Riverscape

Greenwich Peninsula: How Björn from ABBA welcomes Antony from Blue to Mamma Mia! The Party at The O2

Ulvaeus and Costa talk music, Greek heritage and performance as a new Nikos arrives at the venue

Antony Costa and Björn Ulvaeus at Mamma Mia! The Party in The O2

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

Björn Ulvaeus is in a jovial, reflective mood – surprising, perhaps, for a global megastar who’s already spent much of his morning being interviewed by a merry-go-round of journalists at The O2 before I get to him.

He’s at the Greenwich Peninsula venue to mark the arrival of Antony Costa – best known as one quarter of boy band Blue, who has just joined the cast of Mamma Mia! The Party, which has been playing in its own dedicated space within the giant tent since 2019. 

There’s a feeling of serendipity about the whole thing.

ABBA – namely Björn, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – reportedly gave their first impromptu performance on a beach while on holiday in Cyprus.

Antony has Greek Cypriot heritage and is the first person in the London run directly connected with the culture to take on the role of taverna owner Nikos, whose establishment is the setting for the immersive show.

Antony performing in the show

Sat in the vast space, completely transformed into a restaurant on Skopelos with hundreds of seats, it’s impossible not to wonder what moments of fresh serendipity might take place under the lights as Antony and co dance, sing and entertain the expectant crowds.

Who might be inspired? What might they do?

“Everything with ABBA was so organic, it happened by chance,” said Björn.

“Benny and I happened to meet each other, then we happened to meet those ladies and they happened to be singers.

“They could easily have been something else.

“We never thought about forming a group until two or three years into our relationships – we were just two couples.

“Then, again by chance, Agnetha is a true soprano, and Frida is a mezzo – it’s when she strives to get up to where Agnetha is and they sing in unison, there’s a strange kind of metallic, longing sound which you can hear from miles away.

“That is the sound of ABBA. It has a quality that, when the song is a bit sad, in a minor key and the lyrics are dark, the voices seem to be jubilant, so happy and sad at the same time.

Performers sing and dance among the audience

“It’s very Nordic and it was probably very exotic to the rest of the world.

“Then, at the same time, Benny and I were determined to become very good songwriters and to record our music as well as we could. 

“ABBA was the most wonderful vehicle to communicate those songs though, so it was a combination of all of those things that led to our success.”

One of the best-selling groups in the history of popular music, next came Mamma Mia! the jukebox musical, a film adaptation – then a second – each adding fresh waves of popularity and further cementing the presence of hits such as Dancing Queen, Super Trouper, The Winner Takes It All and Waterloo in the public consciousness.

Mamma Mia! The Party, however is different.

Conceived after a visit to Skopelos to see the film set, Björn set about creating an immersive experience that would serve as a sequel to the movies – initially opening in Stockholm – before bringing the show to London.

The show takes place in a giant Greek taverna

“That’s the thing about this – it’s so real,” he said.

“It’s a real restaurant. The audience are eating, it has an owner, he’s called Nikos and the family are working here.

“The movies are fiction, but this is real and that’s what people feel when they come.

“People would stand up, sing and dance at the end of the stage musical and I wondered how we could make this immersive.

“It feels great because you can see people enjoying the music, singing all the words and it’s real.”  

Antony, who hails from Barnet in north London, said: “The idea is that people leave their troubles at the door, they just enjoy the vibe, the music and the story.

“Nikos and his wife Kate (Gemma Maclean) have had this idea that they will make some money off the back of the movies.

“ABBA is popular, so they decide to use the songs.

Performances include a Greek meal

“They trade off the taverna as a location and that’s how the story begins. It’s my second immersive show and it’s amazing.

“You have to be in character but you can go up to the tables and ask the guests how their food is.

“They’re always sending their compliments to the chef, they love it.

“My dad’s family are all Greek-Cypriot, so when I lived in Cyprus as a kid, I used to see it all the time – gran peeling the potatoes, dad smoking and cooking the barbecue – and that makes it real.

“I was actually a bit emotional that someone had taken the trouble to write something set in the motherland.

“It really brought me back to living in Cyprus as a kid and going to the taverna with the whole family. 

“I feel very honoured to be performing these songs and to have Björn watching and for him to say: ‘Well done’ – I can die happy. I saw his face light up and that was better than any applause.”

Following the establishment of Mamma Mia! The Party, the eastern half of the capital is busy with the band’s footprint thanks to ABBA Voyage – a holographic concert venue featuring avatars of the four members – that opened in 2022, not far away in Stratford.

Guitarist Luke Higgins performs on a Bouzouki

“London is where all the infrastructure and talent is, so it was a no-brainer to bring the party here in 2019 after Stockholm,” said Björn.

“There’s a huge audience here, all prepared to try something new – an experiment, which this is, in essence.

“From here, we’re going to take it to other places around the world – perhaps New York and Sydney.

“Seeing Antony as Nikos was very special because he gives his own interpretation of the role.

“As the first person to play the role in London who comes from a Greek background, he completely understands who Nikos is and that is great – I loved seeing it.”

Mamma Mia! The Party runs Wednesday to Sunday at 6.30pm with noon matinees at weekends.

Tickets start at £108 off peak with various upgrades available.

You can find out more about Mamma Mia! The Party here.

Read more: Sign up for the Santa Stair Climb at One Canada Square

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to our free Wharf Whispers newsletter here

- 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Greenwich: How Kinaara delivers authentic Indian cooking with a modern twist

Head chef Imamuddin Khan takes inspiration from his mother’s kitchen and mentor Vivek Singh

Kinaara head chef Imamuddin Khan

Subscribe to our Wharf Whispers newsletter here

If your mouth isn’t watering by the end of this article, I haven’t properly reflected the passion that Imamuddin Khan has for the food that he cooks and the cuisine that he grew up with.

As a boy of eight or nine he was fascinated by the apparent magic of the way his mother prepared dishes in the kitchen.

First he started watching, then questioning her before starting to help with the cooking himself.

“I had so many questions – all the time I’d be asking her why she was using particular ingredients, why some things were shallow fried and others deep fried,” he said.

“I was curious. I always wanted to know what the reasons were.

“For example, take onion seeds – the kalonji.

“If you eat them with no preparation, you don’t taste or feel anything. There’s no taste.

“But when you sauté them, they release their aroma and flavour into the oil. Then, when you cook your vegetables or meat in it, you will get that aroma and texture.

“When I learnt these things from my mother it was amazing.

“I’d be going into the kitchen, tasting spices and not getting much.

“But when she explained how they worked in recipes it made me say ‘wow’.”

These were the first sparks that lit the fire of a lifelong passion for cooking that finds Imamuddin today residing in Dagenham and working as head chef at Kinaara.  

Named for the Hindi word for being on the shore, the principal restaurant at InterContinental London – The O2 boasts some of the city’s best views over the Thames towards the capital’s skyline.

The Greenwich Peninsula venue is a rich environment of deep blues, purples, golds, thick carpet and everywhere the river flowing past its expansive windows.

But all this is just a backdrop to the food, and that has its roots firmly planted overseas.

“About 35% of the flavours on the menu come straight from my mother’s kitchen,” said Imamuddin.

“I was born and brought up in Delhi. It’s the capital of India, so there is so much to eat, so much to see. 

“Every culture in the country is in that one place – it’s very diverse and so I learnt cuisines from all over the country there.”

After training in the culinary arts, Imamuddin came to England at the behest of celebrated chef Vivek Singh of The Cinnamon Club on the recommendation of his brother, also a cook.

Imamuddin at work

“Vivek taught me many techniques to give classic Indian dishes a modern twist,” said Imamuddin.

“After working with him on several restaurants, I went to the North East to open Haveli in Ponteland near Newcastle.

“But London for me is my home town and I was homesick so I came back to the city, working in hotels again before this opportunity came up.

“I came to the InterContinental and found it very tempting.

“The place was beautiful and the views were amazing. It’s one of the best locations in central London, so I said yes straight away. 

“For me the challenge was to live up to the views with what I create on the plate, drawing on my background and all the experiences I’ve had as a chef.”

Spend any amount of time with Imamuddin and it quickly becomes apparent that the spices he uses are the backbone to all of his dishes.

It’s a palette of subtle tones and shades that he uses with the aim of transforming good ingredients into something more.

Food at Kinaara blends traditional flavours with progressive techniques

“At Kinaara, we are serving recipes with deep roots but modified into dishes that reflect progressive Indian food,” he said.

“Some people have the perception that Indian food is always hot or spicy. Here we have a hint of spice, but the flavours we use are aromatic.

“Take our halibut dish with mangosteen and curry leaf, for example.

“If you can’t taste the delicate fish then there’s no point to eating it.

“It’s all about enjoying the tastes, textures and the ingredients in balance.

“I want to create memories for people.

“This is a fine dining, destination restaurant and that gives us a lot of opportunity to make dishes with beautiful ingredients.

“All of the time our suppliers help us.

“We have very good relationships with them and they’re always bringing us the best ingredients that are in season.

“Then we work with the spices to create the dish.

“Knowing the spices and how they work together is very important.

“Then the ingredients we receive give a body to the food.

The restaurant serves a selection of small plates

“We use a lot of turmeric. I remember my grandmother saying to me that it makes the body soft – which is why it’s put on the couple’s skin during weddings – and that’s how we use it too. 

“We cook it with meat to keep it tender and to give it flavour.

“We eat with our eyes too, so we use Kashmiri chillies, which have no flavour but such a beautiful colour and a wonderful aroma that will keep meat very red and shiny.

“Then there’s nutmeg. That helps lend a completely unique essence to food.

“That’s true of saffron too, which we use in our biryanis. 

“We cook rice and meat together from scratch with royal cumin, covering the ingredients with a dough lid, which is edible too.

“It’s quite similar to a pie in that respect.

“Then you have the star anise, they will give a flavour and sweetness and will work with anything sweet for dessert.”

Although Imamuddin isn’t averse to a bit of fusion and complexity – with gruyѐre and truffles both finding their way into some dishes – in the end he always returns to his roots.

“I think we can say the Dal Makhani is my favourite dish on the menu – the black lentil,” he said.

“It’s one of the simplest dishes on the menu, but also one of the best.” 

  • Kinaara serves a selection of small plates, starting at £10, from the grill and tandoor on its a la carte menu, while main courses start at £16.
  • One of the most popular options is the pre-show set menu served between 5pm and 7pm, Tuesday to Saturday. Diners get three courses at Kinaara for £75 per head plus a cocktail at Eighteen Sky Bar. This menu is ideal for those seeing a show at The O2, or who simply want to enjoy an early meal.

Bookings for Kinaara can be made via this link.

Imamuddin prefers gentle aromatic spice to let his ingredients shine

Read more: How the Prost8 Challenge is helping fight cancer

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to our Wharf Whispers newsletter here

- 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Property: Last chance to buy at Upper Riverside on Greenwich Peninsula

Developer Knight Dragon eyes acceleration of delivery as deal signed with contractor Mace

Upper Riverside is almost sold out at Upper Riverside
Upper Riverside is almost sold out at Upper Riverside

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

This moment represents something of a tipping point in the regeneration of Greenwich Peninsula.

There are still 20-odd apartments left in the Upper Riverside phase of Knight Dragon’s mammoth project, so for buyers this is a last chance to get in on one of the angular blocks set along the Thames. 

“That’s really been our focus for the last four years, with just over 1,000 properties and it’s very much an established community now,” said Kerri Sibson, chief operating officer at the developer.

“We launched the last building – No. 5 – just as we went into the first bout of Covid, so things stalled for a little while and then subsequently picked up.

“We have a few one-bed and two-bed homes available, so this is a last chance to buy.

“There’s a really strong sense of community across the five buildings at Upper Riverside, which is really lovely and, of course, that’s what you hope for – people who will occupy the space and make it what they want it to be.”

Homes at No. 5 Upper Riverside start at £487,500 with residents’ facilities including access to a co-working space, three gyms, multiple roof terraces and a 15th floor swimming pool.

For those who’d rather rent, No. 4 Upper Riverside offers studio, one, two and three-bedroom homes to let with starting prices ranging from £1,500pcm to £3,000pcm, a selection of contract options and the option to move in without a deposit.

“The rental operation has had a full year now and the rental market is booming, so that has performed really well for us and we’ve been really pleased,” said Kerri.

“Having that option is part of what we talk about all the time for the Peninsula, which is that you need diversity of product to keep your audience as wide as possible.

“If you have just one type of property, it quickly becomes a not very interesting place to be. Rental gives us a different clientele and it definitely feeds into our sales business.

“We haven’t been able to do it yet, but we might be on the cusp of seeing if we could do ‘Try before you buy’.

“I’d like the idea that we could have a rental offer which ultimately means that the money you’re spending on rent becomes a deposit and – although it sends our finance department into palpitations – it would be wonderful if we could achieve that.

“On the sales side, having Lower Riverside has always been the perfect counterpoint in terms of accessibility so we’re not just offering one price point.”

Knight Dragon COO Kerri Sibson
Knight Dragon COO Kerri Sibson

Knight Dragon’s approach to making sure the area it is creating appeals to buyers somewhat sets it apart.

The company has invested significantly in public space as well as an ongoing programme of art exhibitions and events, intended to attract visitors to the area and entertain the now circa 5,000 residents.

That includes the creation of The Tide – an elevated park complete with sculptures including a work by Damian Hirst.

Knight Dragon has also worked to help establish local businesses to serve those passing through, studying and living on the Peninsula, opening a diverse collection of commercial buildings at Design District in 2021.

“That’s been a great success for us,” said Kerri. “It was enormously stressful for all parties getting it launched post-Covid.

“We had businesses really excited and ready to move in and we were behind because everything had been closed for many months, but when it arrived it exceeded all out expectations.

“When we launched, we had a journalist from the BBC asking whether we were worried about people not returning to work, not coming into the office – but that’s hasn’t been our experience.

“We have such a great mix of tenants in the creative industries and they were just really desperate to get in, to collaborate and to feed off each other.

“I’ve been working on this project since Knight Dragon got involved and I’ve found that if you engage with the creative industries early on in any process, the product you come out with is so much more interesting and challenging than if you stick to a very traditional property route.

“You can end up with a very homogenised product with ‘Do Not Stand On The Grass’ signs. We didn’t want that here.”

Knight Dragon has created The Tide leading down to the Thames
Knight Dragon has created The Tide leading down to the Thames

With a total of nearly 17,500 homes in the pipeline, both residents and visitors can expect to see a ramping up of activity, as Knight Dragon prepares to announce the next phases of its project later in the year.

“We’re probably around the 30% mark in terms of completion, so there’s still an awful lot more to do,” said Kerri.

“We’ve just announced a partnership with construction firm Mace – which built Upper Riverside and The Tide – and there’s a big push forward in terms of momentum and speed of delivery. There are going to be lots of homes on their way very quickly.

“In the last four or five years, we’ve been very focused on place-making.

“The river bank, back in the day, was a desolate tarmac path that ran along the Thames, so we invested in The Tide to get people to enjoy the area.

“It was important for us that Greenwich Peninsula was not just about homes, but a balance between home and work and a place where people would want to spend time during the day.”

A show home interior at Upper Riverside
A show home interior at Upper Riverside

With Mace set to build 20 buildings as part of Knight Dragon’s 40-acre project, the exact shape of the final development cannot be set in stone.

“From an infrastructure point of view, it’s a constant game of moving things around,” said Kerri.

“When we started the project, the Silvertown Tunnel hadn’t been given the green light, so two of our buildings won’t be delivered because now that’s very much happening.

“It’s also absolutely our ambition to redevelop North Greenwich station, although we weren’t able to make our original plans for that site work.

“However, it’s important to remember, from a residents’ point of view, how well connected the Peninsula already is – London City Airport, for example, is a big plus for us.

“There’s a perception Greenwich is further away than it actually is, but once people are here they realise how well connected it actually is – just minutes from Canary Wharf and the City.”

Knight Dragon puts on numerous cultural events on the Peninsula
Knight Dragon puts on numerous cultural events on the Peninsula

Read more: How Urban Space Management wants to put homes on a bridge

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Greenwich Peninsula: How The O2’s premium offer has evolved over 15 years

The North Greenwich venue is celebrating one and a half decades in business since launch in 2007

The O2 is celebrating 15 years since its first gig
The O2 is celebrating 15 years since its first gig

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

To paraphrase the work of the late, great Prince Rogers Nelson –  it’s been 14 years and 361 days, since The O2 officially welcomed its first audience (at the time of writing).

The chords that rang out on June 24, 2007 did not come from the purple guitar of His Royal Badness – although he did play a 21-date residency at AEG’s Greenwich Peninsula venue in its inaugural year. 

That honour was taken by Bon Jovi and, as the duck-quacking riff of Livin’ On A Prayer sounded in the Arena, Matt Botten was standing in the wings.

“I’d snuck in at the side, having made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to miss it,” he said.

“I found myself standing just behind AEG president Tim Leiweke and immediately I started thinking: ‘What have I done? Should I even be here?

“But he turned round and we high-fived – it was this feeling that we’d all done it.

“It was a huge relief to hear those chords, to know everybody was in the building, that the suites were full.

“We had done it, we’d opened and we’ve never looked back.”

As head of hospitality then, and senior director of premium seating now, Matt has pretty much seen it all – making him the ideal interviewee as The O2 prepares to celebrate its 15th birthday.

“I always joke that when I finally retire or move on, there’s a book waiting to be written,” he said.

“There have been some huge events – the opening was massive and when Led Zeppelin reformed for a single show in 2007, that night was a who’s who of the music industry.

“Working on premium, I’ve been fortunate that some of my experiences have meant contact with remarkable people – just escorting the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, David Beckham and Kylie Minogue to their suites.

“But really it’s the little things that we do as a team – bringing someone a birthday cake, making those ‘wow’ moments happen. Delivering a real difference to somebody’s experience – that are huge for me.”

The O2's senior director of premium seating Matt Botten
The O2’s senior director of premium seating Matt Botten – image Matt Grayson

For a bit of context, it’s important to realise what a massive deal The O2 is.

Pandemic notwithstanding, the project has taken Richard Rogers’ vacant tent following its troubled inception as the Millennium Dome and created a venue that by 2020 had sold more tickets to events than anywhere else in the whole world, every year, for more than a decade.

Right here, in London on Greenwich Peninsula. Let that sink in. Nothing compares.

With a broader range and greater number of shows than any other arena in the UK, The O2 heads into its 15th year with a packed schedule. 

Billie Eilish, Alanis Morissette, The Kings Of Leon, Cirque Du Soleil and Haim are all set to play in the first 30 days.

 But there are also a host of sporting events in the pipeline including boxing with Chisora vs Pulev, UFC Fight Night London and the Laver Cup London with tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal scheduled to play.

“That’s what makes The O2 unique – the sheer number and variety of events,” said Matt. “It really is quite something working here – I’ve got lots of peers and friends working at sporting venues and they talk about the 30 shows they have a year. We have 25 just in June.

“That was a real game-changer in the corporate market. Everyone was used to Twickenham and Wembley, which I say with great affection because I worked at both of them.

“I sold my first T-shirt at the old Wembley Stadium with the twin towers back in 1997 outside a tribute gig marking the release of Nelson Mandela.

“Then I ended up working there full-time after my A-Levels, and then Wembley Arena, and that threw up opportunities such as spending time on the road servicing U2 tours, selling merchandise.

“Then I was at Twickenham Stadium for many years, and then moved across to The O2 when it was still a building site inside.

“For the launch, we had to educate people. Businesses could understand the value of gigs by the Rolling Stones or Queen but what about The X-Factor or Disney events? 

The American Express Lounge at The O2

“When we were launching in 2007 it was about that shift in work-life balance – if someone accepts an invitation to go to a game of football, for example, that might mean a day out of the office.

“But as a company, if you can work it so that guests can bring their whole family to an event, then you can merge the two things and over the years we’ve seen more and more use of our suites in that way.

“The companies that buy them also use them for staff incentives internally or in partnership with local organisations such as charities and schools. 

“When we opened, we had two premium products – the suites and an annual membership, which was typical for stadium venues.

“We’re proud to say, after 15 years, we still have some of  our original clients with us – some having taken suites for five or even 10 years initially. 

“But since then, a lot has changed – our smallest suite has 15 seats and, if you imagine 180 shows a year times 15, that’s a lot of invites to ensure you’re getting people down and making the most of your investment.”

The two levels of suites offer commanding views over the stage
The two levels of suites offer commanding views over the stage

An evolving business landscape and a resurgent experience economy has seen The O2 expand and develop its premium offerings in concert with those two core strands, meaning there are now more ways to experience high-end hospitality and personal luxury at the venue than ever.

“This is particularly pertinent post-Covid,” said Matt. “We’ll see if it continues, because people’s disposable income at the moment is being squeezed in all areas.

However, with people having been locked down for 18 months to two years, there seems to have been this shift from an emphasis on buying physical possessions to buying experiences.

“We’ve seen more individuals thinking that, if they’re going out, they want to make it a night to remember.

“The corporate suites are a large part of our business, but the direction we’re going in is to make them and a range of other premium experiences available to far more people.

“Even before the pandemic, there was demand for smaller numbers, simpler products – options akin to a season ticket at a football ground.

“We’ve seen smaller businesses buying into this too – they can use two, four or six seats at every event where they would struggle to deal with 20.”

This shift has resulted in a collection of products including whole suite hire for a specific event, Encore Seats offering individuals tickets to 10 shows a year, plus the option to buy more in the members’ area of the venue close to the stage and, for businesses, the chance to buy a number of seats in a shared suite for a set period of time.

The venue also offers American Express Advantage tickets to the credit card company’s customers guaranteeing seats right by the stage.

These and several of the other premium options also grant access to the luxury American Express Lounge, which offers live music, cocktails and food on event days.

The current crop of premium options – with more in the pipeline – reflects the venue’s increasingly relaxed approach to its model, something typified by the freedom its suite clients have to design their spaces.

Matt said: “Back in 2007 we were probably a little bit more corporate.

“Today our customers want to bring their brand identity into their space and we understand that. 

“Companies inviting people to events need to get a return on their investment and those attending need to know who’s invited them, so we work with them and they can do pretty much anything. 

“I have this idea that we’ll end up with the most eclectic collection of suites in the UK. We have some very corporate ones and one from a partner who’s just come on board that has a shuffleboard table in it.”

Suites at The O2 offer a range of attractions including a dedicated bar
Suites at The O2 offer a range of attractions including a dedicated bar

Read more: How The O2 is fixing the hole in its roof

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life

Greenwich: How The O2 is fixing its roof having reopened its doors to visitors

Peninsula venue was mostly up and running a week after Storm Eunice, with part of Icon now trading

Storm Eunice ripped off part of The O2's roof
Storm Eunice ripped off part of The O2’s roof – image Matt Grayson

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

The holes ripped in the roof of The O2 by viscous winds instantly became the defining image of Storm Eunice as it tore across England on February 18, 2022.

In total eight out of the 72 segments that make up the dome were damaged, leaving a gaping hole in the eighth largest building in the world. 

Thankfully nobody was injured at the venue and while 6,000sq m of roof was missing it took staff a week to reopen the majority of the venue so concerts could resume and the attractions of Entertainment Avenue could start trading again.

A month after the storm, a section of outlet shopping centre Icon At The O2 also reopened, recently welcoming a new store from menswear brand Skopes

While the bulk of the retail destination remains closed as it is located directly under the hole, work to temporarily weatherproof the gap continues apace. 

Full access is expected for shoppers in early May, once the venue is watertight and any damage to the units below has been repaired. 

With trading already strong in the reopened section, that’s something Icon’s managing director Janine Constantin-Russell can’t wait for.

Icon At The O2 managing director Janine Constantin-Russell
Icon At The O2 managing director Janine Constantin-Russell

“I think we felt particularly tested because we’d opened our doors again and we were seeing such strength in our numbers after restrictions eased,” she said.

“To have to stop again felt particularly trying. But there’s definitely been a sense of cameraderie about it.

“Our teams have been fantastic – to open up the entertainment district and the arena a week to the day after the storm happened was an amazing feat – and then to open 22 stores at Icon in March was even more incredible.

“The press that we’ve had from Storm Eunice has been kind and sympathetic and we’ve had such lovely support from our local customers who have come to have a look and have supported us by spending their money here.

“In some ways it’s been an opportunity to open our door a little bit wider, to say: ‘We’re here, we’re made of sturdy stuff but these things happen’. We’ve been able to show the best we can do.”

Icon At The O2 has partially reopened with full access expected in May
Icon At The O2 has partially reopened with full access expected in May – image Matt Grayson

In addition to Skopes, more openings are in the pipeline with brands selling high performance sportswear and homeware expected to launch when the remaining section of the venue is back in business. 

“We would say that mass media attention on The O2 is such that we have never been so busy from a lettings perspective,” said Janine.

“We’ve been showing potential tenants around literally in hard hats as the units we’ve got available are under the part of the Icon affected by the repair work.

“Without exception, all of our businesses have seen improvement since the changes in Covid restrictions.

“On average sales are up 50%-60% on 2019 and we’ve seen those numbers come through straight away.

“But what we’re seeing is not necessarily a pent-up demand, it’s like a return to what people missed out on.

“It was fantastic to have online shopping during the pandemic and everyone’s now found a place for how they manage that – how it makes their life more convenient.

“It also means people have a bit more time to spend picking up luxuries and making decisions in store – so what we’ve ended up with is this really discerning customer who’s enjoying shopping and spending their time and money doing that.

“What we’ve seen is that the brands are curating their stores better to make sure they’re giving those people what they want.”

Activities are also a key draw with the likes of football venue Toca Social, Boom Battle Bar, Oxygen Freejumping soon to be joined by indoor skydiving venue iFly, which recently won planning permission to build a facility to the north of the dome.

“In other locations iFly attracts 150,000 visitors a year, so we’re super happy about that,” said Janine.

“As for the future, we always want to think big. For example, the venue’s roof climbing experience – Up At The O2 – is such an exciting thing, anything we do has to equal or top that.

“It has to have that wow factor and we’re pursuing lots of lines of enquiry to make sure whatever we do will be amazing.

“We quite like the idea of zip lines – we’ve seen some on the inside of venues and that would be super-cool.”

Executive vice president real estate and development at AEG Europe, Alistair Wood
Executive vice president real estate and development at AEG Europe, Alistair Wood

FABRIC FIX – REPAIRING THE ROOF

As executive vice president real estate and development at AEG Europe (the company that owns The O2), Alistair Wood is responsible for overseeing the project to repair the damage wrought by Storm Eunice.

“There was nothing at all we could do on the February 18 so we reconvened the following day and the extent of the damage was quite frightening,” he said.

“It was a disaster rescue situation and we had to respond very quickly, which we did, making some very good, rapid decisions.

“We had to postpone two concerts in the week after the storm but we focused on making sure the UB40 show in the arena took place on February 25 because, having just come out of the pandemic, we couldn’t tolerate any further delays.

“In the end the two postponed concerts by Dave took place a week after they were supposed to happen, so phase one was a great success.

Now we’ve been focusing on getting the venue waterproof and we want to be finished with that by Easter.

“Initially we’ll be installing a temporary roof that will be in place for the next year or two.

That’s because the material – PTFE – is quite specialised and in quite high demand so there’s about a 12-month lead time on orders.

“Generally we’re pleased with how quickly we’ve been able to get going again but we’re not understating how harrowing that Saturday morning was.

“The buildings at Icon aren’t designed to stand outside so our biggest challenge has been water coming into the venue.

“It has rained very heavily for a couple of days and, while we have scaffolding up that supports a canopy across the buildings to achieve a degree of protection, some still gets in.

“We’re now working with all our tenants to identify the damage and refit the units where necessary and then get us fully reopened in early May.

“Fortunately there was no damage to the structure that holds up the dome, so for the canopy it’s just a case of hooking the material to that and welding a waterproof seal over the top.

“In the wider venue, it’s great to be coming out of the pandemic and we should be pumping out a record couple of years in the arena and that will support the hospitality and retail venues.

“We’re really upbeat about how things are going and our fingers are crossed for a clear run now to allow Icon to get some momentum alongside the rest of the site.

“All the current attractions are bringing their own footfall but also sharing that audience and that has always been the point of The O2.

It operates as a composite destination so you can spend your whole day there.”

Looking ahead, hopefully that’s the last of the holes.

Workers repairing the damage over Icon At The O2
Workers repairing the damage over Icon At The O2 – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Humble Grape in Canary Wharf is raising its food game

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

Subscribe To Wharf Life