After London Book Fair's first year at ExCeL, The Bookseller asks what worked and what did not

<p>Liz Bury</p><p>"If levels of business were down, then that would be worrying," says Alistair Burtenshaw, Reed Exhibitions group director of retail, in response to criticism of the London Book Fair's move to ExCeL this year. "But that is not the case. The number and quality of people attending was excellent."</p><p>While he and Emma House, new LBF manager, do not wish to dismiss criticism of the show's new venue, they believe that the amount of business done there speaks for itself. "We got the business-critical stuff absolutely right--we delivered the audience," Burtenshaw says.</p><p>Total attendance was up 5.3%, visitor numbers rose 3.2%, and the amount of floor space booked increased 22%; indeed pressure on space was the main reason given by Reed for moving the fair to ExCeL in the first place. LBF organisers point to the success of its 110 seminars, many packed to the point of standing room only.</p><p>"We did tons of healthy rights business and met a lot of publishers from abroad," Noel Murphy, Faber marketing director, says. "It's always good if you can walk away and think how good business has been." Faber hosted a champagne party on its stand for author Jane Harris and her overseas publishers, and took tables in the International Rights Centre, with 44 staff attending the show.</p><p>Of the new venue, Murphy says: "It's an exhibition centre. I don't see that much difference from Olympia. We didn't feel particularly put off by it--we were there for the books."</p><p>Tim Godfray, c.e.o. of the Booksellers Association, sponsor of LBF, says his members report "good business being done", and that the BA's Small Business Forum events were the "best ever".</p><p>A scene from Dante's 'Inferno' </p><p>But the event came under fire from many quarters of the book trade. "I was truly embarrassed that this was the best London, and Britain, could offer," Larry Finlay, Transworld m.d., says. "Lighting, heat, stuffiness--everything was bad. Every meeting I had was hijacked by complaints about the venue."</p><p>Feedback from literary agents, who spent most of the fair in the much-maligned International Rights Centre, is equally critical. Agent Carole Blake, whose table was situated by the IRC's entrance, was "freezing for all three days", being in the path of a cold wind even after a screen was put up to shield the centre from draughts. "The whole IRC needs to be overhauled," she says.</p><p>Criticisms of the rights hall include its lack of drinking water; lack of visible clocks; an insufficient number of rubbish bins; the "headache-inducing" bright yellow carpet that "created a very edgy atmosphere in which to work"; and tables placed too close together. Agent Ed Victor describes it as "soulless", and like a scene from Dante's Inferno, while Blake saw a "gigantic Dickensian typing pool--just a featureless, squashed-together sea of tables".</p><p>Burtenshaw--who holds up his hands over the offending IRC carpet, promising it will be better next year--and House believe that the majority of concerns about ExCeL are "teething troubles", and pledge that they will be sorted out by 2007.</p><p>A roster of planned improvements to the IRC includes a deluxe option for a higher price, including waitress service, better furniture, a private VIP lounge, and greater privacy.</p><p>"Some problems are hard to predict until you work that venue," Burtenshaw says. "Everything can be corrected." Everything will need to be, according to Finlay: "It was bad in every respect--the stupid basics, like the toilets and the catering, were just not up to it. The DLR was dangerous and overcrowded." </p><p> </p><p>Beauty and the books</p><p>Many complaints fired at LBF at ExCeL reflect in part its scheduling alongside Professional Beauty. Visitor numbers for the beauty show, which is open to the public as well as the beauty trade, were 20,400 on Sunday 12th March, 14,460 on Monday and 7,678 on Tuesday.</p><p>"Sharing the venue with Professional Beauty was not an ideal scenario," Burtenshaw admits. "It has hugely dense footfall. But we had to make a choice: did we want to go in alongside another fair, or in early February?" LBF says that decisions were made only after extensive consultation with the industry.</p><p>Overcrowding put extra pressure on food outlets in the Boulevard, ExCeL's central corridor serving visitors to both shows, leading to long queues and a shortage of food and drink. Professional Beauty's 90% female attendance also created huge demand for the ladies' loos. "They hadn't properly anticipated what was needed to cater for the two fairs, which were both from female-dominated industries," Blake says. "Many of us were forced to use the men's loos, which wasn't particularly pleasant for us or for them."</p><p>"We pushed for the maximum catering, including three big catering units in the upper level," Burtenshaw responds. "We hired the Silver Sturgeon boat. We spent time and money putting on extra catering, which other fairs don't do." Concerns about catering may fade over time as people "get their bearings in the venue", he adds. </p><p> Next year, LBF will take over both of ExCeL's main halls, filling roughly two-thirds of the venue. "We have already negotiated Professional Beauty out of our slot next year," Burtenshaw says. The remaining empty space is currently unbooked, and, although ExCeL reserves the right to sign up another show to fill the area, Burtenshaw promises that, if this happens, it will have "nothing like the footfall of Professional Beauty".</p><p>By taking space on both sides of the venue, LBF will secure visitors access to ExCeL's riverside catering points and waterfront seminar rooms with views of Canary Wharf. Extra space will also enable LBF to widen the aisles between stands, addressing criticism that the halls were cramped and aisles too narrow, even though, as Burtenshaw notes, "the irony is that the aisles were actually the same size as in Olympia".</p><p>Questions remain over whether the expansion will be enough to pacify angry exhibitors; publishing solutions providers have already raised concerns about the 2007 floorplan. </p><p> Booksellers bemoan "lousy" signage relating to aisles, stands and theatres, which confused those trying to locate The Bookseller Briefing Session immediately on arrival at the venue on Sunday morning. </p><p>Polly Powell, Anova Books publishing director, found the "complicated numbering system and too-narrow corridors" frustrating. "The corridors are important for business, because that's where people meet unexpectedly. This year, there was just hustle and bustle as people pushed their way through," she says. Clearer overhead signage is promised for next year.</p><p>Poor heating and ventilation also caused frustrations, as turning up the heat to warm the chilly IRC resulted in sweltering conditions in the main hall. Walls between the two zones will be closed up next year to improve temperature control, although this will prevent direct access between the two.</p><p>Travel to east London was always going to elicit grumbles from those who live close to the show's former venue in west London, but the usual annoyances of public transport were exacerbated as the platform at Canning Town became jammed with bodies during rush hour. "DLR was running a maximum capacity service of 18 trains an hour. That's much better than the Olympia spur--people forget," Burtenshaw says.</p><p>Car parking was challenging, with long queues for entry on the busy Sunday and, in the evening, a 40-minute standstill as exit gates jammed. "It took me an hour to park on the first day," Powell says. "On day two, I used the boat. You have a 50/50 chance of getting a boat with a bar, plus one of the most spectacular views in the world--London from the water. It was half empty. It's my hot tip."</p><p>Travel links to ExCeL are "getting better all the time", Burtenshaw says, as preparations continue for the 2012 Olympic Games to be held in east London. A new 1,700-space pay and display car park will open at ExCeL in time for next year, and plans to link Stratford DLR station to the Eurostar are in hand.</p><p>Will LBF 2007 deliver what the industry wants? Reed says "yes". And with a rebel group of agents forming the Salon de Refus, a separate spring rights gathering at the Arts Club in Mayfair, the pressure is on to deliver. Finlay says of LBF: "We'll go because we have to be there, but overseas visitors won't come back. It's just not an enjoyable experience."</p><p>One option raised by disgruntled exhibitors is for LBF to move back to Olympia, or to find a completely new venue for the future. "I'd like to know where everyone would fit in Olympia," Burtenshaw says. "We consulted widely with the industry about its vision for the future. ExCeL is a world-class venue. I absolutely believe that ExCeL offers the best possible option for LBF in the long term."</p><p>Mutterings that Reed has a vested interest in keeping the show at ExCeL are shot down. "Reed owns less than 1% of ExCeL shares--it was a peppercorn investment to get the venue off the ground, and is of no significance whatsoever," he says. "And we in no way, shape or form get preferential terms."</p><p>Of this year's trials, Burtenshaw says: "After 19 years at Olympia, it would be naive to expect no teething troubles. But we got the business-critical factors right, the quality of the people." As part of its measures for 2007, LBF will introduce a Global Publishing Leaders Forum, a half-day, high-level conference and networking event to be held at the Four Seasons Hotel, Canary Wharf, on the Friday before the show.</p><p>Some critics, at least, agree that the majority of problems were first-year blues. Blake, arguably among the worst affected in the IRC, says: "A sensible, collaborative discussion with the organisers, both of LBF and ExCeL, is what's needed. I feel that LBF was let down by ExCeL."</p><p>But Finlay is yet to be convinced. He says: "Move back to Olympia, please--I don't think it's salvageable at ExCeL. If it is to be at ExCeL, my God, they've got some work to do."</p>