Olympia is marking its 125th year with a new-look West Hall, an overhaul of Olympia 2 and a year-long celebration programme. EN takes a look at the changing face of this well-known venue and its future.
Olympia’s West Hall was never meant to last. Built as a temporary structure 77 years ago, the space offered organisers of large-scale exhibitions the chance to get in a few more stands.
But like many better-known temporary structures before it (just think of the Eiffel Tower), the West Hall has become a permanent part of Olympia’s footprint and retained its relevance despite all the twists and turns exhibitions have taken since. And with the very real threat of sister venue Earls Court’s demolition, Olympia’s versatility has arguably become crucial to the future of exhibitions in West London beyond 2012.
The £20m West Hall redevelopment took 10 months and opened in December. The new-look building provides 8,361sqm across two floors with links to the Grand and Olympia 2 Halls, offering organisers the chance to expand existing shows and improve visitor flow, business development manager Kara Bowen said.
The ground floor of the new West Hall opened with the London International Horse Show and has since housed parts of BETT, Toy Fair and the Event Production Show. The Exhibition News Awards 2012 will be the first event held in the first floor on 29 March.
“The West Hall lasted fantastically well but came with its problems and we realised that the exhibition industry needed us to update that space,” Conference Centre and projects manager Gillian Kiamil said. Bowen said the redevelopment also gave the Olympia team an opportunity to weigh the space against what the industry really needs today.
“If you have a look back even 20 years ago, there were massive, generic shows that didn’t need small halls,” she commented. “Now, if you take a snapshot of UK exhibitions, 90 per cent are between 2,000 and 8,000sqm. What we’ve done is create two additional spaces that allow us to host a lot more of those.”
Olympia’s handful of larger shows also needed more space to grow into and a way to improve visitor flow around the upper levels. Bowen claimed the new layout makes the combined venues more fit for purpose.
While several existing shows at Olympia have taken the opportunity to expand into the West Hall, Bowen said a diverse range of new organisers are signing up and claimed 60 per cent of business is launch events. Among these is the Academies Show, which will be held in May.
Core to the redevelopment was improving West Hall’s usability. Enhanced features include the ability to dim lights individually throughout the upper and lower floors, or flick a switch to blackout the room. The ground floor offers ceiling heights of 5.8m, while the first floor is 5.6m. The hall does however retain several of its original pillars as a feature and internal feeder columns for water, waste and electrics.
“One of the planning conditions was that the pillars originally holding up the West Hall had to be re-utilised, so these now run along the glass wall,” Kiamil explained. “The reason is that they were the last iron turned pillars from the industrial age. English Heritage has a great deal of input into what we do. This heritage focus also factors into the cost and a new design.
“Heritage is a very important thing for us here at Olympia and we are very proud of the fact that we’re still going, and still very successfully. It is nice to say they were here originally.” The West Hall also has its own entrance off Blythe Road.
Kiamil said the Olympia team consulted closely with local residents and show organisers and as a result, was able to start and complete the work on schedule.
“It was important we maintained the relationship with our clients; right off when we knew we had the go-ahead, we sat down and worked out exactly when there could be impact and whose responsibility it was to talk to the sales team and ensure every client was aware,” Kiamil said. “We were very open about the potential of what we were doing and what worked.”
The team plans to take the same approach with clients and residents when it embarks on the next phase of Olympia’s redevelopment – this time on Olympia 2. The redevelopment project will see a large section of Olympia 2’s ground floor converted into a marshalling area, and a new joint entrance leading into the first and second level exhibition spaces and third-floor Olympia Conference Centre.
“Part of our planning for the West Hall was a condition to do something that would assist taking traffic off the roads,” Kiamil said. “We are turning the ground floor of Olympia 2 partially into a marshalling area so we can take all the trucks off the road into the heart of our building, from where you can distribute the stands, exhibit materials and so on.”
To replace the loss of the ground floor exhibition space, the venue will completely fill in the floor on levels one and two to use specifically for exhibitions. Level two was previously the home of Sotheby’s auction house and for the past 18 months has housed the Doctor Who consumer experience. Level three, the home of the Conference Centre, will also be enhanced with several partition walls in the current exhibition space, providing an extra three breakout rooms for meetings. The work will commence on 1 April and is due for completion on 20 September. Olympia 2 offers 4,200sqm of total exhibition space.
“Olympia 2 has always been perceived as our nursery ground, for the entrepreneurs and the small organisers with shows such as Listed Property, Fertility and Body and Soul,” Bowen said. “There often isn’t a huge amount of revenue in these shows, so we have packaged Olympia 2 up for them and done things like putting down a carpet to help them with costs.
“The work on level two will ensure we still have an area for the entrepreneurs to come in.”
Bowen claimed the next phase of development will again have minimal impact on bookings and said just five or six shows will have to be relocated into other Olympia spaces and the nearby Brompton Hall.
Further plans for Olympia’s rejuvenation have yet to be determined. However, the venue does have planning permission for a hotel onsite.
“We are blessed in our location in terms of the amount of hotel bed space in Hammersmith and Fulham, but to have one on our own site which we can control in terms of standards would be a bonus,” Bowen said. “We will see what happens.”
The future of Earls Court will also inevitably influence Olympia’s role and improvements to its offering long-term. In the meantime, the team at Olympia is making the most of the venue’s 125th birthday this year and commenced on a series of marketing campaigns and events to recognise the milestone.
The venue opened on 26 December 1886 with the Paris Hippodrome Circus and opted to celebrate 125 years in 2012. One of its first initiatives is to commission a series of artworks commemorating the anniversary. The first was produced by Rob Ryan and highlights the barrel roof and Olympia’s first circus event.
Ryan’s work will be followed by Sir Peter Blake’s interpretation of the iconic venue. Blake’s work includes On the Balcony and the record sleeve of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both of which helped establish him as the Godfather of British Pop Art. Half-Finnish, half-English illustrator and printmaker Sanna Annukka will then create her own visions of the venue later this year.
As the Olympia team points out, the venue’s show history is a reflection of popular culture.
EN can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate the venue’s position today than by tapping into the latest cultural icons.
Refit and refurb: 3 other UK venues undergoing a facelift:
The Brighton Centre
This 4,500sqm events venue commenced a £1m renovation last July and re-opened in January.
The investment included a redevelopment of the entrance including the exterior space, signage and lighting. The new foyer added 300sqm of exhibition space. The venue’s restaurant, regularly used as a breakout space for larger conferences, is also being redesigned as part of the latest phase of improvements and will include floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the seafront.
The work follows a refurbishment of the centre’s Auditorium 1, where 4,000 seats were replaced.
Brighton Centre business and communications manager Penny Parker said the 25 year-old venue plans to add more space over the next few years.
“The impact of a busy diary was starting to tell and…the feedback from event organisers directed our attention to the need to increase floor space, allow better delegate and customer access, and offer technologies such as free delegate Wi-Fi and internal TV and data networks,” Parker said.
Although it’s early days, the Brighton Centre is in discussions with a number of digital gaming exhibitions, technology event organisers and hopes to host a range of B2B and consumer shows. The venue hosts Modelworld, etc Gardens, Homes and Lifestyle Show and Creative Stitches.
The International Centre
The introduction of the new 1,000sqm Ludlow Suite last year, coupled with an overhaul of its entrance, reception area and foyer spaces, has expanded The International Centre in Telford’s total event space to 15,000sqm.
Owned by Southwater Event Group, the venue’s expansion in 2011 was just the first step in a £250m, 10-15 year masterplan to transform the commercial and residential heart of the Telford area. The masterplan is a joint project between Southwater Event Group and Telford and Wreckin Council.
Alongside the new Ludlow Suite, the centre has more than 11,000sqm across its three original exhibition halls and prides itself on offering exhibition organisers flexible spaces that can be completely branded.
“Our new developments have certainly pushed our profile in the industry and as well as strong repeat business, we are looking forward to welcoming a number of new events to the venue especially from the corporate market, where our neutral space is the perfect backdrop to support client branding,” marketing manager Jo Parton said.
Among new shows recently confirmed at Telford is FIT in April 2013 – a new three-day trade show for the conservatory, glass and glazing industry. Parton looked forward to announcing more shows shortly.
Three Counties Showground
The Three Counties Agricultural Society opened a new conference and exhibition centre alongside its Severn Hall in Worcestershire last November. Work on the new space took nine months and was part-funded by the Rural Development Programme. The venue now offers 10,000sqm onsite including 3,000sqm in the Three Counties Centre.
CEO Nick Vincent said its aim was to introduce more flexibility into its events offering. “The Three Counties Showground is fast becoming one of the region’s premier event centres, so it was important to enhance the conference and symposium area to attract new clientele and grow income,” he said. “Some of our existing third-party events have already benefited from the expanded accommodation such as The Garden Centre Group’s Spring Show and Energy Expo.
“We need to attract more prestigious events to the Showground and to do that we must stay in tune with customer requirements and upgrade our facilities on a regular basis. We now have a truly multi-functional suite of buildings to accommodate everything from business seminars and conferences to exhibitions and trade fairs.”
Three Counties is currently refurbishing the Severn Hall to complement the new addition, with work due for completion in April.
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