Venue focus: Ricoh Arena

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A few issues ago, we profiled another Midlands venue under the headline ‘Changing perceptions’. It’s a shame that we used that title then, as it’s a perfect fit for what the Ricoh Arena is trying to achieve. There are two elephants in this particular room. Firstly, the multi-purpose venue is widely regarded as being primarily a football stadium. Secondly, it’s located in Coventry – a city that has suffered more than most from an indiscriminate idiom. Younger readers may not be familiar with the phrase “sent to Coventry” but those the wrong side of 40 will know it means to be ostracised, or given the silent treatment. It’s not a phrase you hear often these days, but it is something that unfortunately springs to mind when the city comes into conversation. This is a challenge that the marketing team at the venue have battled since day one – and one that they have won on one front. Having earned its stripes on the live music circuit (attracting global names including Bruce Springsteen, Take That and Coldplay), now the Ricoh team want to do the same thing to the exhibitions side of the business. So how did it manage to convince top concert promoters like SJM to bring their class acts to Coventry? “It took patience and a thick skin!” explains marketing director Liz Cooper, who has been at the venue since it opened in 2005. “We targeted key decision makers in the industry. It took two years to persuade them to even consider Coventry, which included making numerous trips to London and Manchester, hundreds of emails which often went unanswered and waiting outside promoters’ offices to grab two minutes of their time. “Although we had some success I guess the turning point was to persuade SJM to bring Take That here in 2009. They had already announced the tour and the Midlands wasn’t included. There was more badgering via email and telephone as each venue on the tour sold out. I then received a call from the man himself [Rob Ballantine] announcing he will be visiting us on Monday, and to get the red carpet out. We did, literally, secured the gig and sold over 114,000 tickets in record time.”Persistence paid off, and the Ricoh Arena was on the map as a serious concert venue, and has since hosted Coldplay, Oasis, Muse and Bruce Springsteen. Having established itself on the concert circuit, the venue is now keen to tackle exhibitions. “We are purpose-built for exhibitions and conferences,” says Cooper, “and 37 per cent of our business comes from exhibitions. Ideally we would want to see that increase to 50 per cent or beyond.” Although previously home to Coventry City FC before a high-profile and acrimonious departure over the summer, football only accounted for nine per cent of the venue’s business. Now, the venue is looking at innovative ways of capitalising on what it regards as a unique outdoor asset.Visiting the venue, the variety of space on offer is impressive. There is a 6,000sqm column-free main exhibition hall and a total of 28,000sqm of event space on site. On top of that is a 121-room De Vere hotel, casino, 80 meeting rooms, restaurants, bars, and endless creative solutions for organisers. And that’s before the 40,000-seater stadium. Transport links are good too, and set to improve with a train station planned on site by 2015. Coventry is also centrally positioned, being two hours drive from London, Manchester and Bristol. If the connectivity stat sounds familiar, that’s also one of the other challenges the Ricoh Arena faces – competition from other venues including The NEC and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Telford.“You might say The NEC is a competitor although clearly they are huge,” says Cooper. “However, organisers have the ‘big fish small pond’ scenario here at the Ricoh. We like to think we look after our organisers and they are almost integrated into the Ricoh family, as it were. The building has soul and atmosphere, it’s more personable.  “I suppose you could say Telford is a competitor. We are different because we have hotel bedrooms within the venue, the onsite casino means that there is entertainment 24 hours a day and we’re very easy to get to.” Traditionally, trade shows and associations have been attracted to the Ricoh. Shows at the venue include Trade Only, The DIY Show, Renewables Roadshow, and the Engineering Design Show. However, they are now keen to attract more consumer shows and see the outdoor space currently vacated by the football club as an opportunity to target sport and hobby shows especially. That would seem a sensible strategy for a venue that is synonymous with sport. This was, after all, an Olympic venue, and hosts everything from snooker to Davis Cup tennis. Rather than seeing the sporting connection as a hindrance, this has potential to be the venue’s exhibition USP. “The Ricoh Arena is incredibly flexible, fully integrated in an optimum location, with a proven track record of success,” says Cooper. “The combination of each of these selling points is what sets us apart from other venues. Time and time again event organisers who have never been here before are amazed at what they see; clearly we are still a well kept secret.” It’s a good marketing line, but a valid one based on our site inspection. Walking around the Ricoh you can see the possibilities and the plus points. The tricky thing is always going to be getting the decision-makers, like SJM’s Rob Ballantine, there in the first place to understand the offering. It really is all about changing perceptions, and maybe it is going to take the exhibition industry equivalent of an SJM to run a show in Coventry to crack the market and disperse those elephants. This was first published in the October issue of EN. Any comments? E-mail exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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