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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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Friday round-up: World news in brief 7/1/22

Welcome to IQ‘s weekly round-up of news from around the world. Here, in bite-sized chunks, we present a selection of international stories you may have missed from the last seven days…

MEXICO:

Dead & Company and promoter CID Presents have cancelled their Playing in the Sand destination festival less than 24 hours before it was due to take place. The annual event had been set for Riviera Cancun over two weekends from 7-10 and 13-16 January, but has been axed due to a spike in Covid cases. “Dead & Company and CID Presents tried everything possible to bring normalcy and to deliver a great experience and amazing music, but with each day it became increasingly clear that cancelling is the correct thing to do for the fans and for our crew,” says a statement on the band’s Instagram page.  Dead & Company frontman John Mayer had earlier pulled out of the festival after testing positive for coronavirus.

UNITED STATES:

A woman has filed a lawsuit against California’s The Forum, promoter Live Nation and ticketing platforms Ticketmaster and StubHub, alleging she was injured in a crowd crush at a Harry Styles concert at the venue in December 2019. According to court documents obtained by TMZ, the plaintiff claims the venue, promoters and ticketing services “failed to provide sufficient seating, lighting, security, supervision and crowd control”.

UNITED STATES:

A US judge rejected Goldenvoice’s bid to extend a restraining order against Live Nation in its trademark infringement lawsuit over a rival music event called ‘Coachella Day One 22’. The event’s promoter, Native American Tribe Twenty-Nine Palms, was not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit after claiming sovereign immunity, but Live Nation was accused of “contributory infringement” due to tickets for the New Year’s Eve event being sold on Ticketmaster. The event listing had already been changed to ‘Day One 22’ on Ticketmaster, which was permitted to continue selling tickets for the festival after the judge concluded it was no longer directly infringing the Coachella trademark. Tribal chairman Darrell Mike praised the ruling as “a win for the tribe, the community and our ticketing partners at Live Nation”.

UNITED KINGDOM:

Bengi Ünsal, head of contemporary music at London’s Southbank Centre, is switching to The Institute of Contemporary Arts in March as its new director. Ünsal was artistic and managing director of Istanbul’s Salon IKSV venue prior to joining the Southbank Centre in 2016, where she has overseen the annual Meltdown festival with guest curators MIA, Robert Smith and Nile Rodgers. This year’s Grace Jones-helmed edition is set for June.

UNITED KINGDOM:

Well-being organisation Music & You has teamed up with beauty cosmetics firm Lush, entrepreneur Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, and mental health campaign #IAmWhole to create a fund providing free therapeutic support to people who are working, or used to work, in the live music sector pre-pandemic. To apply, individuals should complete this application form by no later than midnight on Thursday, 20 January. Applicants will be notified of a decision by 22 January.

UNITED STATES:

TodayTix Group has acquired live events ticketing platform Goldstar. The deal marks the latest move for TodayTix, which has been on an acquisition spree since 2020,  purchasing four companies including theatre specialist Show-Score; London-based Encore and Broadway Roulette.“We are focused on unlocking as much potential as we can so when the industry returns we can be a big part of its recovery,” the company’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Fenty, tells Variety. “We are live events purists through and through. We really do believe that despite the toll of the pandemic, there’s going to be a Roaring ’20s. We believe that people are desperate for arts and culture and are eager to get back into theatres.”

UNITED KINGDOM:

Britvic has been named as The O2’s new Official Soft Drinks partner in a five-year deal, brokered by AEG Global Partnerships, with Pepsi Max served and seen across the London venue. The partnership will mean pouring and supply rights across all bars at Indigo at The O2 and concourse bars, suites and premium bars including The Deck, AMEX Lounge, O2 Blueroom and Sky Backstage bars at The O2 arena. The deal will also welcome a takeover of the level 1 bar which is to be rebranded as The London Essence Company bar. In addition, Britvic will have activation opportunities at the venue and access to tickets for Up at The O2 ­ for promotional use. Meanwhile, Birmingham-based NEC Group has announced a multi-year deal with Molson Coors Beverage Company, which is responsible for a portfolio that includes Pravha, Staropramen, Rekorderlig and Coors. The deal will see Pravha being named as the official beer of Utilita Arena Birmingham and Resorts World Arena with bars across both venues carrying the Pravha branding.

UNITED STATES:

Dice has ramped up its North American expansion by becoming the ticketing partner of the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival. The partnership will see the events, which will be held in Rhode Island in July, offer digital ticketing for the first time. “Every year of the event, we work with our partners to innovate beyond traditional ticketing,” says Newport Folk executive producer Jay Sweet. “In a year where fans deserve to get out and go see the music they love, we know Dice is the right partner to make things as easy as possible, fair, transparent and intuitive for our Newport Family. We want these tickets in the hands of our fans and not on the secondary market.”

 


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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 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:

Arena Birmingham to become Utilita Arena Birmingham

Arena Birmingham is set to be renamed Utilita Arena Birmingham as a part of a naming-rights deal with UK energy supplier Utilita.

The 15,800-capacity city-centre venue, operated by NEC Group, was formerly known as Barclaycard Arena and has been called Arena Birmingham since 1 September 2017. It is one of two UK arenas managed by NEC Group, along with sister venue Resorts World Arena (formerly Genting Arena), located on the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) site.

Utilita customers will have access to exclusive presales for the arena’s shows, which have recently included Ariana Grande, Take That and Jack Whitehall, while the energy provider also becomes a partner to Resorts World Arena.

Utilita has a growing presence in the UK live business, having sponsored with a number of major music festivals in recent years, including Parklife, Trsnmt, Creamfields, V Festival, Bestival and Camp Bestival, as well as ASM Global’s Utilita Arena Newcastle.

“We’re looking forward to working with Utilita to get our audiences thinking about their environmental footprint”

“Within our venues we’re working hard to have optimum energy usage, and we consider the new Utilita partnership to be an extension of the NEC Group’s award-winning environmental and sustainability commitments,” says NEC Group CEO Paul Thandi CBE.

“The best partners are those who can add value to our visitors, and we’re looking forward to working with Utilita to get our audiences thinking about their environmental footprint.”

The venue will take up its new name on 15 April 2020.

NEC Group, based in Birmingham, UK, recently joined Oak View Group’s International Venue Alliance as its second member.

 


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Arena Birmingham debuts audio-described live show

NEC Group’s 15,800-capacity Arena Birmingham offered audio description to its visitors for the first time at the Marvel Universe Live shows on 5 to 8 December.

To provide the service, Arena Birmingham partnered with VocalEyes, a charity supporting blind and partially sighted people’s access to the arts. The implementation of audio description followed a request from a customer whose sons are visually impaired.

A team of describers, who view an early performance of the show and prepare a script, offered real-time narration via headsets, making the show more accessible to those with all levels of visual impairment.

“It meant so much to my family that we were able to enjoy Marvel Universe Live! with audio description,” comments Claire Eccles, the customer who requested audio description at the arena. “My sons are both severely visually impaired and love coming to live events, but it’s often hard for them to work out what’s going on. I try my best to explain but it’s difficult.”

“We believe that blind and partially sighted people should have the best opportunities to experience  the arts, and it’s great to work with a venue the size of Arena Birmingham to offer audio description”

Eccles adds that, “the smiles when they put the headsets on said it all. They can’t stop talking about the fantastic time they had – it made such a difference to their experience. I can only hope more local venues will follow suit.”

According to Emma Ball, operations manager at Arena Birmingham, both the venue and Resorts World Arena, “put a relentless focus on ensuring our world-class entertainment is as accessible as possible for our broad and varied audiences.”

The arenas have introduced British Sign Language interpreters to shows over the past year, with audio description being “the next logical step”.

“We believe that blind and partially sighted people should have the best possible opportunities to experience and enjoy both the arts and heritage, and it’s great to work with a venue the size of Arena Birmingham to offer audio description to even bigger audiences,” says Michael Kenyon from VocalEyes.

“They are the first arena to come on board with us and to be able to help bring a show of this scale to life is very exciting for us.”

NEC Group arenas also recently committed to rolling out teams of mental health first aiders across a number of shows.

 


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‘It’s rare a capital doesn’t have an arena’: NEC reveals Edinburgh venue plans

NEC Group, the UK arena and conference venue operator which manages five properties in Birmingham, has announced plans for a new indoor arena in Edinburgh.

The 8,000-capacity venue, a joint venture with Edinburgh-based Lothian Leisure Development (LLD), will be the first indoor arena in Scotland’s capital city, which has a population of just over half a million. (Glasgow, which has around 100,000 more people, has three, including ASM Global’s 13,000-cap. SSE Hydro, while smaller city Aberdeen is home to ASM’s new P&J Live arena, formerly TECA.)

Along with the arena, the 30-acre site at Straiton, outside Edinburgh city centre, will include conference, leisure and retail space, including a cinema and two hotels.

NEC Group – which currently operates two arenas, the 15,800-capacity Arena Birmingham and 15,700-cap. Resorts World Arena – will take on full management of the Edinburgh arena, including event programming, hospitality, commercial rights, catering and ticketing once planning permission is secured.

New Edinburgh arena by night

Dave Fowler, business development director of LLD, says: “These exciting proposals showcase the modern indoor arena that Edinburgh deserves, and with operating partner NEC on board, the capital is assured a pipeline of the world’s greatest entertainment talent. We also look forward to applying many of the other aspects of the hugely successful NEC campus [in Birmingham] to Edinburgh in due course.

“We see this as a revolution in entertainment provision for one of the world’s most cultural capitals, and one which will benefit all sections of the community.”

NEC Group recently joined Oak View Group’s International Venue Alliance, which also includes Silverstone Circuit and D.Live in Germany.

Its arenas chairman, Phil Mead, comments: “We host over 700 events per year in the Birmingham area and have always planned to take our successful events model to new cities with the backing of our majority shareholder, Blackstone. We are already looking forward to opening the redeveloped Bradford Live venue in 2021 and are delighted to now confirm our partnership with LLD, which will hopefully see us manage our first venue in Scotland.

“These days it is rare that a capital city doesn’t have an arena, so this is a long awaited and positive addition to the Scottish entertainment market”

“Edinburgh is well known for its wonderful cultural offering but remains one of the only European capital cities without an indoor arena, and so we’re excited by the thought of being able to bring some big names in entertainment to the region.”

DF Concerts promoter Dave McGeachan adds: “These days it is rare that a capital city doesn’t have an arena, so this is a long awaited and positive addition to the Scottish entertainment market.”

“A venue offering audience capacities between 5,000 to 8,000 will dovetail nicely with the existing facilities in Edinburgh and Glasgow,” says Mark Mackie from Edinburgh-based Regular Music. “We eagerly await the opening when we look forward to presenting a varied range of artists.”

LLD says it is currently in discussion with several parties to secure funding for the development phase of the project. The next milestone is expected to be a planning application by the end of 2020.

 


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NEC Group arenas introduce mental health first-aiders

Following a successful trial, the UK’s NEC Group has committed to rolling out mental health first aid support across a number of shows at both its arenas, the 15,800-capacity Arena Birmingham and 15,700-cap. Resorts World Arena.

The mental health first-aiders (MHFAs), who are employees of both NEC Group and property company CBRE,are there to provide ‘practical mental health reassurance and support’ on show nights for both audiences and other employees, according to the Birmingham-based company. Their assistance can range from providing a non-judgmental listening ear to offering a space to relax or signposting to further support, it adds.

Support has so far been offered at Ariana Grande at Arena Birmingham and Little Mix at Resorts World Arena. NEC Group currently has 20 employees trained as mental health first-aiders, and plans to introduce the initiative more widely across a number of upcoming shows.

One customer who used the mental health service at Ariana Grande is quoted as saying: “We came to the Ariana concert last night – our first concert since the Manchester attack – and just wanted to thank everyone involved for making the experience so positive and restoring our children’s happy memories! It wasn’t without a few panic attacks and tears, but the mental health support in place was brilliant.

“We’ve put a real emphasis on making sure our employees’ mental health is looked after – and it’s just as important that we look after those visiting our venues”

“This visit was made so much easier by the reassurance of visible security, police presence and the mental health support on offer.”

Ellie Coombes, senior event manager at Arena Birmingham, says: “Mental wellbeing is hugely important to us at the NEC Group. Over recent months we’ve put a real emphasis on making sure our employees’ mental health is looked after – and it’s just as important that we look after those visiting our venues.

“We always hope everyone has a great time with us, but by partnering with CBRE, we’re there on hand to help if anyone needs it. We want our visitors to come and talk to us about their mental health and know that if they’re struggling, they don’t have to do it alone.”

Several new initiatives aiming to improve the industry’s mental health were announced in the run-up to World Mental Health Day 2019, which took place on 10 October.

 


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Noel Edwards rejoins TTF as commercial director

NEC Group’s the Ticket Factory has appointed Noel Edwards to the role of commercial director.

The hire brings Edwards, who began his career at the then NEC Box Office, back to the company after 15 years. In that time, Edwards has held roles at Songkick, ticketing platform Crowdsurge and event travel and ticketing company Kaboodle.

“I am truly thrilled to be back where it all started for me,” comments Edwards. “It feels very much like a case of returning home but naturally the business is completely unrecognisable to the one I joined as a customer service and sales representative back in 2002.

“I have some fantastic memories of my first spell with the business, including being nominated for [IQ’s] rising star New Bosses award by my peers. Helping to set up and rebrand to the Ticket Factory alongside some talented colleagues was also a highlight of my first stint, and it’s extremely satisfying to see how that brand is flourishing today.”

“I am truly thrilled to be back where it all started for me”

Richard Howle, director of ticketing at the Ticket Factory, adds: “In Noel we know we have appointed someone with vast experience in the ticketing and entertainment industries, with an already strong affinity and connection to both the Ticket Factory and NEC Group.

“It is a fantastic story to have Noel back in the fold and I’m delighted that he is joining us to help grow both our client base and wider commercial offering, shaping the Ticket Factory’s long-term strategy.”

The official box office for the NEC, Arena Birmingham and Resorts World Arena, the Ticket Factory sells around 2.5 million tickets annually and recently launched a brand-new website. According to the International Ticketing Yearbook 2019, the Ticket Factory is one of several successful independent ticketing companies operating in the “incredibly competitive” UK primary ticketing business.

See IQ’s New Bosses 2019, this year’s selection of the industry’s brightest talent under 30, here.

 


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