March 7, 2022

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‘Events returning safely was high priority’, SHP meets ExCeL’s Anna Clover

As face-to-face tradeshows and exhibitors start to return in the UK, SHP caught up with Anna Clover, Executive Director of Event Management and Guest Experience at ExCeL London, to talk about what changes the venue has made to make events safe post-pandemic.

London’s ExCeL opened in November 2000, in an area of huge regeneration in London’s historic Royal Docks. The venue hosts over 400 events each, welcoming 40,000 exhibiting companies and over 4 million people, from across the globe. Events hosted at ExCeL are responsible for delivering £4.5bn in economic impact to London, supporting 37,600 jobs and driving 25% of London’s inbound business tourists.

In 2012, it was one of the host venues for London’s Olympic Games and, in 2020, became NHS Nightingale, a temporary hospital in the national fight against coronavirus. I wanted to ask Anna about how her role has changed over the last couple of years, and how ExCeL has had to adapt to running events post-pandemic…

As Executive Director of Event Management and Guest Experience, Anna’s role incorporates every aspect, every touchpoint, where the customer will come into contact with any of the team at ExCeL. “It’s quite a broad range of responsibilities, but basically encapsulate all event management responsibilities and operational service deliverables.”

Click here to listen to this interview in full…

What challenges have you faced as a venue, and as a team, as a result of the pandemic and how have you overcome them?

Anna Clover (AC): “The main challenges are really in and around the ever-evolving changing guidance. I look back to 18 months ago when we thought we were going to re- open in October 2020 and then at the eleventh hour, the government changed the rules, and we weren’t re-opening. It made us more dynamic in our decision making, more flexible, more adaptable and changing at pace because we know the COVID rules regulations, not just here in the UK, but across the globe have changed almost day by day at certain points in this pandemic.

“We’ve overcome that as a team, it’s pulled us together more closely, working hand in glove with our commercial team, our operational team and all of our event organisers in the exhibition world and the conference and event world. We’ve been able to support them and inform them of the changes, how we viewed those, and how they impacted on the decisions we were making.”

One of the biggest changes came as you pivoted into being a nightingale hospital during the peak of that pandemic. How did that about and how you how did you turn an exhibition hall into a hospital?

NHS Nightingale(AC): “It was a moment in our history that we’re immensely proud of because, as an industry, to be involved in the forefront of a national response to something as global as the COVID pandemic is a really big deal. Many of our venues in the UK followed suit, such as the NEC Manchester Central, and we work closely with them to share our experiences.

“I would say it was like running an event, except we were working with National Heath, as opposed to working with Informa, or any other organisation, and supporting them on delivering that in the best way, to achieve what they were aiming to achieve. We supported them by providing them with our staffing that were available, with our experience and knowledge and understanding of how our building works and how we operate in the local community.”

How closely Did you work with some of the big exhibition organisers, other venues around the UK and the government, to ensure that you could get back to a place where events could be running as soon as it was safe to do so?

(AC): “Events returning safely was high priority for myself and my colleagues, not only at ExCeL, but across the entire industry. We met weekly as an industry through the Association of Event Venues (AEV) and we worked closely with the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) as well to develop the All Secure standards, which became the backbone of all venues and all organisers plans to be open safely. It gave everybody that confidence that we were all on the same page, that we were all in it together. I think that was what really came out of it for me. It was the first time in my career, where I felt, as an industry, we really all pulled together, from service partners, to venues, to organisers, to get events back to feel safe and secure.

“Through our ongoing association with AEV and AEO, as well as the Meeting Industry Association and other association that we don’t normally work alongside, we were able to pull together and work with government to ensure we were in constant communication when changes to legislation and guidance were coming into force, and we were able to provide knowledge and the experience to the government on the impact their decisions would make. It really felt like we were all in it together, working in the same direction. Ultimately, every venue is different, and everyone has very different challenges to ensure that we could all re-open safely, but we worked tirelessly together to make sure that visitors and exhibitor feel safe when they arrive to our front doors.

“Some of our customers are not part of the associations, so they would rely on us for information and guidance on the current regulations. I would personally be on call to answer questions as best I could and advise them with all the knowledge and experience that I’d gathered and where I’d seen things in other venues, being able to share that experience.

“Through this period ExCeL was proud of the fact that we managed that whole COVID re-opening safe and secure protocols ourselves. We put a team in place, we managed the cost effectively ourselves, so that we were playing out part in the re-opening of from September through to December. We wanted to demonstrate that we were sharing costs. There were a lot of additional cost of running events from September last year and lots of additional pressures on resources as well. So, we felt quite strongly that it was our responsibility to support the industry, where we could, to do that.”

As we start to come back to more regularity of face-to-face events, what safety protocols can visitors expect when they arrive and are moving around the venue and how do they differ to a pre-pandemic?

ExCeL London(AC): “Pre-pandemic, nobody really wanted to see a cleaner, now they’re very visible. Every touchpoint is cleaned constantly. We dedicate staff to focus on certain areas of the shared space. We encourage our organisers to look at the cleaning regimes in hall. We provide easy access to cleaning materials for all exhibitors on stands, should they wish to do it themselves. But we also offer a bespoke service that they can buy. We’ve installed technology to support on informing the cleaning teams that when a bathroom has been particularly busy, so they are able to get in there a lot quicker they’re not relying on a person standing at the door monitoring access.

“We’re flexing all of that, depending on the needs of the client. So, some clients still asking to have 100% COVID checks at the door, we can provide that. Some, because now the guidance has changed, want a very light touch approach. So, we will flex it up and down depending on the client and the risk.

“We still encourage people to wear face coverings wherever they feel that they need to. We are a busy venue and would strongly encourage that as there is a lot of shared space.

“Other than that, I’d like to think they feel safe and secure when they arrive, that they’re in a light airy space. We’ve invested heavily in upgrading all our air ventilation, so there’s a lot more fresh air, rather than we circulated air and, as I said, we’ve invested heavily in our cleaning regime and our staffing and retrain and re-skilled a lot of our cleaners.”

You mentioned some of the technology and the ventilation, but have you made any other physical changes to the building itself?

ExceL(AC): “Those that have not been to the venues since pre-September last year will notice that we’ve invested hugely in digital infrastructure in the public domain. When you arrive, you’ll see brand new digital infrastructure in and around the entrance, and then wayfinding and digital signage up and down the boulevard.

“Gone are the days of the static signs with very old TV monitors, we’ve got a huge 18-foot monitor as you walk through the door, LCD screens, and then that continues up through to the east end of the building, alongside the digital and technology that we’ve put in and around the bathrooms.

Finally, what feedback have you had from the visitors and exhibitors from the events that you’ve learned so far?

(AC): “Feedback from our visitors, exhibitors and everybody else has visited since September last year, I’m glad to say, has been absolutely outstanding. Everyone’s been pleased with the protocols we had in place, they felt safe and secure.

“We’ve run shows from Formula E to Comic-Con and we finished the year with London International Horse Show, which were nervous because they were moving from Olympia to us. But we’ve had nothing but positive feedback and myself and my team are out and about on the floor. So, we’re getting that anecdotally, as well as in written form, which has been great to see. We’ve had huge amount of positivity around our re-opening and how we’ve managed that across the entire industry.”

Click here to find out how AllSecure will be implemented at Safety & Health Expo.

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