Some venues are born as visitor destinations by offering onsite entertainment, bars, restaurants and accommodation. Some established venues can become destinations through investment and development. At the EN Roundtable-sponsored by Olympia London – and hosted in its stunning Grade II-listed Pillar Hall; organisers, venues and investors discussed whether creating destinations could help exhibitions.
Olympia London has been arguably the capital’s most iconic venue for more than 135 years. Work is now well underway to create a visitor destination for culture, creativity and entertainment around the original Victorian exhibition hall.
Due to open in 2024, the redeveloped site will include a host of facilities to keep exhibitors and visitors entertained well beyond 4pm. A theatre, arena, two hotels, outdoor terraces and a lush, green thoroughfare will make the venue accessible to all.
Architect Trevor Morriss, founder of SPAARC Studio, who has brought the vision to life, explained how they have sympathetically respected the beautiful historic features whilst creating a destination fit for the future and designed to keep exhibition audiences engaged.
The assembled EN Roundtable debated whether destinations would help or hinder exhibition audiences.
Olympia London commercial director Anna Golden said: “How do you extend the visitor experience without distracting visitors? That’s the goal.”
The question for the trade and consumer show organisers present was whether the facilities on offer would lure visitors out of the exhibition halls – combined with the question of whether it mattered if their guests made their deals over lunch in one of the onsite restaurants rather than on a stand within the show itself.
Tom Lynch, ASM Global’s group commercial director and senior vice president for Europe said all event organisers were competing with shorter attention spans.
“We have this ongoing debate of quality versus quantity, volume and value,” he said.
He added that the destination was an extension of the exhibition experience.
“All events – so all venues- are actually a destination to start with. You go to something.”
Oliver Gardiner, development director at Deutsche Finance said that the success of exhibitions businesses had opened up new opportunities.
“The reason we are here is because of everything Olympia London has achieved in promoting exhibitions,” he said.
He added that as an investor each element of a destination needed to be financially viable in its own right.
Paul Byrom, managing director of Immediate Media, said that tenanted venues could be a beneficial tool in attracting visitors.
“At the Business Design Centre a lot of the tenants are hedge funds and they are exactly the kind of people we want at London Art Fair,” he said.
Austen Hawkins, managing director of F2F, said that he feared visitors may be distracted by other opportunities on site.
But Kerry Prince, brand director at RX Global, felt that if the shows were good enough people would want to stay.
She said: “We’ve got the attitude wrong. We have got to get out of the mindset that people want to leave.”
Hawkins added: “You’ve got to think about what a destination does for a customer. Connectivity is a key issue, and however good the offering on site, if you can’t get there easily it’s not going to help the customer experience.
“If people have one bad coffee they’ll want to move venue.”
Hawkins also feared that the operational challenges of a large and complex site would need careful planning – exhibition visitors would not want to be stuck behind a queue of gig visitors leaving an arena and exhibitors would not want to find the cafes were full with office workers.
He added that diary planning had to be done carefully – citing the complexities of the time he ran an allergy show while a pet event was running at the same venue.
At the NEC, they have already created an onsite destination with Resorts World. Venue sales director, Ian Taylor, said that running a complex site with a variety of different facilities required careful planning.
“You have to be a landlord, citizen and also a neighbour,” he said.
Where can be a destination?
There were some parameters to the types of venues suitable to become destinations. All agreed government support was better outside the UK.
Lourda Derry, COO Easyfairs UK and global, pointed to Antwerp, where they hold Bulk Break Europe, and said the city actively supported their show.
Destinations have to be well connected they all agreed – but adding attractive leisure options to turn a business trip into a holiday was also increasingly appealing as people became more time and environment conscious. Marina Bay Sands and Barcelona ticked the boxes. Vienna and Glasgow were hailed for supporting and encouraging business tourism.
All agreed there was a lot to be gained from well-planned destinations.
Golden said: “Today has been a validation of what we have been working towards.”
Tracy Halliwell MBE, London & Partners’ director of tourism, conventions and major events, said: “As a destination, should I be worried about venues being destinations? I don’t think so because it is creating a business district.
“This is exactly what we should be wanting to promote, London being first at everything. We can go to the world and say London has this.
“We tend to sell a city on leisure, but by creating business destinations, we can start to talk about Olympia London as part of the destination.”
Taylor concluded: “Today has been recognition that we are on a journey. You never arrive at the destination. It’s about collaboration and partnership.”
Byrom said rethinking venues could be the start of the future for events.
He said: “There’s been a step change in the way we think about events for the next 100 years.
“We need to continue to talk and collaborate.”
Championing the UK exhibition sector Hawkins said: “UK organisers are the best in the world, operating in some of the best venues in the world. It’s about bringing people in and it’s exciting.”
Prince said: “There’s few venues that feel as special as Olympia London and that looks set to continue. As an industry we all need to be responsible for that experience. It’s a partnership and a journey.”
Derry echoed the sentiment. “This journey with Olympia London is history in the making,” she said.