew Costin, research manager at Business Development Research Consultants (BDRC) agrees, saying/ “The number one issue is price and perceived value for money. The BDRC UK Meetings Market Survey shows that the involvement of procurement functions in venue selection decisions has increased substantially in the last two years, and this trend seems set to continue. Consumer opinion is that London is an expensive city. It would certainly not be desirable for it to be seen as cheap, but finding ways to deliver value is a continuing challenge.
“There are also negative perceptions about external transport links. There is a case for arguing that transport is improving, but this is rarely seen in the popular media. Some elements of the system only just cope with demand.”
Meanwhile, Heather Robinson, communications director at events company THA Group, thinks many people find London just too busy. “The general congestion within the city and the logistics of moving people around can be problematic in terms of organising events, especially in light of the Congestion Charge zone, and during the rush hour,” she says.
Another problem is the sheer popularity of the city as a tourist destination. “The phrase ‘We’ve been there’ is the curse of the event organiser,” says Nigel Cooper, director of events company P&MM and chairman of Eventia, the industry body for conference and incentive travel organisers.
London certainly has a standard and variety of venues to rival any city in the world, but another factor that might deter companies from choosing it for an event is that, incredibly, it doesn’t have a large-scale, purpose-built international convention centre (ICC).
…size does too
“Although we have a great range of international conference, exhibition and meeting venues, we are not able to compete effectively in the international market for large conferences and conventions, which is worth an estimated &£100bn a year,” says Hornby. “The London Development Agency, with the backing of the Mayor of London and Visit London, is investigating the feasibility of a London ICC. An ICC would be a real boost to London in continuing to attract business from the UK and overseas. This will be the major challenge for London over the coming years, but it also presents huge opportunities for us to raise our profile on an international level in an increasingly globalised world.”