You may have known it as the National Indoor Arena (NIA) or the home of Saturday night TV show Gladiators, or even in its current incarnation as the Barclaycard Arena, but one thing is for sure, it is a major destination in Europe’s live entertainment network.
Conceived to be the premier destination for indoor sporting events, Birmingham’s 15,890-capacity Barclaycard Arena has grown over the past 25 years to become a principle destination in for live music too.
“We are within 90 minutes’ reach of 80 per cent of the UK population,” says Phil Mead, MD of Arenas at NEC Group, which operates the venue alongside the city’s Genting Arena (cap.15,500).
“This puts us at the heart of the majority of domestic and international tours and contributes to the Midland’s position as the strongest entertainment market outside of London.”
With a 15,800 maximum capacity, the Arena has welcomed over 16.5 million people through the doors since its opening, with its first event being the Festival of Sport in October 1991, which sold 26,386 tickets across five days.
As host to the most World Championship events in Europe, sport is still close to the Arena’s heart, but music, comedy, theatre and family entertainment have become increasingly important.
At around 35 per cent of all activity at the venue, music makes the most of the arena’s flexibility with large-scale productions such as that of Madonna’s, making use of the generous roof heigh.
At the same time, the Arena was one of the pioneers of the so-called Academy format, which sees the capacity reduced to 3,000-4,000, enabling a much wider range of artistes to step into the world of arenas.
As such, the venue has welcomed artistes including Justin Bieber, The Police, Ellie Goulding, Lionel Richie, Muse, Years & Years and Jeff Lynne’s ELO, with Biffy Clyro, Bastille, Rod Stewart and The Pet Shop Boys also set to appear.
Paul Roberts, MD of Phil McIntyre Entertainment, knows the history of the arena better than most, having been responsible for one of the first shows there.
“It was The Moscow State Circus, which featured a lot of horses,” he says. “It did very well, it was a great opening attraction for the venue. I remember giving out leaflets at an open day they had for the good people of Birmingham, to show them this fantastic new facility.”
“We have a strong bond with the place,” continues Roberts, who still works with the venue on shows such as the Strictly Come Dancing Live tour, and Queen + Adam Lambert. “They’re a great team of people and there’s always a show to go in the Arena – it’s very versatile with it being in the city centre.”
Also responsible for one of the Barclaycard Arena’s first big shows is Phil Bowdery, president of touring international at Live Nation Entertainment. Aida had a cast of around 300, plus live camels, and kick-started a relationship that has seen shows by Prince, Fleetwood Mac and Madonna.
“One thing that they’ve been able to do since its conception has been get in a great management team and that goes through until today. It’s still one of the better venues to play in the country,” says Bowdery.
Part of that is down to the approach that management have adopted from early on. “They were the first real arena that got professional for want of a better word,” says Bowdery.
“The team realised they had to provide a service to promoters, to ticket buyers, to the artistes and they stepped up. They were the first to really look at how they could improve things for everybody, cared about the dressing rooms, and how the crew get in, and the catering facilities – the normal things we all take for granted to run a show now. Back in those days they were pioneers of putting that in.”
Those high standards have continued with the Arena completing a £26 million redevelopment programme in 2014. The 18-month project has improved all areas of the arena, including increasing audience capacity. It was also at this time that the venue took on the Barclaycard Arena name.
The new look venue was officially launched by Michael Bublé to a sell-out crowd,in December 2014. Shortly after Queen + Adam Lambert put the new attendance capacity to good use with an audience of 15,068.
“It was undeniably one of the largest challenges I’ve faced whilst working for the NEC Group,” says Mead. “Keeping the venue open whilst works took place was an operational minefield. I have a lot to thank my team for; it wouldn’t have been half the success it was without their hard work and dedication,”
He counts Bruno Mars and Yonex All England Badminton Championships among his favourite events at the Arena.
The development has created a wider concourse with nearly 6000m² of pre and post show space, comfier seating, more toilets and food and beverage offerings, plus luxury hospitality areas.
“It’s been a huge success, very well received by the public, but also by promoters and artistes,” confirms Guy Dunstan, general manager of NEC Group Arenas whose standout concerts over the years include one by The Police. “We’ve seen our event levels growing and that’s been just down to how well received it’s been across the industry.
“Facilities that are designed now are very different to the ones designed 25 years ago, and it was clear after we redeveloped the Genting Arena that we really needed to do something at the Barclaycard Arena to replicate that level of customer experience.
“Customers have got enhanced expectations when coming into an arena because they’re paying a lot more for their tickets. Also, the audiences are more diverse as well, so it’s really important that when people come into our venue they feel they are being well looked after and in a facility that fits the activity they are coming to see,” he says.
The redevelopment didn’t only focus on the customer side of things though. One of the first item to be completed was an upgrade to the backstage facilities, including dressing rooms, to make them five-star.
“Quite often for an artiste, their own view or impression of Birmingham may be that dressing room, their route to the stage and then the stage and the arena bowl, so it was really important to us to create an environment where anyone who is working or performing feels they are in a prestige environment and well looked after in the facility,” explains Dunstan.
Promoter SJM Concerts has worked with the NEC Group for around 20 years, so has seen the venue before and after the works.
“I think the team has done a good job on the renovations so they should be applauded for that,” says MD Simon Moran.
“For certain types of gigs having such a big standing capacity works really well, such as dance and rock, and we’ve done some really great gigs for Faithless and The Prodigy there.”
A legacy of the Birmingham bid for the Olympics in 1990, the wider impact of the Barclaycard Arena in the local area is also hard to ignore.
“When the arena was built it was one of the catalysts for the regeneration of that part of Birmingham. Cities like Birmingham really do need a vibrancy about them and the arena adds to that mix,” says Dunstan.
“It is so important to the city that we are generating that economic spend and bringing visitors in from all over the world, people who wouldn’t necessarily come to the city.”
Doris Dixon of Marshall Arts, who has worked with the Arena for over 15 years, says Birmingham is the must-go-to city outside of London with an artiste.
“It is important to acknowledge all the venues in the NEC Group in their development in all forms of entertainment in Birmingham, and their impact over past decades,” she adds.
“The team at the venue have always been good to work with, they have a nothing is too much to ask for attitude. They’re a pleasure to work with and pro-active across the board.”
Over the years the Barclaycard Arena has also forged close relationships with companies throughout Birmingham. Neon Arena Services has been working with the venue since the company’s launch in 2002, and has found it a springboard to gaining other work across the UK.
“The work and contacts we have made at the Arena have allowed us to work all over the UK and we now have a fantastic client base on the back of it,” says Neon MD Neil East, whose own relationship with the NIA goes back to 1992.
The company provides support for all music events, including rigging and de-rigging the stages, the seating blocks and crowd barriers, and unloading. For East the flexibility of the Arena is its best attribute, with Neon also delivering equipment and support on sports events.
“The venue is very well known throughout the UK, and wherever we work, other riggers, crew and venues always speak very well of it,” he says.
CMI has held the merchandise concession at the Barclaycard Arena since 1999. Head of concessions Laura Hartas has had an even longer relationship with the venue having worked there since it opened.
“It’s a great venue team with really strong team spirit. The people who work there are great at what they do and since the refurbishment I think it’s a great place for a night out,” she syas.
It seems this is reflected in merch sales with Hartas noting that CMI has had some record-breaking shows at the Arena, including Justin Bieber, One Direction, Iron Maiden, WWE, 5 Seconds of Summer and local lads Black Sabbath.
Paul Stratford, MD of equipment and production company The Cloud One Group, is also full of praise too. “The in-house technical team is excellent and we recommend all our clients to them.
“We’ve had numerous events at the venue where last-minute clients come in and expect the earth in 24 hours, and it makes a lot of difference as the team will always bend over backwards to try and help you out,” he continues.
Alongside its venue business, the NEC Group operates national ticketing agency The Ticket Factory and catering company Amadeus, which includes hospitality brand Amplify.
Amadeus has delivered catering services to the NEC venues for over 40 years, as well as working with 15 other venues across the UK. The recent refurbishment has improved and increased this offering considerably, but for catering general manager Nick Cole, it’s the group mindset that makes the biggest difference.
“As we are all part of the NEC Group, everyone works to the same values which is hugely beneficial. We have a great understanding of what is needed and ultimately we have the same goal – to make the visitors experience as positive as possible and enhance the pre-show experience, leaving it a lasting memory along with the great acts we see coming here,” he says.
It’s a similar story at The Ticket Factory, which was born out of the original box office for the two arenas, in 2007. Having since considerable expanded its reach, it now sells around 2.5 million tickets a year, of which only 800,000 are arena tickets.
“It’s interesting that you’ve got two businesses, The Ticket Factory and the arenas, but they’re all part of the same group,” says Ticket Factory MD Stuart Cain. “There are benefits in that as we can look more creatively as a partner about how we structure deals and put things together, versus perhaps a more traditional relationship where the venue and the ticketing agent haven’t got any link.”
This relationship has also enabled the NEC Group to implement innovative schemes around disabled access and secondary ticketing to the benefit of its visitors.
Although the anniversary is a major milestone in its history, publically it is business as usual for the Barclaycard Arena.
“We’re keeping it fairly low-key because we’re currently looking for a new naming rights partner, so we don’t confuse the message for the customer we’ve taken the decision that we’re not going to have any special events to market,” explains Dunstan.
“What we are very keen to do is publically thank all our partners, so that’s where we are focusing our attentions in terms of celebrating the 25th anniversary. We wouldn’t be able to be as successful as we are opened without all of those partners, the promoters, the agents, the artistes and the stakeholders.”
Echoing that sentiment, Mead explains that there is more to come: “In the next 25 years, I hope to maintain our position in the premier league of arenas, and as an expert in our industry. We’ll be broadening the range of daily activity at the arena to create a destination, and extend the current boardwalk and retail offering. We’ll also be exploring the addition of a visitor attraction.”
It’s not just the NEC Group that wants to see the venue continue to thrive though.
“Everyone at the Barclaycard Arena should be very proud of the accomplishments of the past 25 years and I have no doubt we will be toasting many more anniversaries in the years to come,” says Steven Armstrong, VP of Europe at Feld Entertainment, which has been presenting family shows at the arena for over two decades.
Or as Phil Bowdery puts it: “Love the place, long may it continue.”