21 February 2023
Since the first formally recorded markets were documented around 3,000 BC, humans have engaged in trade… face-to-face. Along the way, they’ve overcome wars, pestilences, and countless other calamities, not to mention Zoom calls.
On 11 March 2020, the events industry – like so many businesses – was forced to apply the brakes. Nothing could have prepared the UK’s £31.2 billion trade show sector for the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel ceased, in-person contact was suspended, and the notion of all future encounters being entirely online looked worryingly real.
Watching this unfold was the capital’s largest event venue ExCeL London. It’s economic and social importance – both pre, during and post covid – is hard to overstate. Piloted by CEO Jeremy Rees, the carbon neutral venue welcomes around four million visitors annually, hosts close to 400 large-scale events, supports 37,600 jobs and generates £4.5 billion for London’s economy. During the pandemic it even became the country’s largest hospital and later vaccinated some 150,000 patients.
Now, three years on and with the pandemic firmly in its rear-view mirror, London, ExCeL and the events sector is not just back, it’s busier than ever and a proven catalyst for business tourism.
So, what do we have to thank for this remarkable turn of fate? And why London?
“The spirit of those in the industry, combined with London’s global appeal, has never faltered,” comments ExCeL’s CEO Jeremy Rees. “London is where the world meets. Just last month it was voted the best city in the world to impress clients and regularly retains its crown as Europe’s leading hub for tech investment. Trade shows are well placed to not just capitalise on this but to act as a catalyst for import/export, as well as act as a halo effect.”
The data supports this. At its height, £165 billion was transacted at UK events with every borough in London receiving a share of the £12.9 billion spent by inbound tourism. Working with the likes of Visit Britain, London & Partners and Business London, ExCeL has been able to lure global household brands to the capital, with some leading tech giants generating upwards of £100 million in a single day.
But for all its 69 Michelin star restaurants and 123,000 hotel rooms, London also unveiled another key benefactor in May 2022.
“The high-speed Elizabeth line has been a game-changer,” continues Rees. “It’s removed the friction of traveling across London meaning door-to-door, ExCeL is just 12 minutes from the West End and 43 from Heathrow Airport. That means more visitors, a higher likelihood of C-Suite guests and a longer dwell time.”
All this has resulted in ExCeL needing to expand. The current 100,000sqm of ExCeL’s event space will shortly (2024) increase by a further 25,000sqm thanks to a new development at the east of the venue. Sustainably built and sitting proudly alongside the ever-changing skyline of London’s Royal Docks, the nine-figure expansion project was green-lit at the height of the pandemic – showing even then the confidence that the market would prevail and putting London at the forefront of world-leading events.
Unquestionably, the appetite for trade - and with it trade shows - has returned. According to a recent Bellweather Report, firms are pressing ahead with their spending plans and increasing marketing budgets.
“What we’ve seen in the events sector is for those parties to focus their budgets on tier-one events, with tier-one marketing and, most importantly for London and ExCeL, in tier-one cities.”
So, what of the future?
“Over the coming years, the event sector will, for sure, face fresh challenges,” says Rees. “Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor and one we’ve now put at the forefront of our agenda, but whilst formats will vary, the hunger to connect, learn, trade and engage will always remain.”
Jeremy Rees is the CEO of ExCeL London