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March 8, 2009

EASTEND PROMISE:Can the Olympics and ExCeL’s transformation boost London’s standing as a global events destination?

High prices, congestion and its sheer size, along with the lack of a true international convention centre, appear to be holding London back from breaking into the top 10 cities for events. Although times are changing, many feel any developments will be let down by the transport infrastructure. Ian Whiteling investigates…

If we are to believe all the hype, London is about to undergo a major renaissance with respect to its venue facilities and the position it holds in the list of leading business travel and events destinations worldwide.

First, of course, there’s the Olympic Games in 2012, which has focused attention squarely on the UK capital, particular with respect to the facilities it is providing for the sporting spectacular itself, as well as the satellite events and accommodation. If London can deliver, and prevent the price hiking that has blighted other Olympic cities, which hopefully the Fair Pricing Charter will ensure, then surely this will boost both consumer and business interest globally.

Furthermore, the development of ExCeL London in the wake of the takeover by Abu Dhabi company ADNEC, will enhance the current venue offering, first through Phase 2, and then through the long-awaited international convention centre, which is scehduled to be built on the ExCeL site.

Travel trouble
All this sounds very encouraging, but there is another factor that is critical to London’s – and ExCeL’s – success over the next few years: the transport infrastructure. The Docklands area where ExCeL and much of the Olympic activity will be based does not have a great reputation in this regard, but how much of this is unfounded and what improvements are planned?

Many would have you believe that ExCeL attracts the large number of events it does due to its excellent – and is many cases unique – facilities, and rather inspite of its transport links. However, recent research and the local infrastructure would suggest otherwise.

An independent study by Vivid Interface in December 2008, commissioned by ExCeL, revealed that 79% of visitors to the venue actually described their journey as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. But when you think about it, ExCeL does have a dedicated Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station, parking for 4,000 vehicles and an international airport just five minutes drive away.

What’s more, the transport infrastructure in the entire Docklands area will continue to improve as part of a massive £3.5 billion overhaul planned for the whole city, as the travel system is updated in time for the Olympics and beyond.

Docklands development
The DLR has kicked off 2009, for example, by rolling out a number of new generation trains, offering more space and swifter boarding. This was closely followed on 12 January by the opening of the DLR extention to Woolwich Arsenal station by London Major Boris Johnson – incredibly 7 weeks ahead of schedule and well within budget! This new line will offer improved transport links, connecting Woolwich to London City Airport in six minutes and providing faster connections to ExCeL from south east London and Kent. There’s also a direct interchange with National Rail services at Woolwich Arsenal main line station.

March, meanwhile, will see the re-opening of a refurbished Tower Gateway station – again ahead of schedule – restoring a second inlet to the network along with Bank station. The Canning Town Flyover will also be in operation improving train frequencies across the DLR.

The DLR improvements will continue into 2010, with larger train capacity on key Olympic routes and the long-awaited opening of the Stratford International Extension providing another route to ExCeL during the Olympics. Then there’s the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which will cut 20 minutes from current Eurostar journey times, making it possible to travel from London to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes, London to Brussels in one hour and 51 minutes and London to Lille in one hour and 20 minutes. The DLR connection from Stratford International to ExCeL London will take just 16-minutes.

There are also key improvements being made to the London Underground’s east London artery, the Julbilee Line, which should be complete by the end of the 2009, and looking further forward, London’s Crossrail project is due to open in 2017, with 12-car trains, connecting central London, the City, Canary Wharf and Heathrow to the areas east and west of the capital. ExCeL London will have a major, dedicated Crossrail interchange at Custom House.

Pain before gain
However, although the future appears very bright for Docklands and London as a whole, in the short term getting around could get worse before it gets a lot better.

“It goes without saying that the above development cannot be achieved without essential engineering works and we recognise that in the interim there will be some challenges in reaching us and all other London destinations, when planned works dictate line closures and changes in service frequencies,” comments ExCeL London chief executive Kevin Murphy candidly, and he stands to lose more than most from any travel disruptions.

“The majority of works, however, will take place during weekends, which allows progress to be made as quickly as possible.”

Murphy is also keen to point out that in 2008 there were transport closures during 38 weekends, yet ExCeL London events were successful and in many cases outperformed the industry. This is backed by Events Industry Alliance Facts, which reported attendances up 14% at trade events and 6% at consumer. In particular, The British International Motor Show delivered 472,300 visitors representing a further 14% increase, compared to 2006, with closures on both weekends.

Building for the future
That’s not to say the venue is complacent. It has deployed both staff and additional resources to the issue to ensure that when disruptions occur, not only are they kept to a minimum, but that it will work with its business partners and customers to help with journey plans.

“The engineering works planned for the next few years are a London wide problem, not restricted to the east of town, yet ExCeL London is at the forefront of this issue, lobbying on behalf of our clients,” says Murphy. “We will continue to engage with the likes of Transport For London, London Underground, DLR, Visit London, the Mayor's Office and London's Transport Commissioner, to ensure the best possible solutions for our customers.”

So what we are currently witnessing is the Olympic Legacy in action. In order to deliver a groundbreaking event in the summer of 2012, London must take the necessary steps to upgrade its transport infrastructure, resulting in a system which will be world class. If it delivers, and no one can doubt the relatively impressive start, then any short term pain should be well worth it for both the UK events industry and the city as a whole.

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