EN talks to Jeremy Rees, CEO of ExCeL London, about the venue’s role in the fight against Covid-19 and how 2021’s calendar is shaping.
Jeremy Rees took over as CEO of ExCeL London towards the end of 2018, after joining the venue in 2010 as its sales director.
Rees is an events man through and through, having been an organiser himself and provider of event technology. It is fair to say he has seen it all, or at least he thought he had. 2020 was going to be the year that put ExCeL on the international map (if it wasn’t there already), with the all-electric Formula E series set to race through and around the venue in the world’s first indoor-outdoor motor race. Then Covid-19 arrived, and the 100,000sqm venue found itself very much the centre of attention, but for a very different reason.
ExCeL London was turned into an emergency hospital for Covid-19 patients, known as NHS Nightingale London. Now, ahead of the conditional event restart date of 1 October, the venue has been restored to its original, event-ready state.
Reflecting on the experience, Rees notes it was a privilege to work with the NHS and its staff during the unprecedented crisis. “We are extremely proud to have played a role,” he tells says.
“In late March, I was asked if we would offer our entire facility to support the Government and NHS as part of their response to the growing surge of Covid-19 patients. The plan was to transform our venue into the world’s largest field hospital with a capacity of up to 4,000 beds. We immediately agreed and, with the full support of our owner Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC), the work began the following day.”
It was to be a big job, but nothing that a team of experienced eventprofs couldn’t handle. Rees notes that the venue’s engineers, security officers, cleaners, riggers, and traffic management team – more accustomed to hosting events – worked alongside the NHS and the military, as well as event industry contractors, to complete the transformation.
“Our business depends upon us being able to change our environment rapidly from one event to the next but even by our standards this was a remarkable achievement and something we are very proud to have been part of,” Rees adds.
The vast majority of the venue (90%) has now been restored to its original state with the remaining space allocated for equipment and bed storage for the hibernated NHS Nightingale. The Government is allowing business events and conferences to restart from the 1 October this year, under Covid Secure Safety Standards, and Rees notes that he is anticipating hosting dozens of world class events from then on.
Looking ahead, we ask if he is on track to proceed with the events scheduled for the remainder of 2020? “Events tend to run on an annualised cycle so the vast majority of exhibitions across the UK have been cancelled or postponed until Q4 this year,” he admits. “Similar to very many sectors, Covid-19 has had a devastating impact both economically and socially across the events sector.”
On the wider economic case for exhibitions post-Covid, Rees says that there can be no doubt that organised events, from every sector, will be vital in reigniting the economy, but that safety guidance must be followed, if nothing else to offer confidence.
“I think the role of our industry has never been more important,” he says. “The UK events industry is one of Britain’s biggest success stories. The sector is worth £70 billion and is the sixth largest in the UK, employing over 700,000 people across 25,000 businesses.
“The organised events we host are a huge catalyst for trade. They drive billions of pounds worth of import and export activity and actively support the Governments’ Industrial Strategy. In previous years we would host 400 events, attracting four million visitors and 40,000 exhibiting companies. Events at ExCeL alone generate £4.5 billion for the UK economy, support 37,600 jobs and drive 25% of London’s inbound business tourists.”
Rees notes the obvious negative impact Covid-19 has had and is confident of adapting. With the Government-approved All Secure Standard forming the foundation for all exhibitions for the foreseeable future, Rees is without doubt that events can operate safely.
What then, is to be said of the 2021 calendar; with all the postponements and cancellations we have seen so far? How is next year shaping up? “We have to remain optimistic about the future,” says Rees. “We cannot wait to work with our clients and get back to doing what we as an industry do best: acting as a catalyst for billions of pounds of import and export activity, resulting in investment, jobs, and economic growth.
“Our customers want and need to run events. There is demand for future years and the desire to get back to business is overwhelmingly strong. We are seeing a steady level of enquiries, especially for future years, including 2021.”
As the events industry continues in an economic trough, a number of businesses are looking to diversify. We ask Rees if ExCeL has any such plans: “As we look to the future, we are actively exploring how we can continue to diversify our business,” he says. “This will include exciting, new projects that will raise the profile of ExCeL while supplementing our traditional revenue streams.
“We have ambitious plans for growth beyond our core business. Our vision is to make ExCeL more of a destination, attracting new audiences, by working with globally recognised brands to deliver world class entertainment and attractions.
“When the new Elizabeth Line opens this will be possible, as we will have the ability to transport thousands of visitors from central London within 15-minutes, right to our front door.”