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Concert for Ukraine raises £12m+ for war relief

Last night’s (29 March) Concert For Ukraine fundraiser in Birmingham raised £12.2 million for the humanitarian relief effort in the country.

Stars including Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello and Emeli Sande took to the stage at Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena for the televised event.

Anne Marie, Snow Patrol, Manic Street Preachers, Nile Rodgers and Chic and Gregory Porter also performed and, elsewhere, Ukrainian singer Jamala delivered a rendition of her Eurovision-winning track, 1944.

The two-hour show, held to raise money for the Disasters Emergency Committee’s (DEC) Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, was expected to raise over £3m.

However, according to ITV, which broadcast the show, over £12m has been raised so far, with the number expected to increase.

As well as millions of pounds of public donations, the broadcasters donated an estimated £3m of advertising revenue

As well as millions of pounds of public donations, the broadcasters donated an estimated £3m of advertising revenue. Another £250,000 was generated by ticket sales.

Alongside ITV, Concert for Ukraine was organised by STV, Livewire Pictures, DEC and media and entertainment group Global.

Elsewhere, a spate of benefit concerts held in Europe over the past week together raised around €20 million for related causes. Sound of Peace, a televised live concert that took place on 20 March in Berlin and raised more than €12m, according to the organisers.

Together with Ukraine, a televised live concert held at the Atlas Arena (cap. 13,000) in Łódź, Poland, organised by promoter Follow the Step, reportedly raised more than €6m.

A pair of events spearheaded by Dutch promoter Alda also raised upwards of €1m for the Romanian Red Cross. We Are One took place at the National Arena in Bucharest, Romania, while Dance For Ukraine was staged at Poland’s Tauron Arena.

 


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Ed Sheeran announced for UK’s Concert for Ukraine

Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello, Emeli Sandé, Snow Patrol and Gregory Porter are among the first batch of acts announced the UK’s Concert for Ukraine fundraiser.

ITV, STV and Livewire Pictures have joined forces with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and media and entertainment group Global to stage the concert at NEC Group’s Resorts World Arena in Birmingham on 29 March.

The televised event is expected to raise more than £3 million (€3.55m) for the humanitarian appeal in Ukraine. All sponsorship and advertising revenue from the broadcast will also be donated to the appeal by ITV. Tickets went on sale today, priced from £52 (€62).

“The NEC Group stands with the people of Ukraine,” says Guy Dunstan, MD of ticketing and arenas. “Whilst the live entertainment industry is shocked and deeply saddened to see the humanitarian crisis unfold, it has the power to make a difference. That’s, of course, through people’s love of music.

“As a charity fundraising event, Concert for Ukraine will be a fantastic show that brings together some of the UK’s biggest artists at one of our leading entertainment venues, Resorts World Arena, to help raise money for humanitarian relief.

“We look forward to working with promoters and organisers in the lead-up to the concert to ensure that we put on an incredible show”

“As a Birmingham-based group, we’re delighted to host an event with such meaning and a cause that will, of course, resonate with people up and down the country. We look forward to working with the promoters and organisers in the lead-up to the concert to ensure that we put on an incredible show which, at its heart, shines a positive light on the people of Ukraine.”

Nile Rodgers + Chic, Manic Street Preachers, Tom Odell, Becky Hill and The Kingdom Choir have also been confirmed for the concert, which will be screened across ITV, STV, ITV Hub and STV Player.

Polish television company TVP is also spearheading a global charity TV marathon with a live music element in aid of Ukraine. Broadcasters in Estonia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Albania and Latvia have already signed up for #SaveUkraine, which is earmarked for Sunday 27 March at 4.30pm GMT.

A spate of benefit concerts held in Europe over the past week together raised around €20 million for related causes. Sound of Peace, a televised live concert that took place on 20 March in Berlin and raised more than €12m, according to the organisers. Elsewhere, Together with Ukraine, a televised live concert held at the Atlas Arena (cap. 13,000) in Łódź, Poland, organised by promoter Follow the Step, reportedly raised more than €6m.

A pair of events spearheaded by Dutch promoter Alda also raised upwards of €1m for the Romanian Red Cross. We Are One took place at the National Arena in Bucharest, Romania, while Dance For Ukraine was staged at Poland’s Tauron Arena.

 


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NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan on the UK arena business

NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan says the high rate of no-shows at concerts is continuing to cause uncertainty for the UK’s arena business.

Promoters reported the typical level of no-shows to be around 25-35% – rising up to 50% in extreme cases – when touring first returned from the Covid-19 shutdown last autumn. While numbers have stabilised to nearer 15%, the knock-on effects remain significant.

Dunstan is MD, ticketing and arenas for the Birmingham-based NEC Group, which manages five of the UK’s leading business, leisure, and entertainment venues including the 15,685-cap Resorts World Arena and 15,800-cap Utilita Arena Birmingham, plus national ticketing agency The Ticket Factory.

“No-shows have been a big issue for us since coming back to business late last summer,” Dunstan tells IQ. “We’ve seen good levels of attendance and minimal no-shows for events that have gone on sale more recently, but we’re seeing a bigger impact on shows that have rescheduled two or three times. It tends to increase the more times the show has been rescheduled, and the longer ago the show was originally scheduled to be.”

Dunstan points out that, pre-pandemic, no-show rates at the venues hovered closer to 5%.

“It was always within that range,” he adds. “But we’re now measuring it on a show-by-show basis and trying to build up as much insight and looking at the trends to see whether it is mainly linked to the shows that have moved dates, rather than to do with customer confidence, because we’ve had shows that have gone on sale since last summer where both the attendance and the level of no-shows have been back to normal levels.

“We’re seeing on average, around about 15% no-shows on rescheduled dates and that has a big impact for venues because our business model’s based on food and beverage spend, merchandise spend, car parking spend… And so 15% of customers not coming into a venue is a significant hit on our expected revenues.

“The level of business is looking good over the next 12 to 18 months”

“We have to be prepared for every ticket holder turning up. We can’t start thinking, ‘We’ll reduce our costs by 15% and reduce our staff by 15%’ because we’ve got to make sure we are geared up for everybody turning up. So it’s a real challenge for us in this current climate, but I think as we start getting through all those rescheduled shows, it will get back to normal levels.”

Utilita Arena has concerts coming up with the likes of Stormzy, Royal Blood, Sam Fender, Dua Lipa, Celine Dion, The Script, Alicia Keys and Billie Eilish, while Resorts World Arena will welcome Stereophonics, Little Mix, Years & Years, Alice Cooper + The Cult, Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons, Pet Shop Boys and Kings of Leon, among others.

“There are shows that are not selling as well as we would expect them to, but others are absolutely flying,” notes Dunstan, a former National Arenas Association chair. “From December into early January, some shows lost momentum in ticket sales because of Omicron. The A-list artists are all selling out and doing really well, but the mid-tier isn’t selling that well, although we have seen some mid-tier artists doing better than they’ve done before, and others not as well. We’re all trying to work out what the level of business is going to be and it’s almost like starting again, because there have been some very strange trends.

“In December, January and even into February we saw a much lower level of on-sales than we would normally see in that period and I think that is because of Omicron. When we got into December, the industry sat tight and waited to see how Omicron was going to play out, so a lot of tour plans were put on hold. But we’re starting to see a lot of shows now planned to go on sale in March, which is encouraging and hopefully starts getting us back on track.”

He concludes: “Like other venues,  we’re doing our budgeting and planning strategy for the next three years and it’s quite a difficult exercise, with so many anomalies being thrown at us. But positively, the level of business is looking good over the next 12 to 18 months so I think the bounce back is going be prolonged as everybody catches up. There are a lot of pencils going in for ’23 and even for ’24 as well, so a lot of promoters and artists are looking longer term in terms of their touring plans because it is going to be very busy over the next couple of years.”

 


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NEC Group to open 14,000m2 outdoor event space

The NEC Group is to open a new outdoor event space as part of a major redevelopment of the NEC Campus in Birmingham.

The site is already home to the UK’s largest exhibition venue – the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), as well as the Vox Conference Venue, Resorts World Arena (15,685), Resorts World Birmingham, The Bear Grylls Adventure and a number of hotels.

NEC Group says the redevelopment will transform over 27 hectares of surface level car parking and surplus land, to create new residential, office, leisure and community spaces.

In addition to the 14,000m2 event space, the plans include 35,000m2 of new commercial space, a hotel, restaurants and cafes, 5,000 new homes and a school.

The group says the redevelopment would create an estimated 3,500 new local jobs, and result in a greener and more sustainable environment on the NEC Campus.

The plan also involves the site being linked to the High Speed 2 Interchange Station via a four-minute shuttle.

“Now is the time to be bold and ambitious about the future and harness the power of the real estate we have to offer”

It said residential access will be separated from logistics and visitor traffic, and ample parking provisions will be maintained to ensure the venue can continue to service major sold-out events. Additional multi-storey car parks are part of the plan.

“Now is the time to be bold and ambitious about the future and harness the power of the real estate we have to offer, whilst simultaneously maximising the benefits of having a young, diverse and entrepreneurial population,” says NEC Group CEO Paul Thandi.

“The NEC Campus sits within a major engine of economic growth in the UK, recognised as one of the best-connected development zones in Europe. This Masterplan unites corporate ambition with global purpose, setting out our vision whilst considering eco and socially responsible practices.”

Birmingham City Council leader and councillor Ian Ward added: “I believe that we are at the beginning of a golden decade for Birmingham, with the Commonwealth Games taking place next year, and the arrival of HS2. The NEC Masterplan will connect the site with Arden Cross and the High Speed 2 Interchange, which together will transform this area, creating thousands of jobs and build thousands of homes.”

The Masterplan will be subject to a six-week period of public consultation running from 10 November to 24 December.

 


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The LGBTIQ+ List 2021: Daniel Brown, Birmingham Pride

The LGBTIQ+ List 2021 – IQ’s first annual celebration of queer professionals who make an immense impact in the international live music business – was published in the inaugural Pride edition (issue 101) this month.

The 20 individuals comprising the LGBTIQ+ List 2021, as nominated by our readers and verified by our esteemed steering committee, have gone above and beyond to wave the flag for an industry that we can all be proud of.

To get to know this year’s queer pioneers a little better, IQ asked each individual to share their challenges, triumphs, advice and more. Each day this month, we’ll publish a new interview with an individual on the LGBTIQ+ List 2021. Catch up on the previous interview with Rach Millhauser, coordinator at Wasserman Music in the US here.

 


Daniel Brown
he/him
Event Producer/Programmer, Birmingham Pride, Nightingale Club, Hare & Hounds, Hooker Club, Disco P*ssy, Glittersh*t
Birmingham, UK
https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-brown-676ab3187/

Tell us about a personal triumph in your career.
A personal triumph for my career was becoming the programmer for Birmingham Pride in 2018. Seeing your plans and ideas that you created in your mind in real life: there’s nothing like it.

Being able to make Birmingham Pride one of the most diverse lineups in Europe is the goal for me and I think we are getting there, seeing all these amazing queer artists being their true authentic selves and seeing the reaction of the crowd, in awe that they finally have people that represent them on stage.

What advice could you give for young queer professionals?
If you see a gap that needs filling, don’t wait for someone to fill it. Get your friends together and create that space that you need, you will be so surprised how many people feel the same as you. But also keep at it! The amount of parties and events I have created that have had 20 people attend – if you take it personally, it can knock your confidence. But your next event could be your best, always remember that.

“Get your friends together and create that space that you need, you will be so surprised how many people feel the same”

Tell us about a professional challenge you often come across as a queer person.
Being taken seriously, especially in heteronormative environments. Many people stereotype the sort of work you can produce or want to produce just because you are queer. I’ve spoken with events and venues in the past, who, when I mentioned collaborating, basically laughed in my face. But it lit a fire under my arse to make sure I will prove them wrong!

How could the industry build back better, post-pandemic?
More grassroots nights taking front and centre! I think people now will be so much more excited to see local talent! A more community-based vibe is what I want to see post-pandemic!

A cause you support.
Emerge, in Birmingham, is a youth group for 13-19-year olds who are trans or questioning their gender, identify as trans and/or non-binary. Young people are offered the unique opportunity to support and be supported by their peers. They provide a safe space for conversation, learning and support.

“Many people stereotype the sort of work you can produce or want to produce just because you are queer”

Rainbow Migration supports LGBTQI+ people through the asylum and immigration system. It provides practical and emotional support for those seeking asylum to help improve their confidence and self-esteem and reduce isolation. It also provides legal advice and information to LGBTQI+ people who want to live in the UK with their partners.

What does the near future of the industry look like?
I’m excited for the future, I feel like people are slowly becoming more switched on and understanding about what is needed by an event, especially queer events. I feel another summer of love coming!

How would you like to see the industry build back better, post-pandemic?
More grassroots nights taking front and centre. Events slowly became so much about big names before the lockdown! I think people now will be so much more excited to see local talent. A more community-based vibe is what I want to see post-pandemic.


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West Midlands Music Board launches in UK

The West Midlands Music Board (WMMB), a new body designed to serve as a collective voice for the music industry in the West Midlands region, has launched in England.

Led by Nick Reed of B:Music (formerly THSH), the charity which runs Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (2,262-seat) and Town Hall (1,086-seat) venues, WMMB also counts NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan, promoter Danni Brownsill, Birmingham Pride organiser Lawrence Barton and Academy Music Group’s Louise Stamp as board members.

Created in response to the prolonged shutdown due to the pandemic, the West Midlands Music Board will advocate for, compile data on, and lead the local music sector, which supports more than 3,500 jobs.

Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, along with Lady Leshurr and Joan Armatrading one of several local artists supporting the WMMB, comments: “The West Midlands has an incredible musical history, and it is still bursting with new talent. I’m pleased to see this new board come together to make sure that music is recognised as a key part of the economy and gets the chance to thrive.”

The WMMB will cover the whole of the West Midlands, including Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Herefordshire, Sandwell, Shropshire, Solihull, Staffordshire, Stoke on Trent, Telford and Wrekin, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton and Worcestershire.

“There has never been a more important time to unite”

In alphabetical order, WMMB board members are:

“The board aims to represent a unique identity, by placing music and the wider night-time economy in the West Midlands at the heart of national and regional strategy,” comments Reed. “We will work to ensure that decisions around investment, training, planning and skills allow our incredible music sector to flourish and grow, creating jobs and sustainable careers here in the West Midlands.

“A key part of our work will be ensuring that these careers are open and inclusive to all. From the national levelling-up agenda to local transport policy, the WMMB will speak with a unified voice for music in the region. […] There has never been a more important time to unite, and I am delighted to chair the board, and to be working with such a talented group of people.”

 


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Organisers of AJ Tracey Manchester gig fined £10,000

The organisers of a surprise AJ Tracey gig have been fined £10,000 after huge crowds gathered in a park in Manchester to see the rapper perform.

In a video posted on Twitter afterwards, the British rapper said that he hadn’t expected so many people to turn up to Platt Fields in south Manchester yesterday (18 April) afternoon.

Photos and video footage show hundreds of people standing around basketball courts inside the park, with police appearing to monitor the situation.

Greater Manchester police have now confirmed a £10,000 fixed penalty notice has been issued to the organiser for breaching coronavirus legislation, the Manchester Evening News reported.

AJ Tracey in the building – showing love to Manchester! 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙌🏾

Big up ✅✅ 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾

Posted by Kemoy Walker on Sunday, April 18, 2021

 

The British rapper was reportedly in Birmingham beforehand and had planned to visit Bristol afterwards but has now cancelled the mini tour.

“Big love Manny [Manchester] and Brum [Birmingham], thank you for coming out. […] It’s not going to be safe for me to come to Bristol. I didn’t expect that many people to turn up in Manny and genuinely, yeah man, this is not okay for me to go ahead. I’m gonna head home to London,” AJ Tracey said in the video.

It is not known whether AJ Tracey performed in Birmingham, but he was spotted signing CDs of his new album Flu Game at record shop HMV.

 


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Iconic UK venue set to reopen under new guise

An iconic Birmingham venue that has previously welcomed artists ranging from Bob Marley to Ed Sheeran is set to open its doors for the first time in a decade.

The 3,500-capacity Forum Birmingham – formerly known as The Ballroom, the Hummingbird and Carling Academy Birmingham – has been renovated and modernised by Global Venues in time for the UK’s rollback of restrictions in late summer.

From its early days as The Ballroom, the venue evolved into the Top Rank Suite in the 1960s and ’70s and hosted iconic acts like Bob Marley & The Wailers and The Clash.

In the 1980s the venue became the Hummingbird and welcomed artists including Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys before its doors closed in 1994.

The venue later had a spell in the 2000s as Carling Academy Birmingham and boasted concerts from the likes of Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran.

In the 1980s the venue became the Hummingbird and welcomed Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys

Now, under its new guise, Forum Birmingham has already booked shows promoted by AEG Presents, Goldenvoice, Kilimanjaro Live and Cream plus local promoters Leftfoot, Shadow City and Foliée.

Full line-ups will be revealed at the end of April along with a complete list of promotions.

“Prior to the pandemic, a quarter of a million people in the West Midlands worked in the culture, media and night time industries and the relaunch of this historic venue in Birmingham will help to refuel this damaged part of our local economy,” says Billy Chauhan of Global Venues. “We’re also extremely passionate about preserving Birmingham’s musical heritage and our work culminates with Forum Birmingham.”

Forum Birmingham has also announced an exclusive ticket partnership with renowned electronic music events platform and publication Resident Advisor (RA).

RA will provide Forum with its own branded white label platform through which tickets will be sold, as well as offering tickets through its main website.

 


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The Jewel of the Midlands: Resorts World Arena at 40

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.

Local knowledge
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…”

In-house expertise
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.”

Commonwealth hub
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.

 


Read this feature in its original format in the digital edition of IQ 95:

Drive Nation: LN UK unveils 2,100-cap. drive-in shows

Live Nation has announced a series of live drive-in concerts across 12 venues in the UK this summer, featuring acts including Dizzee Rascal, Gary Numan, Beverley Knight, the Streets, Sigala, Lightning Seeds, the Snuts and Kaiser Chiefs.

Drive-in concerts have proved to be a popular feature of lockdown life, with concertgoers getting their live music fix from the safety of their cars in countries including Germany, Denmark, the US, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

Now, the format is allowing the UK live industry to step back into the driving seat. Live Nation’s Utilita Live from the Drive-in series, which kicks off in mid-July, is more live music-focused than previously announced UK drive-in events, hosted by the likes of Mainstage Festivals and Live Nation-owned Ticketmaster.

The 300-carpacity (© 2020 IQ) concerts will be able to accommodate up to 2,100 people, with tickets available for two to seven people per car. Standard or premium tickets, which include guaranteed location in the front three rows and priority exit at end of show, will be available, with prices reportedly ranging from £25 to £100 per car.

Differing from many other drive-in shows and in a similar vein to Italy’s proposed bike-in concerts, concertgoers will be able to enjoy the performance through the full sound system – rather than car radio – in a dedicated area next to their vehicle. Fans are encouraged to bring folding chairs if they wish to sit during the gigs.

“The drive-in format is a thoughtful and fun way to safely bring one million Brits out of ‘entertainment lockdown’”

The shows will take place across 12 sites, including in the grounds of venues such as Birmingham Resorts World Arena and the National Bowl in Milton Keynes; at sports complexes including the University of Bolton football stadium and Cheltenhem and Newmarket racecourses; at airports in Bristol (Filton Airfield), Leeds (Leeds East Airport) and Teesside (Teesside International Airport); and various other outdoor event locations including the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh, Lincolnshire Showground and Central Docks Liverpool Waters.

Live Nation also plans to announce the London venues, as well as more artists and dates in due course.

“We are excited to bring Utilita Live From The Drive-In to fans across the UK,” comments Live Nation’s Peter Taylor. “This outdoor concert series was created as a way to reimagine the live music experience during a time of social distancing by allowing fans to enjoy concerts in the safest way possible.

“Each event will comply with all official government guidelines in order to protect fans, artists, crews and staff. We look forward to announcing some of the biggest names across UK music and bringing these fantastic artists to a city near you.”

“As we find new ways to navigate today’s world of social distancing,” adds Utilita CMO Jem Maidment, “we believe the drive-in format is a thoughtful and fun way to safely bring one million Brits out of ‘entertainment lockdown’ this summer 2020.”

Tickets for Utilita Live from the Drive-in go on sale at 10 a.m. on 22 June here. Further information on performers, entry prices, on-sale dates and restrictions can be found here.

 


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