ExCeL London will host this year's Facilities Show in twelve weeks' time. But this multi-faceted venue is a colourful case study in facilities management itself, as Martin Read reports.
24 March 2014
It took time for London ExCeL, the conference and exhibition centre opened in London's Docklands at the turn of the millennium, to find its feet.
Detractors thought visitors would baulk at travelling so far from the centre of the capital when alternative venues were still available.
Yet being on a 100-acre site on the northern quay of London's Royal Dock, ExCeL was always two things that its competitors weren't: fit for 21st century event purpose, and remarkably well connected by road, rail and air (London's City Airport, for example, is just across the dock). They built it, and gradually, organisers began to come.
It took a few years for people to get used to the idea of ExCeL, but by the mid-2000s the tide had turned.
In the 14 years since it opened, London ExCeL has lured big shows and events away from other venues in London and beyond (Facilities Show being a particularly pertinent case), while taking on new duties not considered by its architects. In May 2008, the venue was acquired by Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company and two years later ExCeL London Phase II - an expansion of the original building to create the international convention centre for London - added yet more event and meeting space as well as new banqueting facilities.
ExCeL London's operations director Brian Cole has been with the organisation since 1999, just before its opening, after 17 years with Olympia. Over the years he's been promoted through the ranks, having joined initially to cover a health and safety brief. Cole has seen plenty of change, particularly in the way facilities services are managed.
When he started, ExCeL stood alone ("it was just a big, muddy field," says Cole. "Then, a Novotel was erected and today there are seven hotels in walking distance from here. With the other new developments just offsite, the whole place is changing".
An Asian Business Port just to ExCeL's east will be a massive development. Silvertown Quays, a new-tech village, is due for construction just across the dock, while improved transport links include a station on London's Crossrail network.
Our visit coincides with the end of Ecobuild and the beginning of Oceanology International 2014. For event venues, customers come in three distinct flavours: the organisers (who rent out the space), the exhibitors (who pay the organisers for space), and the the event's visitors. Weaving the provision of cleaning, catering, security, car park management and engineering maintenance around these various groups can be a challenge, and one perhaps more difficult still when third-party providers are delivering the services. Not that this is an issue at ExCeL as most FM services were to be brought back in-house in a five-year exercise that started in 2005, five years after the venue opened.
In the beginning all services were outsourced as individual services. The venue's management team included the many contract managers from firms contracted to provide the services.
Yet after just four years of operation, the former venue owners decided that this model was failing. Today the situation is reversed; most FM services are managed and delivered by Cole's own in-house teams. "It was never our plan to in-source everything; that's just how we've ended up," says Cole. "We started by bringing in security and cleaning, and that worked really well. The service improved and staff were a lot happier."
Soon ExCeL was seeking to internalise most of its FM services. "It was a long process," says Cole, "but the last service we brought back in - building engineering services - went live in 2009. Each time we brought a service back in we were able to recognise a decent cost saving. We outsource very little now."
For Cole, the key to the success of bringing FM back in-house has been in the happiness of both staff and customer.
"We've had feedback that the service we're delivering is a lot better and the staff - for some reason, even though in some cases such as engineering they'd been working here for up to 10 years - have told us that when they were in-sourced they just felt a lot happier.
"We always worked as one team to deliver a service, but somehow being in-sourced just made them feel like they belonged. You could see that they really took ownership.
"In each case we planned to provide the service at the same cost as the outsourced provider, but in fact we've always seemed to make quite a saving."
But one main facilities service remains outsourced. Leiths (part of the Compass Group) provides all the catering in the conference areas and exhibition halls.
Initially 64,000 sq m, the 2010 extension increased ExCeL's capacity by a third to 100,000 sq m. Movable walls that fix from floor to ceiling make the space very flexible throughout the facility, while in the extension the movable walls allow organisers to flex the space depending on whether there is a requirement for a conference, exhibition, dining, awards or break-out areas.
"We've got an auditorium with 5,000 seats, we've got retractable seats; we can make the venue adapt to exactly how the customer needs it to work," says Cole.
ExCeL's in-house security department looks after the venue and the wider estate, and a service partner provides security labour for events. Organisers can also bring in their own security staff if they prefer.
"I was in health and safety at first, then I was health, safety, security and medical, and my role gradually developed from there. When you look at most individuals within the management team now, most typically started in a different role. When a new role is created we always look around internally to see if we've got someone with the skills already.
"We've certainly got a one-team mentality and we work closely together on a daily basis. We all know that co-ordination is the key. For example, if the riggers need to get in to a hall, then the cleaning manager will know that the area needs to be cleared quickly. This ethos extends to how we work with our clients. Our goal is to make every event a success; you could say we take every event to heart."
Cole's internal teams are augmented by agency workers for larger events, particularly for cleaning and traffic management, where numbers can flex up and down considerably. In fact, two local agencies are based in ExCeL.
ExCeL has an engineering team that concentrates on maintenance, inspection, testing and repairs. There's a separate fabric team that looks after the fabric of the building, covering everything from painting to door handles to carpentry. Preventative maintenance is planned around the events schedule. After each show, any minor issues are dealt with before the next organiser arrives.
"You never get to the point where you think everything's just ticking over nicely," says Cole, "there's always a new challenge. Recently, we changed all the lighting in the halls to LED. That investment was more than £1 million, but over four years we'll have a payback and the new lights are individually switchable; we can dim every light to save energy, as well as set it up for the specific needs of each exhibitor."
Traffic management is an understandably significant part of the operation. "We have systems where we can get delivery vehicles in and out as quickly as possible," says Cole. "We plan every event with the organisers to make sure of a smooth traffic flow. If they don't want to open the doors until 8am because of the cost of security, we'll work with them to manage the contractors who arrive early to avoid traffic. We'll do everything we can to keep the event on schedule."
Host of opportunities
ExCeL's customers are certainly varied; events such as the Motorbike Show, Outdoor World (all about cycling, triathlons and swimming), and a deep-sea diving show all happen on the same weekend. Indeed, ExCeL's location on Londn's Royal Dock has helped it win events such as Oceanology International and the Boat Show, where vessels are docked so that people can walk around and get on them as part of the show experience. There have even been military events and a helicopter show, which proved a great success with the venue's east car park used for take-off and landing (after permission had been obtained).
ExCeL will host 85 exhibitions this year, as well as conferences, meetings and even exams. The total number of events rises each year. "There's freedom to expand the number of events we put on," says Cole.
"With new events we look at the size of the event, what they plan to have going on, hold pre-planning meetings with the organisers and from that assess data such as traffic figures, visitor and exhibitor numbers and start planning from there. We learn very quickly and then, for the following year we have a platform to work on."
Legal and accounting professional bodies rent out the halls to hold exams.
"Those organisations need a big space and one that's got to be quiet. The movable walls help, with each able to about 45/50dB sound reduction, but it's all got to be planned. They all break for an hour between exams, so we have to have catering set up to serve 6,000 people really quickly."
ExCeL has 4,000 on-site car parking spaces, and for particularly busy events there are other local sites that can be hired as overflow space. Cole and his team also meet regularly with managers of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), where they talk probable visitor numbers and level of service. "We have a very good relationship with them, and with Transport for London (TfL)."
ExCeL's service is independently audited annually. "Every service we provide is scored out of 10 and last year the overall score was 89 per cent. And over the past three to five years it's steadily increased." For event venues, says Cole, any figure over 80 per cent is exceptional.
ExCeL's role as one of the principal locations for the London Olympics put the venue on the international map. Today, more events are held at ExCeL as a result of the international exposure. For the Olympics, the flexible hall space was used to its maximum extent, divided to create five sports halls to accommodate boxing, fencing, judo, Taekwondo, table tennis, weightlifting and wrestling as well as hosting six Paralympic equivalents. A total of 14 events were staged in ExCeL's halls, and a tribute commemorates the events and the British gold medals won at ExCeL.
"We were told that ExCeL was the most complicated Olympic venue ever," says Cole. "Sometimes we had five events running consecutively, as well as the transport hub, and with sport you often don't know when they're going to finish. We had to consider how we emptied one arena and then filled it for the next event, keeping the crowd flowing. You can just imagine if you'd queued for two hours to get to an event and missed the beginning that would have reflected so badly on ExCeL."
And Cole has no plans to move on yet. "This is a great company to work for," he says. "Staff turnover is under 10 per cent for the whole company, and in facilities and operations the figure is even less. It's a great atmosphere to work in and a place that literally changes every few days."
District heating hub
Cofely, one of the UK's largest suppliers of district heating technology, recently purchased the energy centre connected to ExCeL in a deal that includes a 40-year energy services contract with ExCeL to supply heat, chilled water and CHP-generated electricity to the venue.
The deal resulted from conversations between the venue and other potential waste-to-energy solutions.
Says Brian Cole: "We saw Simon Woodward (Cofely District Energy's chief executive) talking about district heating energy at a conference, and at the time we were looking at waste-to-energy options, so we contacted him. He showed us around the district heating energy system in the Olympic Park and that's how negotiations began."
Cofely's UK chairman Wilfrid Petrie has claimed that the acquisition will have "enormous significance" for the low carbon regeneration of East London, and the Mayor of London's wider heat strategy.
Cofely intends to link the centre to its existing district energy network at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.
The ExCeL energy centre currently has the capacity for 18MW of heating and 5MW of cooling, but the envelope of the building can contain significantly more plant and was built to supply energy to the wider area. Initially, Cofely will install 2.6MW of combined heat and power (CHP), as well as additional cooling plant. When connected to the existing network owned and operated by Cofely in East London, the resulting 230MW of heating capacity will be sufficient to heat the equivalent of 45,000 homes, This will enable the network to serve additional hotels, offices and homes as the area is regenerated over the next 20 years. ExCeL London also has two emergency generators capable of supplying 7MW of power.
Cofely is talking to the owners of the forthcoming Asian Business Port to supply heat to them, and the company is also talking to the developers of other forthcoming hotels and apartments.