20th September 2006

Shape of things

To what extent was the NEC a symbol of the time in which it was born? Will we ever build a large events venue again in the UK? John Spain enjoys a history lesson.

Ah, the Sixties. England winning the World Cup, The Beatles top of the hit parade, Carnaby Street fashion being worn in every part of the world and a real spirit of optimism apparently washing over the whole country. Heady days indeed and a splendid time guaranteed for all.

Forty years later it is unlikely that many visitors hurrying to the NEC for an exhibition realise how emblematic the venue is of the decade in which it was born. It is almost an embodiment of a time when the UK had confidence to burn in its manufacturing industry and of the esteem in which exhibitions were held by politicians, industry organisations, commentators and marketers.

Forty years on it has to be asked if, had it not already existed, anyone would consider building a National Exhibition Centre, the event landscape seems to have change so much.

John Cole spent most of his career working for the NEC in various senior roles and remembers its genesis and subsequent development well. He agrees that although we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of its opening, the story actually goes back a further 10 years.

“The ideas began in the mid to late sixties,” he says. “The Federation of British Industry had been producing reports on the need to compete with the Germans who at that time had begun building the huge messen that we know so well today. There was a real sense that we needed to get on with it, it was felt that if we were serious about competing in export markets the UK had to do something.”

Cole remembers a process that involved 47 different sites in London alone being considered as the site for the new development, Crystal Palace, for example was one such. Years and years of delay alongside parliamentary debate and discussion followed.

Then, in 1968, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce director, Sir Robert Booth, presented some of his thoughts.

“He came up with the rather exotic idea that Birmingham could provide a solution and serious discussion began in 1969,” says Cole. “Crucially, the city council leadership, both Conservative and Labour, underlined their commitment to the project and the city went ahead and bought the land along with very strong support from the Department of Trade and high ranking civil servants.”
The Labour government announced its support in 1969 and this was reaffirmed by the Tory government in 1971. Building started in 1973 with completion in 1975.

Looking at it with our modern eyes it seems extraordinary that there was a time when politicians of all colours new the value of exhibitions and that both Labour and Tory governments were united in their desire to see the place built. People must have thought that exhibitions were indeed a worthy form of marketing in those days.

Cole is also quick to pay tribute to the commitment and vision of the city council. It is this vision that now sees Birmingham with not just the NEC but the NEC Group which looks after the exhibition centre as well as other developments such as Symphony Hall, The ICC and the National Indoor Arena. Many observers have commented that the group has contributed much to the regeneration that Birmingham has enjoyed in recent years.

This apparent success story makes Cole all the more surprised that it has taken other UK cities so long to follow suit although he admits that the major reason fro this has been financial.

“If such a project were undertaken again it would probably be far more of a public private partnership arrangement,” he says. “I’ve always thought it odd that it took the UK so long to follow the German model of individual cities having huge events infrastructure. Places like Hannover, Frankfurt Nurnberg and Munich were built years before we started realising that you could develop places outside London, or, indeed, Birmingham. It’s only now that places like Newcastle Cardiff and Liverpool are developing their own successful business away from the traditional centres. But this has taken decades.”

Another thing that must be underlined is the fact that these places are putting together a complete package of events possibilities, something that was unheard of when the NEC opened its doors in 1976.

“When the NEC first opened the thinking was that you simply mustn’t confuse the market place, if you want to be taken seriously it has to be tradeshow tradeshow and to demonstrate your ability to speak the language,” says Cole. “Getting in consumer events was a slow process, Terry Golding did sterling work in convincing the board that you could stage pop concerts and give pleasure to people in a totally different sector of the market place. It took time for the mental adjustment to be made, not only the physical one.”

Gradually it was realised that the market place wasn’t confused, especially when the market place realised that it could have significant commercial success outside London.

And yet it is to London that we need to turn to look at the issue of what place a large exhibition centre actually has in the modern world and if we will ever see another one built in the UK.

An obvious example is Excel. It was opened in 2000 but, like the NEC, it was the product of many years of debate that preceded the eventual go-ahead and building. Back in 2000, Excel was an exhibition centre and was always going to remain an exhibition centre. Nowadays the venue also hosts sports events, concerts, conferences, product launches and gala dinners to name but a few, it has had to become a multi purpose venue.

Deputy CEO, Kevin Murphy, is remarkably candid about the problems venues face.
“In theory it just does not stack up,” he says. “Building a venue in the UK with private money does not make sense because the investment is so huge and the payback so little that most people would not support it. It makes me think what a magnificent job Iain Shearer did all those yeas ago in getting Excel off the ground.”
Excel proves the point because it opened in 2000 and needed refinancing in 2002. Several years on the venue is thriving and the diary is filling up rapidly, so much so that phase two of its development has been given the go-ahead with space set to increase to over 100,000 square metres in a few years’ time. On the morning we spoke, Murphy had been putting together forecasts for the next five to ten years, the future seems bright for events in this part of London.
Looking back at the building of the NEC, Murphy points out that it was public money that backed the initiative.

“And you have to say hallelujah to that,” he adds, “because otherwise we wouldn’t have had the last 30 years that we have and it’s been a glorious 30 years for the NEC, hats off to them. The industry needed it too because we wouldn’t have had the industry today without it. We would have had only Earls Court and Olympia and the provincial venues, it created a duopoly.”

Very few, if any, commercial investors would look at the model now but Murphy hastens to point out that this is purely because of the money, not because of a suspicion that the events industry may not be a good sector in which to invest.
“The trouble venues have is that the financial models are very fickle,” he says. “Unlike most other businesses there is a worry over repeatability. At least with exhibitions you can make reasonable assumptions about the future but in the conference and events market you have terrible trouble predicting what is going to happen. You just can’t predict year on year which peripatetic association conventions you’re going to host.”

In answer to the question of would it be built now, Murphy suggests that if EC&O and Excel were already in place it’s unlikely that Birmingham City Council would now be looking at competing, something that adds the argument that it was definitely a product of its time.

“The NEC contributed in a massive way to the success of our industry,” concludes Murphy. “Look at all the big players, they developed strong businesses around the NEC because the venue had the facilities and the space.”

The evidence seems clear that the days of Britain’s building a large, public funded events venue are probably over and that the NEC is, indeed, representative of the optimism that government had for the events industry, especially exhibitions, in the 1960s.

It is good to know that the concerns investors face are probably financial rather than there being something inherently wrong with events. In another 30 years time, when the NEC is 60, it will be interesting to see how recognisable the events industry is compared to that of today.

All that is for the future, for now it is Happy Birthday NEC, like all we children of the Sixties you’re beginning to get on a little but still in good enough shape to play a telling role in the future!

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