Exhibition centre success vindicates veteran developer’s vision

Copyright: David Lawson 2001

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Looking out of his window at a forest of cranes, ExCeL chief executive Iain Shearer could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. It must be deeply satisfying to spend years being told you are wrong and then have the world crowding to celebrate your success.  But he is just too busy to think of point-scoring. Three events are under way  at his giant exhibition centre and a crammed list of forthcoming ones to plan. ‘In any case, I never look back,’ he says.

  Looking forward is far more exciting. Canary Wharf may have stolen the headlines with its glitzy glamour but deeper in the heart of London’s Docklands is a story to rival the Manhattan-style phoenix.  A decade ago the idea of creating a world-class exhibition centre out on the windswept wharves of the derelict Royals seemed even more laughable than dragging City banks a few miles down the road.   ‘But if you know something is right, you just keep working at it,’ says Shearer.

  A debut year boasting 150 exhibitions and spin-off commercial development approaching £1bn are pretty good indications that his instincts were sound.  ExCeL has added a third UK venue to rival the traditional Earls Court/Olympia halls in west London and the newer magnet of Birmingham’s International Exhibition Centre. Critics said the market was not there: Shearer replied that many shows had been skipping the country altogether, going instead to cities like Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Barcelona. Now they are queuing at ExCeL’s giant doors.

  The centre won’t have things all its own way. The owners of Earl’s Court/Olympia, smarting from losing prizes like the London Boat Show in 2004,  are  spending £60m on improvements in a bid to win back business. Observers believe all three centres will flourish, however. ‘The exhibition business is growing so fast that there is enough for all,’ said one consultant.

   Developers have already made their bets on ExCeL’s  importance.:

-         MWB is investing in three hotels, 150 serviced apartments and 660 flats  in a joint venture with the South African Maccon Group and Sunrise Berhad of Malaysia;

-         Snowgold will open a ‘designer’ hotel next spring;

-         Mango and BDL are starting work on a Holiday Inn, meeting centre and leisure facilities next to the Light Rail station;

-         Premier Hotels has started on a Howard Johnson due for completion before the end of 2002

 But this is only part of the story. Another two hotels are in the planning stages and a study by consultants PKF commissioned by Docklands East London found that Newham and Tower Hamlets could support another 2,500 hotel rooms above those already in the pipeline.

  The office market is also catching up with the fact that this is no longer an isolated outpost on the wrong side of London.. More than a decade after Stuart Lipton proposed a mirror of Stockley Park on the Royals,  big names were scrambling to build more than 160,000 sq metres [1.6m sq ft] of business space  between ExCeL and the University of East London campus on Royal Albert Dock. Chelsfield, which won the  fierce battle with big names like Helical Bar, Akeler, and Slough Estates, has just received permission for the first 250,000 sq ft block.

 Demand was illustrated by the fact that English Partnerships received 500 enquiries for pre-lets for the site before responsibility passed to the London Development Agency.    Admittedly, many may have come from IT and telecoms companies now in decline, but Shearer insists it ‘was never considered a technology-driven development’. He prefers to look at Canary Wharf and its ground-breaking magnetism, not just to banks but legal firms like Clifford Chance.  ‘Distance is no longer a barrier,’ he says. ‘And we are part of the wider Thames Gateway, which will be  real focus for development over the next decade.’ 

  That could be just as frenetic as the last 10 years as the second phase for the 100-acre site swings into view. And Shearer is determined to take a central role. He is moving up to deputy chairman and seeking a new managing director to take over day to day control.  ‘I am first and foremost a property developer, not a venue manager,’ he said.   And not a bad one at that.


More than a decade ago plans were sketched out by the former London Docklands Development Commission for the vast rump of its semi-derelict holdings at Royal Docks. Booms and slumps came and went; responsibility passed to English Partnerships and then the London Development Agency. But one fact remained: London needed more space to host the trade shows and exhibitions which had become an integral part of modern marketing.

  The Association of Exhibition Organisers had already commissioned architect Ray Moxley to find a site within the M25 but the best he could come up with was Rainham Marshes. In 1992 he called in Iain Shearer, who was a high-flier in more ways than one. He had scored goals for Hamilton Academicals, flown airliners for BOAC [now British Airways] then spent 20 years in the property industry.

 The flight had a few bumps, however. While  transforming London’s South Bank at Battersea with swish apartment blocks, the property crash took down his company,  Broadwell Land. But he bounced back when the Berlin Wall also  crashed, helping create Brandenburg Park, the largest business development in the former East Germany. He says he has been heavily involved in ‘dozens’ of other developments in the UK but prefers to keep out of the public gaze nowadays.

   Despite enthusiastic support from the LDDC, its successor English Estates and Newham Council, the crucial turning point for ExCeL came when AEO chairman Stephen Brooks was visiting the new Malaysian Exhibition Centre and mentioned London’s plight to the owner Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew. He came up with the seed capital and now owns more than 40%. Other shareholders include United Business Media, Reed Exhibitions, English Partnerships and Sir Robert McAlpine

   They were backing a vision which saw beyond the dereliction to fundamental attractions of the Royals site. It was probably the last in London capable of handling a 100-acre project. Unlike the early days of Canary Wharf,  it is well served by public transport, with three light rail stations and the Jubilee Tube line nearby, while on the next wharf is the ultimate attraction for international exhibitions, City Airport.

  Private transport is still a key to success, however. Across the river, the Dome is said  to have failed partly because of the tight restrictions on car access. Excel has more than 5,000 parking spaces. Just as important, perhaps, is the room to marshal more than 800 lorries which have only a short haul from the M25.

  Starting from scratch also enabled  Moxley  Architects to employ leading edge technology including Web kiosks and mobile business centres for visitors to keep in touch with their office. The heating and ventilation is designed to provide different conditions when the two main halls are subdivided, offering flexibility for half a dozen smaller exhibitions to go on at once.

  The range of users was also considered. On one day the huge floors could be packed with diners yet they are also strong enough to take the weight of  a Chieftain tank, the centrepiece of this year’s defence equipment exhibition.  And the equipment is designed to fit ‘green’ rules likely to become increasingly strict in future. Most of the space is naturally ventilated rather than air-conditioned and even the toilets use no mains water.

   English Partnerships can celebrate the prospects of a massive payback in jobs and kudos for the years of work and £16m of investment in the roads and plaza around Excel.  Shearer will get his own reward from his  shareholding in the centre but you get the feeling that he will be just as pleased with the kudos of proving the doubters  wrong.