Like many people working in the events industry, James Rees fell into it. He wanted to be a popstar when he left university and was determined he and his band could make the big time. However, after one failed single, the band went their separate ways and he took up a temping job assisting a conference organiser.
Some years later, following stints working in event management and event sales for Wembley Stadium and Hilton hotels, he is now director of conferences and events at London’s first ICC, at Excel London. No mean feat for someone who never dreamt he would be responsible for bringing millions of pounds to the London economy through events.
“The showbiz element of events has always been exciting to me, and the creativity side of the job keeps it interesting,” says Rees. “Excel is a real premier league venue. We are biased, but we think it is a top venue and it is very entrepreneurial as well. There are only 120 staff at Excel, so you personally can effect change. Part of our success comes from being a private company. Change comes quickly and this is all part of the appeal.
“There’s this spirit throughout the company that keeps you fired up to do well and eager to get out of bed in the morning. Then with the further investment and the new ICC, if that doesn’t get you excited, nothing will,” he adds.
On time and in budget?
London’s first international convention centre, Phase Two of the Excel development, opened its doors for business at the beginning of May, on time and on budget. Builder Sir Robert McAlpine, also responsible for Phase One of the Excel development which opened two weeks early, has a “good track record,” according to Rees.
Private investment by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company will see its Excel venue expand by 50 per cent, create 12,000 new jobs and a 5,000-seat auditorium. The new expanded facility will also provide London’s largest banqueting hall, able to host up to 20,000 delegates. This will be a real coup for attracting large conventions.
The X Factor auditions (a UK singing contest broadcast on prime time television) was the first event to take place at the new venue, and attracted tens of thousands of participants. The Stadia and Arena 2010 conference and exhibition will take place there this month, and the ‘official’ launch event for the venue will be on 24 June. The event is expected to attract 500 delegates from the events industry and London Mayor Boris Johnson will officially address proceedings.
Rees’ strategy is to attract key European and North American business to the ICC. Currently 25 per cent of the venue’s business is from overseas, broken down into 15 per cent from North America and 10 per cent from Europe.
“We would like to expand on this”, says Rees. “Excel’s conference and events division has been in place for some years, but has really developed in the last 12 months. We have been pitching to the market for a while and bidding for large conferences, but without the infrastructure, we were running with one arm behind our back. The new facilities mean that we now stand a chance of that business.”
London: value for money?
Top of Rees’ hit list is the European Society of Cardiology Conference, which hosts 30,000 delegates every year. “The new ICC could now fit the congress,” says Rees.
Another part of the venue’s marketing plan is to target the organisers on a list of 20 top international conferences which could bring the most economic impact to London. The ICC is also working with Visit London to attract these top 20 conferences.
The convention bureau hosted the Associations Conference (AC) Forum this January in London. The forum includes a group of 23 of the major associations who meet every year in a different European city to see what the area has to offer for an event. The members include the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, the European Society for Medical Oncology, the European Society for Cardiology and the World Dental Federation, all of whom could bring large economic gain to the city if they held their events there.
“London hosting the AC Forum showed the rest of the world that London is interested in international business,” says Rees. “There was a perception before that London didn’t really care.” It was a perception fostered by a somewhat cavalier attitude to London’s historically low ICCA city ranking.
London also has a reputation for being expensive, which Rees says is unfair. “I get perturbed when London gets bashed for being expensive,” he says. “I get to travel a lot, and because I get to see other cities and what they pay for things, prices are much the same here as in Barcelona or Paris. We are clearly competing with these cities, as well as Geneva, Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, Frankfurt and Brussels.
“We’ve become shrewd through good and bad experiences in bidding processes and we have learnt our unique selling points (USPs). Once clients choose us they say it seems really unfair London is perceived as expensive,” says Rees. “We will never be cheap, but London comes into its own with its USPs. It’s a safe city, and it has a fantastic public transport system. I think what London needs to do is not be afraid of what it is.”
Rees says London’s ICC is unlike any other venue in the UK, and will therefore not affect the oversupply of venue space in the country. “There are lots of venues in the UK, and in the city of London, but this completely new facility is unlike anything London’s ever had and it really fills the gap that London has now, particularly for international conventions,” says Rees. “We are not trying to displace and get everyone’s UK business, but for UK clients we can offer London as a more affordable option for the first time. The ICC will add to the market and provide more business than it steals.”
And with such exciting times ahead for the city, it really is a perfect time to launch an ICC of this magnitude. The Olympics in 2012 will give the venue a huge boost, as will the opening of the new Crossrail transport system, the largest addition to the transport network in London and the South East for 50 years.
Perhaps, then, Rees’ transport USP will be fully realised. Rees says: “The Olympic factor will give us a marketing shot in the arm to show how we can attract people from all over the globe.”