View Notting Hill Genesis Properties

Royal Docks: Why the Excel expansion will have an impact way beyond east London

Venue CEO Jeremy Rees explores the plans’ impact locally and across the whole of the capital

Excel CEO Jeremy Rees
Excel CEO Jeremy Rees – image Matt Grayson

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Jeremy Rees is in a buoyant mood. The bustle of the main boulevard is a welcome sight for the CEO of the Excel centre beside Royal Victoria Dock as crowds of delegates attending events arrive and depart. 

But the fact that the venue is set to host 60 exhibitions this autumn – a 50% increase on a typical year – isn’t the reason for his upbeat demeanour. It’s the future. 

Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC), which owns Excel, recently won planning approval from Newham Council for its expansion plan. 

Its proposal will see floorspace at the venue increase by 25% including 25,000sq m of event space, a high end convention space, meeting rooms and catering facilities. 

The plans, which will now be referred to the Mayor Of London for consideration, also include a substantial investment in greenery along the dock edge and a new park to the east of the site.

Jeremy said: “It’s extremely exciting and it’s been a long time in the planning. The idea is to extend Excel to the east, across the car park that’s there at the moment, so there’ll be a continuous, long, straight space.

“It will be double-decked – downstairs will be a flat floor events space and upstairs will be a proper modern convention space.

“The world has moved on in the last five years and customers’ expectations have shifted.

“What they want are extraordinarily good, modern facilities that are intimate, but can open up to really large spaces for 2,000 to 3,000 people for a banquet or a presentation.

“There are a good number of European events that can’t be hosted in the capital at the moment but, if we build it, they will come.

“London is an incredibly strong proposition for events and it always has been.

“As we come out of the pandemic, I think the same sorts of influences we have seen in previous recessions will mean people will focus their spend on top cities and events, where they know they can get a fantastic return on their investment.

“London is super-accessible, it’s worth coming, we’ve got an amazing cultural proposition and we’re trading now.

“European and American tech companies, for example, want to be back and operating but their expectations have shifted a bit.

“At Excel the boulevard is shared space with halls either side.

An artist's impression of how the expansion will look
An artist’s impression of how the expansion will look

“The advantage of the expansion is that exhibitors can own it completely, while everything else continues to operate.

“That means that, if you’re very particular about your branding – a big IT company, for instance – you can have a bright, modern space where you can control the entire environment.

“When you look at demand analysis across London and the UK, we don’t have sufficient congress space, and Phase Three will provide that in spades.

“It will bring brand new events, delegates and exhibitors to London and that’s part of a virtuous circle for the city. If you are hosting world class events you will have senior management teams from world class companies coming over for them.

“They will see London is fantastic and start to have conversations with promotional agencies, asking how they can get their roots and foundations into the city.

“So this project isn’t just about events, it’s about their far wider economic impact, about driving London forward and having a fit-for-purpose convention and exhibition centre here.”

An artist's impression of how the expansion will look
An artist’s impression of how the expansion will look

Excel also hopes the expansion, which could be open by 2024 if work is allowed to start next year, will have a similarly positive effect on its immediate surroundings.

“The Royal Docks is an enterprise zone and a big regeneration area and we all feel collectively that, if you can be a good neighbour and you can create value, then everyone wins,” said Jeremy.

“We have been talking with Newham Council and the GLA about how we can invest more in the local infrastructure, what we can do to improve the dock edge and the walkways and to make sure the landscaping is welcoming and engaging.

“In times past I’m not sure Excel has always been that welcoming to the community – it’s just been about exhibitions. There’s a chance for us to build more spaces that are generally increasingly used. 

“We have 700m of south-facing dock edge and one of the commitments I’ve made is to have, over the next couple of years, a series of exciting events and attractions that feed in more strongly to Excel as a destination where you can come as a family, a local resident or a delegate who’s flown in for a pharmacy congress and wants to have a nice evening.

 “We want to be both inward and outward facing and we’ll be announcing some really brilliant developments over the next 12 months.

“With Crossrail services coming, when the Elizabeth line starts running to Custom House, there will be an increasing opportunity for people to pop in.

“It will transform the way people use London and that connectivity means Canary Wharf, for example, will be three minutes away, so companies there will be able to use Excel as their convention centre.

“It goes both ways – the interdependence of the two will be quite powerful. Events that historically required a commitment of time to come here will now need only minutes.

“It will also open up people’s living and working arrangements locally.

“Having the Mayor Of London based at The Crystal in Royal Victoria Dock will also shine a light on the area.

“There’ll be a lot of investment partners, cultural partners and many others who wouldn’t have thought about living here, who will see it, view it, and actually be quite surprised about the opportunities the area presents and how they might fit into it.

“It’s a real vote of confidence in Royal Docks that that’s happening.

“Before 2000 Excel didn’t exist. Since then there have probably been between 45million and 50million people who have visited the place, it was a venue for the London 2012 Olympic Games and more recently served as a Nightingale Hospital and a vaccination centre.

“The events we host have an enormous economic benefit for London and we are increasingly thinking in a developmental way – that we’re more than a venue.

“If we can take that strategic leap we can have an even greater positive impact in the future.” 

Read e-editions of Wharf Life’s print edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Subscribe To Wharf Life

Canary Wharf: Feeding Black opens at Museum of London Docklands

Exhibition at the London Sugar And Slavery Gallery examines the role played by food in black identity

Aleema Gray is community history curator at Museum Of London Docklands
Aleema Gray is community history curator at Museum Of London Docklands

Walk over the floating green bridge from Canary Wharf to West India Quay, turn left and, just behind a now vacant pedestal, you’ll find the Museum Of London Docklands.

Head up to its London, Sugar And Slavery gallery and, provided you visit before July 17 next year, you’ll find a bright orange corner dedicated to Feeding Black.

The display, which opened to the public this month, examines the role played by food in black entrepreneurship and identity in south-east London. 

Focusing on four businesses – Livity Plant Based Cuisine in Croydon, Zeret Kitchen in Camberwell plus Junior’s Caribbean Stall and African Cash And Carry, both in Woolwich – it explores how they act as much more than suppliers of goods and services to their customers, as spaces to talk and express politics, culture and heritage. 

Community history curator Aleema Gray said: “One of the things I’m really interested in is looking at alternative knowledge – what it means to represent in terms of curatorial displays, and that was the motivation behind this exhibition.

“It’s about alternative ways of knowing. For instance, we’ve recently had an upswell of looking at black British history. But, when you go into the community, there’s oral history, the things that are left outside academic textbooks. Curators are typically seen as people who conserve this kind of academic knowledge.

“What’s interesting about this project is looking at the ways alternative knowledge can be used to make certain interventions in the role of curator – it sounds wishy-washy, but it is essentially asking how we can include multiple different perspectives and narrative experiences in our displays? I put a call out, basically asking: ‘What are contemporary black experiences?’. Some people said, ‘my kitchen’ or ‘the barber shop’ and one person put forward an idea she had, which she referred to as the ‘black economy’.

“She’d been looking at black-owned food businesses as part of her research, focussed on African Cash And Carry – interviewing people that came in – and discovered these spaces were about more than just commercial gain. They were for politics, culture, sending money back home and buying food. There was even a little restaurant – a multi-dimensional space.

“I wanted to explore that a little bit further, so I took that and thought about what the next step was for this kind of research and put forward a proposal for Feeding Black – which takes the element of looking at not only community spaces, but also interrogating power, because a lot of the conversations when we did the initial oral histories were talking about what it means to be in London today, to survive and thrive, to start a business, the challenges, the setbacks, but also stories about being part of a diaspora.

Junior’s Caribbean Stall in Woolwich features in the exhibition

“Apart from one, all the people featured in the displays were born outside London – one in Ethiopia, one in Jamaica, one in the Congo, one in the Cameroons, so a lot of this is entangled with questions of migration and so on.

“That’s how the initial idea came about, but the area I work in, Curating London is very much a participatory project – we place a particular emphasis on being on the ground – visible outside the museum – and asking what a museum wall is.

“We had to re-jig things a bit because of the restrictions around the pandemic, but essentially the main exhibition deals with four black-owned food businesses, their oral histories and the objects that they put forward reflecting their place. It also looks at different themes of food including health, the different objects you find in kitchens as a place of work but also the nutritional value of ingredients and dishes and we’ve got a recipe wall as well.”

In her role, Aleema has a particular responsibility for the London Sugar And Slavery Gallery in which the exhibition sits.

She said: “Since the gallery opened it has been shelved a little bit, so my responsibility is to try to re-mobilise certain conversations, make some interventions to think about how we develop, and take that gallery a little bit further. 

Feeding Black sits in the wider gallery, because I wanted to do something in response to the ways in which Docklands has been developed as a direct result of the plantation economy.

“For me, food acted as a perfect segue to think about London, Sugar And Slavery, not only in terms of the content of the exhibition, but also the visual design.

“This exhibition is very much about the process as well as the content, as is the wider gallery.

Feeding Black was about using that space as a vehicle for community engagement. 

“It’s also not necessarily a chronological history – it draws on certain themes and it puts forward not necessarily answers, but asks questions about the legacy of this history and how we are all implicated in it. Feeding Black tries to speak to that.

“In the crates under the wall display, for example, you have certain questions, such as: ‘Where does our food come from?’

“It’s very subtle, but it helps people to think about the legacies of migration, enforced or otherwise.”

Aleema, who is currently finishing a PhD on the documentation of a community engaged in the Rastafarian movement in Britain, said it was weird to talk about herself as a curator. 

She said: “I didn’t go to museums as a young person because I didn’t see myself or my history reflected in these spaces but something I’m really passionate about is curating history from below – the silent histories, the hidden archives – I’m a historian. 

“There’s this idea of what history is in schools – the Romans and the Tudors, for example. I feel there’s a need to show that history is dynamic, it’s a verb, and that started my work to see how we can bridge this gap. This is what I’m doing as a curator and an academic – situating myself as the outsider within.

“The Museum Of London and museums in general are making a strong effort. There’s a lot more work to do but we’re definitely on the right path.”

The museum is free to visit and is currently open from 10am-5pm Wednesday to Sunday.

Read e-editions of Wharf Life’s print edition here

Subscribe to our regular newsletter here

Subscribe To Wharf Life