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Interview with Jeremy Rees, CEO at ExCel London on the future of the exhibition industry, the future of trade shows, and how they greeted the “new normal” at ExCel London.

“We recognise that each market is different and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution”

Q: How do you personally perceive the cancellation of trade shows?

Unfortunately, I think it was a necessary measure that Governments around the world were forced to take in order to bring the virus under control, reduce the number of cases and save lives. The impact for business has of course been devastating but faced with such an unprecedented crisis, I don’t believe there was an alternative course of action.

Q: How has your company adapted to the new normal?

Like many businesses, at the start of the pandemic, we had to adapt quickly. We made a swift transition from the office to working from home and arranged for over 100 people to work remotely. We have remained completely committed to our customers, managing an enormous rescheduling programme, and maintaining a constant dialogue with them. We have also played a full role to support both the Government and our health service by providing our facilities initially as a Nightingale Hospital and more recently as a vaccination centre.

It has been crucial that we manage our business in the short, medium, and long term and have therefore continued to plan for the future. We have every confidence in the future of events and have, therefore, begun a public consultation to expand ExCeL. If approved, this extension would increase our event space by 20%, providing our customers with even more flexibility and an enhanced experience. Finally, what has stood out more than anything in the last 12-months, is the resilience, hard work, and professionalism of the ExCeL team. They have been exceptional, and I am extremely proud of their achievements.

Q: Is it possible to use the exhibition spaces for other purposes when there are no trade shows or events?

At ExCeL, we offer 100,000m2 of flexible space that can be used to accommodate a wide variety of activities, in a safe and secure environment. As an example, when Government guidance has allowed, we have hosted both filming and examinations. We have welcomed studio productions for the likes of NBC Universal, Sony Pictures, BBC Films, and Netflix, amongst others.

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Q: What trade shows are you planning for this year, given that the epidemiological situation will be favourable?

I think we can look forward to reopening in 2021, but it will be in spite of COVID, not because it’s gone away. There’s no question that there is a huge desire to meet in person and reconnect with customers face-to-face. Initially, there will be caution, and we will need to work together to instil confidence and deliver safe, organised events that still offer a memorable and inspiring experience. By 2022, I believe the landscape will feel more ‘normalised’, with limited restrictions and more opportunities to welcome back international visitors.

Q: Trade shows have incredible multiplicative effects. Is the general public or government currently aware of these effects?

We all know that events will be vital in reigniting the economy; whether everyone else understands that is still, unfortunately, debatable. I think what’s often missed is the impact that events have on the markets we serve. Organised business events are a huge catalyst for trade, driving billions of pounds of import and export activity. In addition, they are a huge driver of the visitor economy, supporting countless hotels, restaurants, bars, and attractions. At ExCeL alone, events accounted for £4.5bn in GVA, in the last year we were open, and supported over 37,600 jobs.

Q: Does the government help you overcome the crisis, and how?

The UK Government has put a number of measures in place to support businesses during the pandemic including the furlough scheme, business rates relief and a reduction in VAT. Albeit there has been no specific support for the events sector, to date. The vaccine roll-out has been very successful, with over 23 million people vaccinated in the UK so far. A result of this is that we now have a proposed roadmap for easing restrictions, which will hopefully enable us to reopen our venue in the coming months.

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“there is a huge desire to meet in person and reconnect with customers face-to-face”

Q: Can you give our readers your perspective on the exhibition sector in the global market?

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the global exhibitions industry, but we are starting to see encouraging signs of recovery. Destinations including Japan, India, China and more recently Abu Dhabi and America, have been able to reopen business events successfully and safely and reap the benefits of doing so.

Demand for future events is strong and the desire to get back to business is overwhelmingly positive. To support this demand, work is underway to add significant new capacity to ExCeL. We have begun a public consultation and will shortly submit a planning application for expansion to the venue. This investment demonstrates our confidence in the future of live events and of London as a compelling place to visit and trade-in.

Q: Are virtual trade shows comparable to classic trade shows?

In short, no! As a result of the pandemic, we’ve all seen an increase in virtual events and our customers have a much greater understanding of how technology can enhance their shows. We have already invested and will continue to invest in solutions that allow organisers to deliver new and exciting event formats and hybrid solutions. However, I believe live events will still provide the best opportunity to make new connections and forge meaningful relationships. They will remain a catalyst for positive change, where innovation, ideas and moments happen that transform our lives for the better. They will also give us what we are craving the most – face-to-face interaction and contact with our friends, colleagues, and peers.

Q: How have you adapted to the new reality of the meetings industry, which is much more digital and hybrid?

In the last decade, we’ve seen an increase in the number of customers wanting to enhance their event using the latest technology. Whilst this isn’t a new trend, the pandemic has certainly accelerated the desire to incorporate more digital and hybrid solutions. Partnering with our customers and understanding their needs has been key. We recognise that each market is different and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone. We have continued to invest in the expectation that there will be more technology-driven requirements from our customers in the future. As an example, we’ve opened a fully immersive, state-of-the-art hybrid event studio. This facility enables organisers to diversify and broaden their reach by supplementing traditional content with online engagement.

Q: Who could be hired at this moment at your company? What would they have to showcase at the job interview?

This is a difficult question to answer at the moment, as recruitment for new roles isn’t an immediate priority. In the longer term, we will be driven by our ambition to create truly world-class experiences and will carefully consider what roles are required to support that vision. I am fortunate to be surrounded by world-class people and recognise that our achievements are the result of everyone’s dedication and hard work. We will continue to focus on attracting and retaining the best talent, creating a culture that’s dynamic, collaborative, and inclusive.

EXTRA QUESTION FOR JEREMY

Q: High Tech or High Touch?

As we look to the future, I think there’s a place for both. We have ambitious plans for growth beyond our core business. Our vision is to make ExCeL more of a destination, attracting new audiences, by working with globally recognised brands to deliver world-class entertainment and attractions. Technology will undoubtedly play a part in helping us to deliver on that vision, but our driver will be delivering a world-class experience for our customers and guests.