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As Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena reaches a milestone, IQ talks to management, clients, and admirers about the building’s rich history
By Gordon Masson on 03 Feb 2021
This month should have marked a huge party at Resorts World Arena as the iconic NEC Group venue chalked up its 40th birthday. While those celebrations were inevitably muted, given that 2020 has been the quietest in the building’s long history, IQ could not let the occasion pass without paying tribute to this pioneering arena.
Prior to 1980, there had not been many gigs at the National Exhibition Centre, which was opened by the Queen in 1976 as the largest exhibition space in the UK. However, as the fledgling live music business began to grow, promoters were eager to find suitable venues for shows by 70s superstar acts and, more by accident than design, the NEC’s halls started to prove popular for touring acts.
At that point, there were no major venues outside of London, where Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena hosted the larger touring acts, so it was a somewhat brave leap of faith that saw NEC’s hierarchy decide to add a seventh hall to the Solihull complex.
“I was working with Harvey Goldsmith, and the first band to play the venue was Queen”
And so it was, on 5 December 1980, that the Birmingham International Arena made its debut on the UK tour circuit. And what a debut it was! “I was working with Harvey Goldsmith, and the first band to play the venue was Queen,” says Andrew Zweck of Sensible Events.
“This was the first new arena built in the UK in the 1970/80s [and] I’m very happy to say that it’s gone from strength to strength, with lots of additions, improvements, and upgrades over the years, and is really a favourite venue for artists, promoters and, of course, fans.”
For his part, Harvey Goldsmith recalls that he first heard about the NEC in 1975 and used the complex a number of times prior to the arena’s construction.
“In 1977, Barry Cleverdon, who had become the MD of the NEC, phoned me and said that they were creating a venue in Hall 7 and could I bring a big artist to open the venue. So I brought the first of many major artists, Queen, to the venue.”
“At first the venue was a bit rough and ready, but it had a great atmosphere thanks to the Brummie audience”
Goldsmith adds, “At first the venue was a bit rough and ready, but it had a great atmosphere thanks to the Brummie audience.[Prior to that] I had been producing a lot of concerts at Bingley Hall as that was the biggest space in the region, and the NEC was light relief compared to the cattle showroom.”
With a history with the arena that dates back to its opening, the list of artists that Goldsmith has taken to the venue is endless. “From The Who to New Kids On the Block to Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles; award shows like Smash Hits and the last show of the original Black Sabbath,” he notes.
“It is now a great venue, with a fabulous team who run it. It all works – from the ticket selling to the car parks. We are lucky to have this well-run venue, and long may it continue,” adds Goldsmith.
Those early concerns about the height of the arena roof have, over time, become a selling point for the venue, as its design has helped to foster a reputation as one of the most intimate arena performance spaces in the world.
“In 1978, the NEC’s exhibition halls were used for a few shows before the arena opened, and that was the catalyst for the construction of the arena,” says Guy Dunstan, who is the current managing director of arenas for the NEC Group.
“Back then, the arena was a pioneering venue in the UK market. There were only really Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena”
“But when the arena opened, it retained the capability to be converted into an exhibition hall – so the seats could be removed, for example.
“The roof height of 12 metres helps retain an intimacy,” he continues, noting that the original design of the building tried to make the arena as audience-friendly as possible. “The building was initially a 12,300-capacity arena, and its design is iconic, as it is pillar-free to minimise sightline issues.
“Back then, the arena was a pioneering venue in the UK market. There were only really Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena, so the addition of the Birmingham International Arena in 1980 gave promoters the opportunity to start looking at bigger UK arena tours.”
As with many in the Resorts World Arena team, Dunstan is a local lad whose history with the venue dates back a lot farther than 1996 when he joined NEC Group.
“I went to my first ever concert at the arena,” he tells IQ, confessing that he’s recently been able to use NEC archives to check the exact date.
“My passion for concerts and live music all centres around the arena – I just never imagined that I’d end up running the place”
“It was 18 December, 1984, it was a mate’s birthday and we went to see Howard Jones, who must have been big at the time because he played two dates. I was 13, and I remember we were dropped off at the arena by my mate’s dad and I was buzzing about going to my first gig.”
He continues, “I’d been to events at the NEC before that, as my parents took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters and we’d also been to showjumping events because my sister was into that. But my passion for concerts and live music all centres around the arena – I just never imagined that I’d end up running the place.”
Alan Goodman, general manager of arenas, started working with NEC Group in 1991, initially at sister venue, the NIA, in Birmingham city centre, and adding the NEC Arena to his remit later on. But he, too, has a longer history with the venue.
“My first concert was at the NEC Arena in 1986 – it was a show called Heartbeat 86, which was a charity gig to raise money for a children’s hospital. I remember that I sat under the same awful lighting rig that I was responsible for taking out in 2008.”
Growth and improvement
Dunstan and his former boss, Phil Mead, have been instrumental in the venue’s development in recent years, starting with the expansion that Goodman hints at.
“[In 2007], there were lots of new, purpose-built venues opening up and the NEC Arena was showing its age”
“We first started looking at what we could do to transform the venue in 2007, when Phil Mead joined us,” says Dunstan. “At the time, there were lots of new, purpose-built venues opening up and the NEC Arena was showing its age, to the extent that the customer experience was not where we wanted it to be,” he admits.
“Our approach was to have a venue that was fit for purpose, and at the forefront of the arenas business worldwide, so we looked at different options and spoke to a number of architects about how we could achieve that.
“The ace up our sleeve was that we were able to create this unique arena environment because we have the Forum as an entrance area, which gave us 4,000 square metres of space to utilise as part of the rebuild, welcoming people from outside, where it can often be cold or wet, into this vibrant entrance atrium.”
Mead recalls, “When I had a look at the NEC Arena before I got the job, I could see it was crying out for refurbishment – there hadn’t been any significant investment for a long time.”
He, too, talks fondly of his long relationship with the venue, telling IQ, “I went to college in Staffordshire, so one of the first gigs I went to was when Bob Dylan played the arena in 1991. I was at the back of the arena where the seats levelled out, so it wasn’t a great view, but I took my chance to make my way down to near the stage to get closer to the action.
“One of the first gigs I went to was when Bob Dylan played the arena in 1991”
“It was a brilliant show and the whole arena atmosphere got to me. Little did I know that 25 years later I’d be writing to people to tell them about the importance of keeping the aisles clear.”
That initial experience was not too far from his mind when it came to the expansion of a decade ago. “A lick of paint wasn’t going to be enough for the refurbishment, and I remember hiring a photographer in and instructing him to take bad photos, so we could use them in the presentation for our refurb proposals. Photographers don’t like to take bad photos, but we’d wheel bins into shot and things like that. Fortunately, the board bought into our proposals.”
The expansion programme proved a little more complicated than its then local authority owners simply signing a cheque.
“The caveat was that they would provide us with the £29million [€32m] as long as we could underwrite the costs with a naming rights sponsor for the arena,” discloses Mead.
Dunstan is convinced that utilising the entrance atrium was crucial to attracting its first naming rights partners, electrical giants LG.
“Getting [naming rights partner, electrical giants] LG on board was a milestone moment”
“The Forum gave the sponsors the space and scope to integrate with us and make the new arena an exciting place to showcase the LG brand and their products. At one stage, LG built a cinema in the Forum to showcase their 3D television technology. But they also brought in gaming and mobile phone experiences, as well as all kinds of technology experiences – all of which helped make it an exciting place for visitors as well.”
“Getting LG on board was a milestone moment,” states Mead. “We wanted to reinstate the arena into the premier league of venues and gaining the support and enthusiasm of LG unlocked any concerns of the board, which gave us the money for the project.”
But that wasn’t the only constraint the NEC team had to contend with. “The key to the refurbishment was that we kept the building open as much as possible throughout the construction project, which was a huge logistical task in itself,” says Dunstan.
Mead agrees. “One issue with the project was the speed that we had to do it, especially as we wanted to stay open as much as possible while working on the construction,” he says. “When it came to the refurb project, I think a bit of my Bob Dylan gig was still in me, because I made sure the number of seats on the flat were reduced, while others in the bowl were reconfigured to improve the sight lines.”
While enhancing the arena’s acoustic credentials was an uncontested element of the 2009 refurb, the prospect of changing the seating set-up can prove to be a significant deterrent when it comes to enticing promoters and touring productions. But the architects were able to quickly allay such fears.
“Looking at the arena bowl, it was crucially important for us to keep the capacity numbers so we could remain viable”
“Looking at the arena bowl, it was crucially important for us to keep the capacity numbers so we could remain viable,” says Dunstan. “But the actual design we chose more than delivered, because we were able to increase the capacity from 12,300 to 15,600 by redesigning the seating system, and instead of effectively having three stands, we filled in the corners to create a true arena bowl.
“The design allowed us to increase the seating, but also increase the width of the actual seats and give people more legroom. All in all, it was great news for the fans, but also for agents, promoters and, of course, the artists.”
As with all major projects, management were understandably nervous about the reaction of fans, knowing that audiences often do not take kindly to change. But they needn’t have worried.
Mead says, “We used a Tom Jones show for our soft launch, then Green Day for the official opening. And we could immediately see that the Forum Live area was hugely popular and working well, so it made the investment worthwhile.”
Dunstan adds, “When we reopened with Green Day, I walked in and checked to see what the numbers were with the box office. Pretty much the entire audience had already scanned in, but the building did not look full at all because of the space in the Forum that we had de-signed. And I have to say, it still looks as fresh and new now as it did then.”
“When it comes to my highlights, that first season after the refurb is up there – Tom Jones, then Green Day, and then WWF”
Mead has nothing but fond memories of the accomplishments of 2009. “When it comes to my highlights of working at the arena, that first season after the refurb is up there – Tom Jones, then Green Day, and then WWF – it was amazing to see the arena transformed,” he says.
Another seminal moment involved Prince and a last-minute deadline. “Prince was in the UK for a festival performance or something and he decided he wanted to tag on an arena date while he was here, so his appearance at the arena was put together in just three weeks, which must have been the shortest lead time in the venue’s history,” says Mead.
“That day I had a report to write for the board, but time just flew by, so I found myself watching the show with my laptop on my knee, writing the report to the backing of Prince. And at the end of the show, one of the fans told me that he’d been watching me and that he hoped it was going to be an amazing review!
“Another highlight was in 2016, when my wife insisted on going see Adele. Just seeing someone at the top of their game singing brilliantly for a couple of hours was fantastic. Same goes for George Michael with his orchestra, which was a standout moment, as was Ozzy Osbourne’s farewell show, and the Sports Personality of the Year Awards.”
For his part, general manager Goodman tells IQ, “One of my personal highlights was when Jeff Lynn of ELO went back on the road – and that was the first time I’d seen him since my first ever gig at the Heartbeat 86 concert.”
“Prince’s appearance at the arena was put together in just three weeks, which must have been the shortest lead time”
Dunstan has too many highlights to mention, but he remembers a particular Spinal-Tap moment that speaks of the arena’s accessibility. “We had a big international band playing at the arena, and that night I was observing the car park and traffic team, so I joined the marshals, etc, to see how they ran things,” he relates.
“At the end of the evening I had two choices: join the traffic team for the exit process for the fans; or the more appealing chance to join the getaway vehicle for the artists leaving the site as soon as they left the stage.
“So I was in the NEC traffic vehicle and the band’s driver told me that they had a jet waiting for them at Birmingham Airport. I asked where they were going next and he laughed and said, ‘London’. It turns out they were flying to Luton Airport and had ignored their driver’s advice, so he dropped them off at Birmingham, then drove to Luton Airport and was there waiting for them when they got off the plane…”
As the jewel in the crown when it comes to venues in the Midlands, Resorts World Arena provides everyone who works there with a sense of justifiable local pride.
The redevelopment of the arena in 2009 precipitated the council selling NEC Group to Lloyds Development Capital in January 2015 for a whopping £307m (€337m). However, underlining the incumbent management’s impressive ongoing stewardship of the venues group, in October 2018, private equity investment firm, Blackstone, acquired NEC Group from Lloyds for a reported £800m (€877m).
“All of our existing riggers are ex-trainees, which is fantastic, and it’s definitely something we want to continue in the future”
In the meantime, the group’s hierarchy has created groundbreaking internal leadership strategies that will not only improve the efficiency of the NEC going forward, but are having a domino effect on the greater UK production services sector as a whole.
Arenas GM Goodman says, “We’re unique in that we have our own in-house event services team, who I see as being at the centre of an egg timer, taking all the outside information and requirements from the promoters and tour production and passing that on to our internal venue staff.
“For many years we’ve had our own rigging team, and we’ve been groundbreaking with our training programmes. Our apprenticeships, which we have been championing for many years, are more formalised now. And during the past couple of years we’ve done the same with our electricians. The fact that we have our own in-house teams gives us great control over the here and now.”
Those training schemes are beginning to benefit the UK’s touring circuit as a whole, as apprentices move on to work at other venues. “All of our existing riggers are ex-trainees, which is fantastic, and it’s definitely something we want to continue in the future,” states NEC Group head of rigging, Paul Rowlands, who tells IQ he has been working at the arena since 1991.
“In those days, from a rigging perspective, a heavy show was 12 tonnes. Now we’re in excess of 80 tonnes for the larger shows, and that’s a real challenge for an older venue.”
The Resorts World Arena roof was at one time a haven where George Michael liked to sunbathe
Goodman adds, “When you see the way tours have developed, there are periods of the year when we have back-to-back shows and the way we deliver them is just an amazing achievement. That wouldn’t be the case if we hadn’t spent the time and effort into developing our teams.”
As his job involves working at height, Rowlands is all too familiar with the Resorts World Arena roof and reports that at one time it was a haven where George Michael liked to sunbathe. “We also used to have our snow patrol to shovel snow off the roof when we had to, but thankfully that’s now done with the flick of a switch,” he says.
But the roof remains something of a hindrance for Rowlands and his team, so he is happier than most about the prospects of the next arena construction scheme. “The arena was never designed for the loads it’s asked to take these days, so we have a lot to do in the next expansion project,” he says.
Britain’s biggest arena?
Not content with running one of the world’s most popular venues, the Resorts World Arena recently revealed plans that could transform the building into the biggest arena in the UK.
“Everybody knows everybody in the arenas business, so we’ve been incorporating and learning from the lessons of everyone else in terms of what works and what doesn’t at arenas around the world, as well as what promoters expect and what they are – and are not – prepared to pay for,” says Rowlands.
The Resorts World Arena recently revealed plans that could transform the building into the biggest arena in the UK
“Using that information has allowed us to come up with a venue redesign that will make the Resorts World Arena the most flexible venue in the country.”
Rowlands tells IQ that he is familiar with a lot of venues around the world, while the Resorts World Arena’s location next to Birmingham Airport has meant that the venue has been used for more than its fair share of arena association meetings over the years – giving him and the NEC Group team an advantage when it comes to developing facilities and services.
“We have a system that will effectively be designed by other venue operators, based on their problems,” explains Rowlands.
“For instance, I opened an arena in Hong Kong once and it was an incredible building, but what they overlooked was that the loading doors faced the South China Sea, so when shows were loading in and out, things would blow everywhere. Those are the kinds of lessons you learn from others when planning construction.”
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has placed all construction plans on hold for the time being.
“Our plan is to take the capacity up to 21,600”
“Our plan is to take the capacity up to 21,600,” explains Dunstan. “We’d achieve that by putting an additional tier on the existing facility and raising the roof. That will also allow us to strengthen the roof so it’s better equipped to handle future productions. Again, the idea would be to keep the arena open as much as possible during the expansion project.
“We’ve got the planning consent but because of Covid the project is now on hold,” he continues. “We were due to start the project in May or June 2020, but we’ve decided to pause it for the time being. We need to get back into the recovery of the business before we re-evaluate the market to see where we are.”
There’s no time to grieve over the paused expansion plans, however, as the NEC Group is being kept busy by the surprise selection of Birmingham as the host city for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
On hand to assist in that regard is none other than Phil Mead, who has taken on the role of Commonwealth Games delivery chairman – a position that is close to his heart, as he was a contestant in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, where he represented the Isle of Man at badminton.
“I remember winning the first point at doubles when we played the Malaysians, who were the world champions. That was sort of the highlight,” he laughs.
Mead says that six sports will be hosted at NEC Group facilities, which will also be home to the international broadcast centre. But the fact that the Resorts World Arena is involved at all is a surprise.
The NEC Group is being kept busy by the surprise selection of Birmingham as the host city for the 2022 Commonwealth Games
“We originally were working on a bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, which in theory, would have coincided with the opening of the high-speed rail link adjacent to the NEC complex,” says Mead.
“Durban had won the bid for 2022, but when the organising committee visited the city, they found that a lot of the requirements had not been met, so they decided a new host city was needed. One of the reasons Birmingham was chosen was that 90% of the venues were already in situ, and the city has hosted lots of international sports events over the years.”
Mead reveals that the whole NEC team is working on the Games preparation, as the complex will be central to the gathering. “We’re going to have netball in the arena, which is great because England will be one of the favourites,” he says. “Weightlifting, powerlifting, table tennis, boxing and badminton will be in the NEC halls, while the city-centre arena will host the gymnastics.”
That’s not the only major event in the calendar for Resorts World Arena in the near future. Dunstan states, “The next expansion was to coincide with the opening of the high-speed rail line to London. […] There are also ambitious office, retail, and residential projects planned nearby, so there are a number of exciting opportunities for the NEC Group, and Resorts World Arena in particular, during the next decade.”
Already enhancing the arena’s pulling power is Resorts World, which is adjacent to the venue and has proved to be a tremendous asset for the entire NEC campus with its retail outlets, restaurants, hotel, and casino.
“My highlights of working here are constant: they’re basically the challenges we have to meet and find solutions for”
40 years at the top
As the Resorts World Arena team prepare for a return to live events in 2021, the NEC has been playing a major role in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, being the location for the temporary NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham, and cementing itself even deeper in the hearts of the local population.
The arena’s reputation is no less embedded among artists and their crews. “The NEC Arena, or Resorts World Arena as it is now, is iconic, and anyone touring around the world would recognise the building from a photo,” comments Rowlands.
He adds, “My highlights of working here are constant: they’re basically the challenges we have to meet and find solutions for all the time, because the arena was not designed for the size of shows we now have visiting. It’s all about problem solving – how can we make the next production work?”
“It’s up to us to ensure that Resorts World Arena remains as relevant in the next 40 years as it has in its first 40”
Those challenges will undoubtedly change when the venue goes through its next redevelopment stage, possibly as early as 2023, paving the way for a new generation of artists and state-of- the-art productions to herald the next 40 years of success at the arena.
Dunstan concludes, “There are members of the team who were not even born when the arena opened, so it makes me feel really old that the venue is now 40.
“There are a slew of new venues due to make their debut in the next few years – in Newcastle, Cardiff, and Manchester, for example – so it’s up to us that we put the work in to ensure that Resorts World Arena remains as relevant in the next 40 years as it has in its first 40.