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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

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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.” 

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Royal Docks: How Expressway offers industrial and office space to business

Royal Victoria Dock-based facility provides studio and growth space for small, expanding companies

An image of Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson
Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson – image Matt Grayson

For drivers cruising down into the southern slice of Royal Docks via the long, graceful curve of the Silvertown Way flyover it would be entirely possible to miss something extraordinary taking place beneath the smooth asphalt caressed by the rubber of their tyres.

But, turn right at the bottom onto the switchback of North Woolwich Road, and the hive of activity beneath the arc of the carriageways becomes increasingly apparent, a crescendo as the height of the units rises, culminating in a main entrance.

This is Expressway, a comprehensive revitalisation of the old Waterfront Studios Business Centre. General Projects, the company that bought the space in 2018, hasn’t so much updated the existing real estate as reinvented it, punching a fresh entrance through the wall to Royal Victoria Dock and installing a coffee shop serving Perky Blenders’ products to open it up to the public and fuel occupants of its studios and industrial units.

Outside, dark grey paint has refreshed the structure, while indoors, whites, greens and stencilled lettering alongside a profusion of plywood and real plants lend its communal spaces and corridors a light, airy feel. There’s no plastic foliage nonsense here, just a friendly welcoming atmosphere replete with community notice board and plenty of puns around the word ‘way’.

It’s a visual expression of the light-touch authenticity that’s at the core of General Projects’ scheme.

Studio space at Expressway in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Expressway principal Jacob Sandelson said: “When the company was founded, the serviced office market was popping up all over central London, but what became apparent to us was that when you got further out, to areas such as Acton in the west, Croydon in the south, Haringey in the north and Royal Docks in the east, there wasn’t that same provision of space. 

“There were lots of blue carpet, white light offices but not much in the way of amenities or service for what we call steady growth innovators – hard working small businesses such as craft brewers, accountants, recruitment consultants and fashion designers.

“These aren’t the kinds of companies that are looking to raise £50million from venture capitalists. They’re looking to hire a couple of people who they trust, who will feel ownership of that business and will like going to work. Hyper-talented one-man-bands growing to five person firms.

“So when we were looking for locations as a company, we were hunting an incumbent sense of community.

“I’m not the figurehead of Expressway – it’s made up of the people who have worked here the longest. As a company, we’re just here to provide nice space for people and exactly the things that they want and not more than that because we know value is the most important part of our product.”

In addition to private office studios, typically 350sq ft, the facility boasts communal showers, cycle spaces, meeting rooms and a co-working space as well as industrial units of between 1,000sq ft and 7,000sq ft.

“We think this is London’s first truly serviced industrial space,” said Jacob. “We can provide spaces fully furnished or fitted at a basic level with services connected and wireless and wired internet connections included. It’s really up to the business. It’s also about supporting local people – around 50% of the people who work here live within 15 minutes’ walk.”

Key to Expressway’s offer is the importance it places on developing its community of businesses, whether that’s assisting firms in navigating through the choppy economic waters of Covid-19 or helping support the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“I’m incredibly proud of how we acted through the pandemic,” said Jacob. “It was a time when there was fear in every email. 

“As soon as it was clear Covid-19 was becoming a problem we set up the Expressway Genius Bar for our tenants, staffed full-time by a colleague of mine.

“His job was to understand and be the guy to go to on everything from VAT deferment to furlough, the Coronavirus Interruption Business Loan Scheme, grant funding and the bounce back loans.

“The aim was to communicate with all of our tenants and stand between them and the complexity of accessing assistance and money.

“We helped more than 60 businesses get more than £600,000 of grant funding and that really helped. We’re currently at 92% occupancy and I hope people here would talk about us favourably as an owner-operator.” 

Expressway’s industrial units – image Matt Grayson

General Projects is also working to create a circular model where Expressway, in partnership with the council-run Newham Workplace and the Royal Docks Team, hosts the Youth Incubator programme.

“Fostering small and local businesses is at the core of everything we do,” said Jacob. “We have a number of initiatives but this programme in particular offers 17 people aged 18-30 free membership of Expressway. Newham has very high levels of youth unemployment but, when you have that, you can also have very high levels of entrepreneurship.

“Our incubees get skills seminars, development support, social media marketing advice, guidance on accounting for small businesses and on how to raise funds. 

“They also get free, relevant mentoring – we’re not experts in any of those areas but we have an on-site network of 162 small and medium-size businesses that have all been down those roads, have trodden those paths and completely understand and empathise with the challenges. 

“Expressway acts as a social brokerage to match businesses with young people on the programme and we welcomed our second cohort at the end of March.

“What I would really like to see is someone go round the full circle, coming to the incubator, growing from a single person business and taking space from us and then in turn becoming a mentor. 

“I want as large a number as possible of our existing tenants to remain with us and for Expressway to be a place that feels lived in as well as worked in, for it to continue to be a space where genuine experiences happen.” 

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