Exhibition centre Excel takes leap of faith

Copyright: David Lawson – The City magazine , December 2000

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It took a leap of faith to propose a rival to the City deep in the heart of London’s Docklands, yet doubts about Canary Wharf have almost disappeared as this thrusting prodigal has been embraced by its big brother. An even bigger leap into the unknown is now underway even further out on the horizon.

Take a straight line eastwards from the City,  past the silver skyscraper, skip over the infamous Dome, and another landmark is emerging which could be just as revolutionary as the first two. The largest UK building under single roof is being created alongside a public plaza bigger than Trafalgar Square.. Excel, a state-of-the-art exhibition centre being quietly created on the long-abandoned wharves of Royal Victoria Dock, may finally eradicate that strange disability which has made Londoners look only westwards to find vibrant new business.

The scheme will rival traditional venues at Earls Court and Olympia and challenge the recent success of Birmingham in drawing major exhibitions. Within five years, the ambitious developers aim to rival international convention centres like Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam  and Barcelona. More than 150 shows are expected to pull in 2m visitors in the first year – some of which have skipped the UK altogether in the past.

It has not been an easy task to get this far. More than a decade has passed since plans were sketched out by the former London Docklands Development Commission for this vast rump of its semi-derelict. 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 commissioned architect Ray Moxley to find a site within the M25 back in the late Eighties but the best he could come up with was Rainham Marshes. Then in 1992 he called in a help. Iain Shearer was a high-flier in more ways than one. He scored goals for Hamilton Academicals, flew airliners for BOAC [now British Airways] then spent 20 years in the property industry.

The flight had a few bumps: while  transforming the South Bank at Battersea with swish landmark apartment blocks, the property crash took down his company,  Broadwell Land. But he bounced back. When the Berlin Wall also  crashed, he moved in to create Brandenburg Park, the largest business development in the former East Germany.

Pushing back frontiers therefore held no fears, and he needed that confidence after stumbling upon the derelict wharves of Royal Victoria Dock. The smell of severely scorched   fingers still hung around Canary Wharf, so backers were not eager to consider a similarly revolutionary proposal for almost 1m sq ft of exhibition space seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

  Despite enthusiastic support from the LDDC, its successor English Estates and Newham Council, the crucial turning point happened on the other side of the world. AEO chairman Stephen Brooks was visiting the new Malaysian Exhibition Centre and mentioned London’s plight to his guide, the owner Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew. He came up with the seed capital to get the scheme off the ground.   He now owns more than 40% of a centre expected to host 150 shows this year and generate more than £40m in revenues. Other shareholders include United Business Media, Reed Exhibitions, English Partnerships and Sir Robert McAlpine.

  Right up to the opening last November there were doubters but Shearer has fended off the brickbats with simple statistics. This is probably the last site in London capable of handling such a large project. It covers 100 acres and unlike the early days of Canary Wharf,  it is well served by public transport, so it will not fall victim to tighter planning guidelines on sustainable transport. There are three light rail stations and the Jubilee Tube line runs nearby. On the next wharf is the ultimate attraction for international exhibitions, City Airport.

Private transport is still a key to success, however. 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, there is room to marshal more than 800 lorries. These face a short haul from the M25 to dedicated roadways leading to more than 30 entrances.

  But where will all these visitors and exhibitors stay? That question has been answered by developers who elbowed past the doubters and have worked up plans to build seven hotels totalling 1,500 rooms. Longer stays will be accommodated with 500 flats and serviced  apartments – all of which should be built in the next 18 months.

‘The statistics behind Excel are mind-boggling,’ says Shearer. It’s a phrase regularly trotted out by anyone heading a big scheme but this time facts outweigh hyperbole. The centre can cope with a sit-down banquet for up to 20,000 people. Imagine the kitchens required to serve the equivalent of a largish football crowd. And if they don’t want a formal  meal there are 26 alternatives, ranging from soup and bagel outlets to café bars and restaurants, a major break from the tradition of in-house catering  - which often means an overpriced hamburger and beer in a plastic beaker.

   This will all take a lot of work behind the scenes, of course. In fact, Excel is becoming one of the largest job creation centres in the UK. More than 7,500 people will be employed during the first phase around 30% from the local area.. That should grow to 9,000 local jobs by the time the second phase is finished in a couple of years,  as well as the stimulation to small suppliers and services in this deprived London borough.

This should help ease the kind of friction which blighted the early years of Canary Wharf, when many residents saw it as an intrusion by the rich and powerful with little  benefit to the local community.  Newham council is enthused enough to apply for grants to establish a training centre on the site. Shearer is also seeking to establish an early bond through talks and tours for local children.  ‘Excel has had to start from zero building its workforce,’ he says. ‘We are delighted to be able to involve the local community.’

Rivalry with more established venues will be intense. Earls Court and Olympia were dealt a blow when  a combination of high-tech facilities and open water enticed the London Boat Show to move out to Excel when development is finished in 2004.  The newcomer has won a battle rather than the war, say  the new owners of the show’s former home, who will be spending £60m improving the ageing west London halls in a bid to win back business. Observers believe both centres will flourish, however. ‘The exhibition business is growing so fast that there is enough business for both,’ said one consultant.

Excel will have some major advantages, however. Starting from scratch has 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 the 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.

The scheme is not some isolated ivory tower, however. Shearer estimates it has already stimulated up to £1bn of spin-off development. The top developer MWB has applied to build  three hotels, apartments and a business centre linked to Excel. Morrison Developments is also in the race with plans for two hotels for Howard Johnson and Premier Lodge. Capital & Provident has applied for a new hotel on the other side of  the dock on a former Tate & Lyle site.  These are unlikely to be the last, as 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.

 Office users have also drawn the Royals into their search for expansion  as space closer to the City begins to run out. After years of polite rejections, English Partnerships and Newham are  being inundated with requirements for business parks. Big names like Helical Bar, Akeler, and Slough Estates have fought for the rights to build more than 160,000 sq ft between Excel and the University of East London campus on Royal Albert Dock. The new excitement being generated is illustrated by the fact that English Partnerships received 500 enquiries for pre-lets on the site  before responsibility passed to the London Development Agency and a development partner was sought.   The big demand is coming from IT and telecoms companies looking for giant buildings to house Internet services and banks desperate for back offices.  

 English Partnerships is celebrating 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 so many doubters were wrong.