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Royal Docks: How Excel’s expansion impacts Newham, London and the UK

With less than a year until opening, CEO Jeremy Rees outlines the benefits for events, local residents and the wider British economy

An artist’s impression of how Excel will look when its latest expansion programme is completed

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Jeremy Rees is excited – and with good reason.

It’s now less than a year until the latest extension to Excel in Royal Docks is due to open its doors for business, and the exhibition and conference centre’s CEO is buzzing with the anticipation of what it means for the UK, London and the local area.

To say live events have bounced back after the pandemic would be an understatement.

Fuelled by a period of almost total shut down, when meetings were deemed illegal, the demand and desire to reconnect is at an all-time high.

“This year will be 10% busier than we’ve ever been in the history of Excel’s business,” said Jeremy.

“There will be more events, more exhibitors and more visitors here than ever before – that’s a really strong catalyst for activities, innovation and ideas.

“It puts Royal Docks right at the heart of our trade agenda in the UK once again.

“Historically, it was an area where innovation was rife, where trade was a huge driver for the capital.

“That tailed off with containerisation.

“But it’s a great example of what London does, it adapts and changes into something else – so the Royal Docks began reinventing itself as a centre of excellence and innovation.

“Transportation links improved and, over the years, pieces were put in place to remove the friction of travel to get here.

“Now, with the Elizabeth Line, we’re a very strong proposition for our customers. Excel is three minutes from Canary Wharf and 15 minutes from the West End. It’s so accessible.”

Read More: How Canary Wharf-based McLaren is building Excel’s extension

Excel CEO Jeremy Rees says the benefits of increased space will bring increased growth and prosperity to Royal Docks, London and the UK as a whole

Riding the wave of that regeneration and infrastructure improvements, Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC), which owns Excel, has invested significant cash in expanding the venue.

When the doors to the extension open in October 2024, Excel will see its available space increase by 25% to some 125,000sq m.

The new facility will connect seamlessly to the existing centre’s eastern end, with landscaping outside, including a public park.

“We’ve designed a £220million building connected to the existing one, which will genuinely delight and surprise everyone with a world-class experience,” said Jeremy.

“The process of regeneration here is far from complete and that’s one of the reasons our expansion programme is so important – because it’s demand-led. 

“Our customers in the corporate, association and exhibition markets – both nationally and internationally – have told us what they want.

“That’s the future of face-to-face events – a building that needs to be not just physically but also technologically fit for purpose and a place that’s sustainable and puts delegate health and wellbeing right at the heart of the proposition.

“The brands that are coming now care deeply about the experience and that’s something we’ve catered for really carefully.

“The expansion is a place where millions of moments will happen, where people will go away saying that their needs were fulfilled when they came to Royal Docks – whether that was for trade, fun or engagement.

The project will see Excel get a second main entrance

“It will be where their preconceptions of the area, of London and of the UK, will have been shifted.

“Our vision for the future is to add significantly to where we are now and this is deeply exciting. 

“From a stakeholder perspective, from ADNEC downwards, I think it shows a belief in London and the Royal Docks.

“They’re investing hundreds of millions of pounds in our buildings and the experience.

“That’s being reinforced by our customer base who are signing contracts now for 2024, 2025 and beyond. We’ve got agreements in place for 2030 already.”

Take a step back and Excel currently generates about £4.5billion in economic impact for the UK, attracting around 4million visitors to the Royal Docks each year by hosting roughly 400 events.

“The expansion is necessary to ensure the virtuous circle of growth continues.

Jeremy said: “What our existing customers are saying is that if we can’t cater for them, they’re going to go somewhere else.

“There is a significant emphasis on investment internationally and cities are competing aggressively with each other.

“The difference with London is that most other cities in the world own their convention centres – here it’s privately owned, so all the investment coming through us is driving a vast ripple effect through the city.

“The economic impact is huge and costs the public purse nothing. In other cities, the events industry is asking for subsidy or support from governments whereas we are a massive contributor to the Treasury and UK PLC as a whole.

“Our investment is driven by the fact we believe there is a commercial need – it’s what our customers want.

“The benefit from this is also for the hotels, bars and restaurants – and so for the Exchequer as well – due to the increase in activity across these sectors.”

At a more immediately local level, the expansion will also benefit those living and working in Royal Docks in a variety of ways.

Put simply, the larger Excel becomes, the more potential there is for success.

The more successful the venue is, the bigger its economic impact will be, with greater and greater audiences coming to the area with needs to satisfy.

“From a successful exhibition perspective, it means that we’re generating more income, and that flows through to Newham, where tourism and hospitality are key pillars that drive job creation,” said Jeremy.

“As a business ourselves, there is no doubt we are already employing more people from the local area than ever before.

“Similarly the businesses we’re supporting and working with are also employing people, so you get this multiplier effect.

“The hotels locally are running at around 85% occupancy, very largely filled by people attending events at Excel.

“We aim to make sure that, we’re working harmoniously with the residents who benefit from hospitality, bars and restaurants. 

“But it’s also the reason why we’re investing in transport links, why there are, for example, 5G networks here, and that infrastructure generally is being improved, because all the activity is here.

“That’s interesting because it changes the dynamics of the ecosystem.

“What used to be the case is that people came in, conducted their business and then  left.

“That’s shifting and I foresee over the next five or 10 years that the dwell time here is going to be significantly greater within the Royal Docks.

“I think that the east of London – Royal Docks, Canary Wharf and all the other areas – have all got very bright futures. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.

“With the Elizabeth Line now in place, Excel is the natural home for events for companies on the Wharf – the journey is only three minutes now.

“It’s incumbent on all of us in this area to set the tone, develop, grow and do it in partnership.

“If we can accelerate this with our investments and support from Abu Dhabi, then we’re going to do that.”

One of the other things the venue is already doing is shifting its programme.

“We’ve been planning all this since 2018 and the final pieces of the puzzle were the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, a commitment from our investors to expand and, lastly, Excel’s complete adoption of immersive events and experiences,” said Jeremy.

“We’ve got truly world-class creators, innovators, production houses and agencies who are exporting immersive experiences to other countries, where they have residencies.

“There hasn’t really been a place where they can host them here, so we’ve observed and responded to the need – and we’ve done it very quickly. 

“We’ve been really keen to work with some of the best brands globally to do this, which is the reason we’ve hosted Jurassic World and Disney100.

“These are world-class experiences and there will be more announced soon. 

“Brands invest tens of millions in some cases and what we want is families and children to come here and be surprised and delighted by what they find so that they return again and again.” 

In some senses, the countdown to the future of Excel has begun. In others, it’s here already.

Find out more about Excel’s expansion programme here

Excel’s total space is set to increase by 25% when the extension opens in less than a year

FACTS AND FIGURES

Excel’s expansion will see the following benefits created:

  • 25% larger overall with 25,000sq m of additional space that can be completely taken over by a customer
  • A new front door for the venue 
  • Improved landscaping for pedestrians and cyclists including along the dock edge
  • 12,000sq m of new exhibition space
  • A freshly planted pocket park
  • Views across the dock from the venue

Read more: How Level39-based WyzePay offers discounts at MMy Wood Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How McLaren is building the Excel centre’s extension in east London

It’s full steam ahead for the main contractor, which recently moved its headquarters to Canary Wharf

McLaren is the lead contractor on the Excel expansion programme

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McLaren is the company responsible for actually building Excel’s extension.

The firm, which has just moved its headquarters to Canary Wharf from the City, has seen significant growth itself in recent years increasing its turnover from around £400million to more than £1billion, thanks to a programme of diversification that’s seen it enter a number of new markets. 

“We’re a roll-your-sleeves-up business where everyone’s really valued,” said Paul Heather, group managing director of construction for the UK.

“We’re strong on our values of being supportive, agile and proud.

“The difference here to other places I’ve worked is that we all come together and feel part of a team, whether we’re out on a project or at head office.

“It’s the team ethos – finding solutions – that gets people out of bed in the morning here and that’s great to see.”

Walk through McLaren’s Churchill Place office and you’ll see exactly that – open-plan spaces and meeting rooms filled with people collaborating.

It’s easy to imagine they’re all striving to solve complex problems at a firm that’s expanded into many different areas of construction.

Clear focus on agility and solutions is probably just as well, because Excel’s extension would be a daunting task for any contractor. 

Not only is the scale of the building vast, but everything has to be built without any disruption to the workings of the existing conference and exhibition centre, not to mention the race track that has to weave through the construction site for Formula E twice over the course of the project.

Sir Robert McAlpine, the firm that built the first two phases of Excel, had been awarded the contract for enabling works, before the venue opted to work with McLaren on the main build.

Read More: What Excel CEO Jeremy Rees has to say about the expansion of the venue

“It was a proud moment for us to become involved in such a prestigious scheme as this,” said Paul, who moved from McAlpine to McLaren himself in March 2022. 

“We engaged with Excel in November 2022 and had our first digger in the ground in mid-January 2023, which is pretty quick. 

“The team worked very hard and operations director, Gareth Peebles, knew the job inside out.

“As a company, McLaren ultimately comes from industrial logistics.

An artist’s impression of how Excel will look when work is complete

“We’d pretty much cornered the market as big industrial shed builders and had made a huge success of it, constructing distribution centres for clients such as Amazon across the country.

“That mentality is at the heart of many people who work for the business and, because an events venue is similar in many respects, we had some ideas for this project that allowed us to be more competitive – to offer the client more certainty on the programme, which is what the team at Excel wanted.”

Sustainability is also at the core of the build, with the new building targeting a BREEAM Excellent rating.

That means both its design and construction aim to minimise their impact on the environment – increasingly a factor for organisers when they’re deciding where to host their events.

Paul said: “Using recycled materials and reducing carbon emissions is very much part of the agenda.

“This will be one of the first major projects to use Cemfree masonary mortar – which has no cement in it – and that will reduce emissions by 11,000kg of CO2.

“Half of the steel used is recycled and it’s been quite a challenge to find that quantity but we’ve managed to do it.

“We’ll also be installing air source heat pumps, which is a sustainable approach to heating, as well as solar panels over 32% of the roof, which should generate 599kw to help power the building.”

With 90 weeks from start to finish allowed, the build is now over halfway completed and construction continues apace.

“We’re coming up to winter, so we’ve got to get the structure up because there’s a lot of work to be done internally,” said Paul.

“We need the roof on, the cladding on and then it will be time to get stuck into the finishes inside.

“With just a year to go, it’s going to be full steam ahead, with no rest, that’s for sure.

“The biggest challenge is the speed we have to work at to hit the all-important end date.

“We’ve learned a lot from the last season Formula E – with the track running through the existing Excel buildings and our site, so we’ll all ready for the next season.

“To have to stop when you want to keep going can be a frustration, so there’s a challenge to keep everyone motivated, but as soon as the racing is over, we’ll be going for it again.

“There have also been challenges to ensure the way we were erecting the steel fitted in with the needs of flights in and out of London City Airport, making certain not to impinge on the air space.

McLaren group managing director of construction for the UK, Paul Heather – image Matt Grayson

“But we resolved that quickly and the steelwork went in over a number of weekends to avoid having an impact on flights.

“The most important thing is that we can’t shut down half of Excel while we build for a year so we have to have a really good relationship with the venue – to know what’s coming in and out, what events are on and how that will impact what we’re doing.

“As a company, we’re very big on relationships and that goes to the highest level of our business. 

“Our chairman, Kevin Taylor, will check in with Excel on a regular basis. We always want our customers to have a great experience and to come away wanting to work with us again.”

While the Excel build is scheduled for less than two years, its been designed to have a much longer-lasting social impact on the area.

As part of the project, the builder has committed to offering 36 apprenticeships through its employment and skills plan and 15% of McLaren direct staff have applied through local council-run body Our Newham Work. 

The business has also run Women In Construction T-Levels workshops with local colleges and is working with UEL to offer students site visits.  

“Construction isn’t just about building,” said Paul.

“We work with a lot of supply chain partners – sub contractors – and their location becomes especially  important if you have a client that says they want local community engagement.

“We will select who we work with based partly on those criteria.

“They have to be competitive, but we will be saying to our customer that we are bringing locally based people in to work on their project. 

“We’ll try and select materials locally where we can and, in terms of the community, if we can entice people into the business as new employees who are based here, then we’ll try for that as well.

“All of our partners understand that for them to be recognised in the right way on a scheme, then they need to be bringing apprentices from the local area. 

“They themselves are proud to say that they are giving people a chance to understand what construction is and what they can do within it.”

Full steam ahead on all fronts – there’s a deadline to hit.

Find out more about Excel’s expansion here

With less than a year to go, work on-site continues apace

FACTS AND FIGURES

McLaren is building the extension to the Excel centre while the existing building remains in use

  • 1,210 solar panels will be placed on the roof of the new building
  • Each panel is capable of generating 495w, putting out a total of 599kw back into the building 
  • The development site for the project is two hectares, including improvements to public space along the dock edge
  • The project uses 50% recycled steel
  • Other sustainable measures include rainwater harvesting, hybrid ventilation and Cemfree masonry mortar
  • McLaren has grown into a company with a turnover of more than £1billion

Read more: How Level39-based WyzePay offers discounts at MMy Wood Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How Certain Blacks’ Ensemble Festival is packed with free entertainment

Artistic director Clive Lyttle on how acts have been commissioned to get audience’s hearts’ beating

Certain Blacks artistic director Clive Lyttle

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Clive Lyttle is smiling and there’s a glint in his eye.

The artistic director of Certain Blacks is relishing the prospect of putting on four days of completely free entertainment in Royal Docks when the organisation’s Ensemble Festival returns. 

Six whistle-whetting performances are set to take place on July 19 and 20, 2023, followed by a further 10 on July 22 and 23, 2023 – all adding up to a brightly coloured spectacle of newly commissioned circus, dance, art and voguing.

The festival’s 2023 programme is its most extensive to date in Certain Blacks’ ongoing mission to bring live performance from the margins to the mainstream.

“I’d spent 17 years working for Arts Council England and I developed Certain Blacks because of the need to support a wide range of diverse artists,” said Clive.

“Our first indoor festival took place in 2015 at Stratford Circus and we continue to showcase work as an arts development organisation.

“At the Arts Council, I was responsible for Newham, so I have deep contacts in the borough – my first job was as a multi-cultural arts officer for the council.”

Having worked extensively in the area, Clive made the move to Royal Docks six years ago and now lives overlooking Excel from the Flying Angel – a former seaman’s hospital for more than a century, converted into residential homes.

Between there and Certain Blacks’ base at The Factory Project in Silvertown, he oversees two annual festivals – Ensemble in E16  and Heroes, last held at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix in February.

While the latter is a platform for artists to explore performances strictly for an adult audience indoors, the former is strictly family friendly and very much out in the open air.

 “Certain Blacks is part of a network called Without Walls,” said Clive, who originally wanted to be a rock star before going on to study jazz guitar in Northumbria and embarking on a career in the arts. 

Out Of The Deep Blue’s puppet performance will be part of the festival

“It’s a national consortium of 36 festivals that work together to commission and develop innovative new work each year that can then tour the country.

“We’ve got seven new commissions including Gorilla Circus – a large scale show with high wire, trapeze and hair hanging that will be the finale of this year’s Ensemble Festival

“We’re lucky to have Arts Council funding, which gives us a little bit of money to get these shows made and then a bit of time to put a programme together.

“I travel to various festivals in the UK and Europe where we meet people – we’re always on the look out for artists.

“The festival is also funded by the Royal Docks Team for some smaller commissions that range from a local music collective to a Chinese dance group, an African psychedelic performance and something we’re putting together called Give And Take, which is about the politics and rights and wrongs of giving.”

These performances will mostly take place in front of Good Hotel off Western Gateway, a few minutes’ walk from Royal Victoria Dock DLR station.

The finale, however, is set to take place beside Building 1000 near Royal Albert Dock DLR on the Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s a spectacular show,” said Clive. “I saw it at the Norfolk And Norwich Festival – one of the partners in Without Walls – in May and it was fantastic.

“Of the consortium, we’re one of the few partners putting that show on.

“It gets your heart really beating – the hair hanging may make a few people wince and the high wire act is one of the best in Europe.

“He doesn’t wear a harness and left me with my heart in my mouth when I saw the show last month.

“As for the rest of the performances, a lot of the programme is an open call to artists – anyone who wants to do outdoor work can apply and that can lead to performances at, say, seven or eight festivals nationwide.

“With Certain Blacks, a lot of it is putting on work and supporting artists that I’d love to see – but also pieces that are unexpected and diverse.

Mughal Miniatures is based on tiny pictures seen in Indian temples

“It has to be fun too. We do a lot of live art, a lot of work which might challenge the audience – but Ensemble is very much PG-rated, even if the shows might make people think.

“We have the Sonia Sabri Company presenting Mughal Miniatures – The Awakening, a piece based on tiny pictures you can see in Indian temples brought to life.

“Then there’s Fussy Foodies: Battle Of The Pans where people can learn a few tricks about being a celebrity chef, play a few games and have a good singalong. 

“Some of the themes we’ll be addressing through the Royal Docks Team commissions are ecology, being eco-friendly and how we live.

“We’ve got an event anyone can take part in called the Bench Invasion.

“People from Belgium are coming over with 10 benches and we’ll have local volunteers helping to put the benches down, and people can sit and talk to them – then at the end there’s a little party and an exchange of stories.

“It’s about slowing life down and listening.

“We’ve also got a big eco-show with the Austin Dance Theatre called Out Of The Deep Blue – it’s a giant puppet that goes around telling stories about conservation.”

One of the few pieces to take place elsewhere will be dotComedy’s News Desk – a live rolling broadcast about events happening on the streets of Royal Docks presented in front of City Hall, delivered by comedian Richard Sharp.

There isn’t even space here to properly mention the interactive pub serving sounds or the rebellious hip hop dance of S.C.R.U.M.

All in all, it adds up to an extensive, diverse and surprising range of work as Royal Docks beds in as a serious cultural destination in London.

Clive said: “The area is getting to be very much part of the wider events ecology of London and we want to take artists from here out into the wider world.

“One of the points about our small commissions is to start artists on that journey, so they could be commissioned by people like Without Walls.”

Find full listings for Ensemble Festival here

THREE HIGHLIGHTS AT ENSEMBLE FESTIVAL

Gorilla Circus is set will be performed over two nights in Royal Docks

GORILLA CIRCUS

July 22-23, 8,30pm

The absolutely unmissable finale to Ensemble Festival – expect hair hanging, high wire and much more from this aerial spectacle outside Building 1000 at Royal Albert Dock.

Catch Ghetto Fabulous at Western Gateway as part of the festival

GHETTO FABULOUS

July 22-23, noon-7pm

Four LGBTQIA+ dancers from Manchester and Liverpool strut their stuff in this family catwalk extravaganza. Audience decides the winner. Find this show at Western Gateway.

Expect foodie facts and storytelling from Fussy Foodies

FUSSY FOODIES

July 22-23, noon-7pm

Just More Productions presents the Battle Of The Pans – a game show themed around Caribbean cooking.

Expect foodie facts, spices and storytelling.  Find this show at Western Gateway.

Read more: How artist Mark Taylor is capturing Canary Wharf and Docklands

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How Market Express delivers frictionless groceries at the Excel centre

Built By Levy store is the first of its kind at a UK events venue to use Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech

Market Express has opened at Excel in Royal Docks

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Almost imperceptibly things move on and sharpen up.

The Elizabeth Line’s final timetable has arrived, meaning its full service is now available across the city.

Already it’s the busiest railway in the UK, purple arteries pumping people through London.

Areas that were once challenging to get to, have been pulled dramatically closer to others in ways that many in the capital are only just starting to explore.

Take Canary Wharf and Royal Docks, for example.

The journey between them was once an awkward dog-leg. 

A couple of stops on the Jubilee line followed by a couple on the DLR, or a change in trains on the latter, before a graceful meander over the River Lea.

Then, bang. The smoothest, quietest railway in TfL’s network takes that trip and drops it down to three minutes.

All of that bothersome friction has been removed at a stroke. 

The decision to attend a show at Excel via Custom House has been transformed into one purely of desire, not practicality. 

Suddenly, the decision to move City Hall to Royal Victoria Dock looks inspired, with this rapid conduit offering breathtakingly quick access to central London. 

In short, it’s about speed – and that’s something that’s increasingly a focus inside Excel too.

The vast exhibition and conference centre recently saw Market Express open its gates.

Fully kitted out with the system that makes Amazon Fresh work without checkouts, this new convenience store isn’t just a carbon copy of the tech giant’s high street outlets, it’s an evolution. 

Here there’s no faffing with an app to gain access, for example. Only a payment card or digital equivalent is needed. 

Then it’s scan, grab anything you like off the shelves and leave.

Just as the Elizabeth Line eases the journey to Excel, so Market Express makes shopping there more effortless than ever. 

Access to the store is via any payment card

It takes nearly all cards (even American Express was in the works when we visited), offers some 400 different products and is, in all likelihood, the future of shopping.

Created by a division of Levy UK + Ireland – the exhibition centre’s catering partner – it’s especially well placed given the nature of traffic at Excel.

“With about 400 events every year we host about 4million visitors and that’s a lot of mouths to feed,” said Phil Wetz, commercial manager at Excel. 

“Levy is one of the biggest caterers in the sports and entertainment industry and we’ve been working with them for more than 23 years.

“We recently signed another long-term contract with them to ensure they will continue to operate in Excel for many years to come.

“We share a passion for sustainability and also technology, which is why we’re delighted to open Market Express – a frictionless store that is a first for any UK event venue.

“You simply tap a card or payment method, take what you want from the shelves and walk out without any of the hassle of waiting for or using a checkout. 

“We think it’s really important to our customers.

“We get a lot of feedback from our visitors and event organisers and they say they want to have access to really good quality food, but they don’t want to spend a long time queueing.

“The quicker we can make that process by using technology, the better.”

Phil Wetz of Excel

The store will be located more or less in the middle of the venue when its 25,000sq m extension to the east is complete.

On its shelves are cold and hot dishes, an extensive range of snacks, fruits, drinks and other essential groceries. 

In addition, it also sells products such as shower gel, tampons, tissues and deodorants – anything an exhibitor or visitor might need to grab to ensure comfort during their day. 

“The principle remains the same as an Amazon Fresh store – once you go through the gate, a number of cameras are tracking you and creating a virtual basket of the things you pick up,” said Rak Kalidas, managing director of Built By Levy, which installed the store. 

“It adds items and subtracts them if you put them back, no matter where that is in the store. 

“We’ve done weeks of testing to ensure everything works.

“Digital receipts are then available by scanning a QR code on the way out if required.

“It’s the first store of its kind that we’ve opened and it’s really exciting to have done that at Excel in such a pivotal location.

“The stores still need staff to replenish the shelves and ensure customers are taken through the journey and that they are comfortable with the technology, because it’s not widespread in the UK at the moment.”

Rak Kalidas of Built By Levy

Market Express joins other technological innovations such as tablet ordering in restaurants and trials of automatic bars at selected events.

“The important thing is to make sure technology enhances a customer’s experience and doesn’t become a hindrance to service,” said Phil. 

“Through this store we can provide a better, faster experience for visitors, allowing them more time to network, learn and trade at the event they are attending.”

This is, of course, the dream.

That technology will step in and free humans up to engage in the kinds of activities they want to, whether that’s being more efficient in business or having more leisure time.

But as the incremental advances from Amazon Fresh to Market Express show, it’s a path that’s likely to be gradual as systems are tweaked and developed to better serve customers.

Right now, the experience of walking into a store, filling a bag and leaving just got a fraction more frictionless than it was before.

How long before there are no gates on the stores at all?

Market Express stocks some 400 products customers can just take and go

Read more: How Kinaara on Greenwich Peninsula offers authentic Indian flavours

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Royal Docks: How Roxanna Lyssa is serving up Good Vibes at Royal Victoria Dock

Cafe at Expressway aims to offer customers more than just Perky Blenders coffee and hot toasties

Perky Blenders X Good Vibes at Expressway
Perky Blenders X Good Vibes at Expressway – image James Perrin

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

If Sadiq Khan is looking for a London-made caffeine fix near his new base at The Crystal by Royal Victoria Dock, then he’s in luck.

All he needs to do is pop next door to Expressway and visit the hatch at Perky Blenders X Good Vibes.

The takeaway cafe serves coffee roasted up the road and is a collaboration between a Walthamstow-based roastery and entrepreneur Roxanna Lyssa.

You’ll see her behind the counter most days serving up lattes, toasties and cakes, and following in the footsteps of her grandma who served coffee and tea to dockers in the 1930s. We lured her away from the grinder to find out more.

past vibe

I stepped away from a 15-year career to re-evaluate where I was going and got a part-time job as a barista with Perky Blenders.

Six months later, in November 2019, a franchise opportunity came up, so I put together a business pitch for Good Vibes. We launched in June 2020

I worked in visual merchandising and product management for Lacoste UK previously, which was a fantastic part of my life and I acquired so many transferable skills. I started that career on the sales floor and progressed to head office.

But after 15 years, I wanted to go back on the frontline and do something on my own. I just wasn’t sure what. 

A coffee shop was never in mind, but life seemed to push me in this direction. I got into coffee because I love the product. 

My background really helps with what I do now. Small details all add up to the overall impact. I appreciate the importance of storytelling.

I hope that, when we’re engaging with our customers, they feel part of the journey and understand what we sell and why we sell it. 

Roxanna Lyssa of Good Vibes
Roxanna Lyssa of Good Vibes – image James Perrin

Perky vibe

Because they knew me and my background they trusted me to establish the coffee shop under my own brand identity.

As long as I serve the coffee to their standard and respect their brand guidelines, they’ve let me run with it. 

present vibe

I’m pleased to say that, two years down the line, we’ve created a community and I do think we’ve got good vibes.

We’re known for being that authentic, open-minded spot where people can be themselves and talk about what they want or order whatever kind of coffee they want. We’re not going to judge.

 It’s not just been about the coffee and the food, it’s also about the people. I love interacting and chatting and seemingly that’s my strong point. I’m known for my banter.

Royal Docks vibe

I wanted to drive culture and I could really see the potential for that in the Royal Docks with all the regeneration that’s happening here. 

I grew up in east London but hadn’t been here before, so when I found out you can come to the docks and ride a cable car, go open water swimming or try wakeboarding it blew my mind. It was pretty surreal to find that in London.

Good Vibes has just embedded itself in that. We do offers for the swimmers and for the wakeboarders because we want to be seen as part of the framework across the dock – we’re all in this together.

The cafe serves up Perky Blenders' speciality coffees
The cafe serves up Perky Blenders’ speciality coffees – image James Perrin

coffee vibe

In the office I was a person who had their own ground coffee and French press on the desk.

I’ve always loved and respected coffee and now, doing this, I think I’ve found a bit of mad scientist in me.

There are so many variables that you can control or manipulate in order to determine the end product – the temperature of the water, the extraction time, the grind size.

We sell a range of up to six different blends or single origins at a time. We also do drip coffee so we serve incoming blend on our espresso.

But then we’ll feature single origins or coffee-of-the-month blends on our drip coffee.

The venue offers a range of food options
The venue offers a range of food options – image James Perrin

food vibe

We are supplied by The Bread Station in Hackney and Cakesmiths in Bristol. We sell croissants – almond, chocolate, raisin and buns – cinnamon, cardamom, hazelnut and vegan cakes – banana chocolate, carrot cake, blueberry Bakewell and chocolate brownie. 

For lunch we’ve become known for our toasties. We use organic sourdough bread and fillings like chilli jam and spinach, tuna melt, chicken and avocado. I do really good homemade guacamole. 

The secret is choosing the right ingredients and making it with love, care and also consistency.

I’m a stickler for guidelines, because I was setting rules for the whole country at Lacoste. Customers getting what they expect to receive is so important to their experience. 

We also do Brick Lane bagels with fillings including vegan cream cheese and, going into winter, we’ve added jacket potatoes and soups from Leyton-base Zuppe in flavours like sweetcorn and coconut chowder, smoky roasted tomatoes and peppers and red lentil dhal.

natural vibe

I try to avoid any sort of artificial colours, flavourings, emulsifiers and additives. You won’t get a caramel latte in my coffee shop. 

I’m really against anything artificial and what’s good with a food and drink business is that you can encourage wellbeing through what people consume. You can educate people and advise them on how they can enhance their wellness.

Sweet treats from Cakesmiths at Good Vibes
Sweet treats from Cakesmiths at Good Vibes – image James Perrin

caring vibe

During lockdown I had a lot of residential customers coming over who would sometimes spend 30 minutes chatting to me because they were trapped in their flat all day without anyone else to see.

It’s not just physical wellness you can help through a coffee shop – it’s also mental health because that small transaction and a few minutes can actually change someone’s mindset. 

You can make someone feel better about themselves or you can take them away from the stress of the phone or their computer. 

I’ve really tried to build a coffee shop that is more than just a cafe – to make it a place where people can come to connect.

personal vibe

I’ve definitely suffered with anxiety in the past. Being in the corporate world with higher responsibilities, you do get to a point where things just become too much. It built up over time. 

I think there was a point where my to do list was three A4 pages and it was never going to be completed. 

I never had a feeling of accomplishment. Now, when I’ve made a lovely cup of coffee and handed it over, I do feel a sense of achievement.

I don’t know what changed, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to slow down and find myself, because I started working there when I was 18.

It was my first job and I’d always been Roxy at Lacoste. 

Suddenly, 15 years later, I was like ‘Who is just Roxy?’. I think I’ve found her now and Good Vibes is my happy place.

spreading vibe

We do wellness workshops with Yoga and meditation called Vibe And Flow. I’m due to start an event series from November, which is exciting, because it goes back to that idea of creating a culture. 

Expressway has got 200 businesses in it, so the range of people that I get to meet and collaborate with is unreal and I’m just trying to connect those dots. 

We also spread the love by selling products from my customers like Beinsense in Royal Docks and England Preserves in Bermondsey.

Going into Christmas I run a campaign called Give The Gift Of Local.

future vibe

All my costs have gone up significantly this year. I got through Covid and thought ‘I can survive anything’.

But then we came into this year and people are spending less money and we have fewer customers. It then makes operations very difficult because I’m running a very tight ship. 

But I’m still here, still working. I’ve got myself going in the right direction and I just want to try to grow the community aspect and collaborate with the people that I’ve got to know to see how we can all try and do better with what we’ve got. 

My brand tagline is: ‘Make waves to change the tide, not dominate the ocean’. I was never trying to come in and take over or be on top of anyone or be better than anyone.

Good Vibes is about trying to change direction for people, show them a different way and just contribute to something positive.

Read more: Discover east London firefighter Stephen Dudeney’s book

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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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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