The opening of The O2 arena on June 24, 2007 was a game changing moment for the UK live events industry,not least the arena sector. Fifteen years on and the venue’s ongoing importance and popularity remain undiminished. Access explores the venue’s evolution and AEG’s plans for its future.
In June this year, 15-years to the month since Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) opened the doors of The O2 arena, the venue enjoyed its busiest month to date.
Every year since it opened The O2 has been among the busiest arenas in the world, so for AEG to break the arena’s monthly events record 15 years down the line was no mean feat and speaks volumes about its continued status.
In what proved to be an incredibly busy month for the arena, The O2 hosted 25 shows in June, including six nights of Billie Eilish and 10 concerts by Queen + Adam Lambert.
“It was our best month ever, phenomenal in terms of audience reach, and the work we did with Reverb and Billie Eilish on the multi-day Overheated climate-focused event was hugely important,” says AEG Europe chief operating officer John Langford (pictured) – who oversees the company’s many arenas across the region including The O2.
The momentum shows no sign of slackening; with more than 220 event days planned at the venue in 2023, Langford says it will be The O2’s busiest year yet.
Over the past 15 years there have been countless developments and landmark moments at The O2 arena itself, as well as elsewhere within and indeed on top of the 80,000 square-metre white tent-like structure that encompasses it.
Among the many key musical moments were Bon Jovi performing on the roof to launch the venue, Led Zeppelin’s triumphant return, the many artist residencies that kicked off with Prince’s remarkable 21-night stint in 2007, and 12 years later saw the venue’s name changed to The O3 for Drake’s seven shows there.
Since the launch of Up at The O2 in 2000 it has been possible to climb on the roof of the building and enjoy live performances, as well as the view, and when the pandemic hit, a virtual version of the venue was created for online game Fortnite, with players able to explore the arena ahead of an in-game gig.
There have also been countless key family and comedy shows as well as sports events including the ATP World Tour Finals, London Olympics gymnastics and NBA Basketball. It has been home to The BRIT Awards since 2011, and in 2020 The O2 arena played its part in the battle against Covid-19 by being transformed into an NHS training facility for 44 days.
There has been much water along the nearby River Thames since Tony Blair’s Labour Government poured close to £800 million into building the Millennium Dome to house its ill-fated Millennium Experience project.
The Philip Anschutz-backed Meridian Delta consortium’s successful bid to lease the Dome for 999 years, and the resulting deal with AEG, not only led to the birth of The O2 but the transformation of the entire Greenwich Peninsula.
Architects HOK Sport and engineering consultancy Buro Happold were responsible for designing and building the £600m The O2 arena, a process that involved the construction of a 4,000-tonne roof that had to be prefabricated in situ on the floor of the Dome. It was then jacked up into place, as it was not possible to use cranes within the existing structure.
When the arena finally opened it sent shockwaves throughout the industry, it immediately led the UK arena field by some distance, not least in terms of the consumer experience, the quality of the sound and sight lines, but also the facilities available to production staff and artists.
“It was game changing,” says Langford. “It completely changed the way tours are booked in Europe because, without a doubt, any arena tour coming through Europe anchors itself first with the availability of The O2. It added a whole new level of customer service and a focus on the artists that we had not seen previously outside of North America.
“The arrival of The O2 revolutionised the way the business was done and underscored the fact London could be the greatest live music market in the world.”
The arena’s launch involved a ground-breaking naming rights deal with telecoms group O2. It not only ensured the availability of high-end digital connectivity in the venue but resulted in an innovative ticket pre-sale initiative.
AEG Global Partnerships executive vice president Paul Samuels was integral to the creation of the £6 million-per-year naming rights deal for the venue back in 2005 when he was head of sponsorship at O2.
At O2, Samuels negotiated sponsorship deals with the likes of Arsenal Football Club and the national England Rugby Union team but a multi-faceted naming rights partnership with a venue such as The O2 had not been attempted before in the UK.
Gareth Griffiths director of partnerships and sponsorships at Virgin Media O2 has been working with The O2 for the past decade and oversees the relationship. He says his proudest moment was successfully negotiating a 10-year extension to the naming rights deal to 2028.
“Back in 2005 you didn’t have naming rights deals at venues, so it was a very innovative and brave step for the business,” he says. “It took some convincing over many, many months, with Paul taking lots of trips to America to look at venues and speak with AEG. There were also lots of conversations with our shareholder Telefónica in Spain, because it was such a big commitment.
“It is easy to look back now and see what a huge success it’s been but at the time it was a big investment and a big risk. We got kicked back a couple of times internally but got there in the end and signed the deal in late 2005 and the venue opened two years later.”
O2’s customer reward scheme Priority was born out of the partnership with AEG. It now involves an array of offers but was launched as Priority Tickets, an offering providing O2 customers with an exclusive 48-hour window to buy tickets for shows at The O2 before they went on general sale. Pre-sale ticket offers are widespread now but when Priority Tickets launched nothing like it existed in the market.
“From a promoter perspective; suddenly you had a partner that was able to market tickets on your behalf and that game changed the way tickets were sold not just for the UK but right across Europe,” says Langford.
While the initiative was an obvious benefit to O2 customers, Griffiths says the music industry took some convincing to get behind it: “It was a very hard sell. I hear stories that the first O2 Priority Tickets pre-sales did a few hundred tickets but now we are shipping nearly a million tickets a year. So, it’s progressed massively in that 15 years and now pre-sales are part of the everyday ticketing business in the UK.”
The O2 VP and general manager Steve Sayer says the partnership with O2 has also been hugely important in enabling the provision of robust connectivity: “We put in one of the first high-density Wi-Fi networks in the venue about eight years ago, which was a big step up at the time – suddenly you had 15,000 One Direction fans able to concurrently stream content to their social media.”
”The O2 was the first place we installed O2 5G,” says Griffiths. “When we have new connectivity technology, we bring it to The O2 first. Wherever you go in The O2 complex you’ve got great connectivity.”
In June last year Liberty Global and Telefónica formed a joint venture via the merger of their respective Virgin Media and O2 UK businesses. Griffiths was recently involved in securing a deal that saw Virgin Media become the broadband, TV and gaming partner of The O2. As a result, Virgin Media will open a new studio space at the venue and connect the arena to its gigabit broadband network.
“Customer experience at The O2 is what sets it apart, and the connectivity is such an important part of that especially now all the ticketing has moved to digital,” he says.
AXS All Areas
AXS ticketing director Paul Newman joined the AXS team in August 2014 following eight years overseeing ticketing operations at The O2. AXS had launched in the US in 2010 and went live at The O2 in 2012. When it took on the ticketing at the arena, AXS was part owned by AEG, in September 2019 AEG acquired it fully.
“We’re a global company, we have hundreds of clients worldwide, but being so close to AEG and The O2 day in day out means that we can work with them on development.
We launched our digital ticket and our re-sale in this country with them. The O2 gets our most cutting-edge technology before anybody else in the UK,” says Newman.
The award-winning AXS Mobile ID tech was launched at The O2 arena last year. It enables customers who purchase tickets from AXS or other agents such as Ticketmaster, Eventim, Ticketzone, See Tickets and Gigantic to instantly receive and access their tickets through The O2’s venue app, which was built by Realife Tech.
Touts have also been squeezed out at The O2 due to the digital tickets having QR codes that refresh every 59 seconds, meaning that the loophole for screenshotting digital tickets has been closed. Meanwhile, AXS Official Resale technology provides the option to resell tickets at face value with a cap of no more than 10% above the original price paid.
Newman says that AXS’s long-standing affiliation with The O2 has paid significant dividends: “When we’re talking to prospective clients, the fact that we run the ticketing for The O2 is massive for us because if you can run the ticketing for The O2 you can do the ticketing for any arena in the UK, probably worldwide, because it’s so complex – with the suites and the VIP club and varying levels of premium that they have.”
The UK arena landscape has been transformed since the unveiling of The O2 in 2007, with the arrival of new buildings and existing venues being thoroughly overhauled, but continual investment in the East London venue has helped maintain its market position.
“We invest in the venue every year rather than waiting for one big moment,” says Sayer. “We have made investments on level one and level four to improve the bars and the concession areas, we’ve upgraded our backstage facilities a couple of times and continued to upgrade the Wi-Fi network.”
He says forthcoming changes include the fitting of a new “arenamotion” central LED display ribbon circling the arena bowl that can be synched to show productions, and an upgraded content management system. There are also enhancements in the pipeline to the premium offering, including the creation of a “super club” at suite level.
“We are talking to promoters, agents and artists about opportunities to improve the backstage experience; that’s really important to us,” says Sayer. “We’re also looking at developing our premium offering. Since we came back from the pandemic the appetite for VIP experiences and premium experiences is really strong and we want to capitalise on that.”
Down to earth
Langford and Sayer speak passionately about the need to reduce the 20,000-capacity venue’s environmental impact. Initiatives include the use of recyclable paper cups and recycled PET fabric wristbands to reduce single-use plastic consumption. Plastic bags have been removed from merchandise units, and water dispensers for fans are being installed for visitors who are encouraged to bring soft, reusable bottles.
The O2 has been working to gain AGF’s A Greener Arena certification, which involves a full audit of the venue team’s sustainability practices.
Says Sayer, “We expect to get that certification through towards the end of the summer. The review covers all aspects of the business; carbon emissions, waste and recycling, systems processes, and delves into our D&I initiatives – it’s a broad spectrum.”
The O2 is also working with AGF to establish a scientific baseline for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions before publishing a plan to reach Net Zero.
Says Langford, “That is ground-breaking in that most venues and most businesses tend to only look at scope 1 and 2, which are their own impacts and not the third-party impacts of everybody from customers travelling to the venue to your suppliers.
“The report, to be published this year, will show our scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. I believe the most impactful thing that we do over the next 10 years when it comes to sustainability is figuring out our scope 3 emissions and reducing that impact as much as we can.”
Having switched to a vegan-only food offering during Billie Eilish’s six shows at the venue in June, The O2 asked its catering partner Levy to permanently remove beef burgers from menus.
A few months ago, Levy extended its contract with The O2 until 2030. It’s a partnership that Langford says involves a mutual commitment to making significant reductions to their environmental footprint. Levy has committed to reaching Net Zero on its F&B work at The O2 by 2025.
Levy UK & Ireland MD Jonathan Davies says the move to a vegan only offering during the Eilish shows was well received: “Food and drink has a big impact on the carbon footprint at The O2. We have been working closely with the team for some time and had already done a lot of work in the background but hadn’t planned doing fully vegan menus. Billie’s fanbase are engaged with the issues and the response was fantastic, food sales were up on an average show basis.”
Among the other actions being taken is a move to 100% seasonal sourcing for all menus by the end of 2022.
“We are asking chefs to be more creative and understanding of the seasons,” says Davies. “We don’t want air freighted fruit and veg in our business so we have to work harder to use the produce that is available. Seasonal food tastes better, it costs less and supports local communities.”
Levy is working with Klimato to calculate, communicate and report the climate impact of the food available for fans to purchase at The O2, with the aim of helping them to make sustainable choices. The partnership will see all food sold in The O2 clearly labelled with its carbon footprint.
Talent is everything
Programming at The O2 is overseen by Emma Bownes. Aside from touring shows, the venue is building a series of landmark annual events across sports, music and comedy.
Described by Sayer as “the Ryder Cup of tennis”, the Laver Cup will be held at The O2 for the first time from 23-25 September, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray among the players in Team Europe.
‘That will be huge for us, it has been an incredibly hot ticket that’s absolutely flown out,” he says.
The O2 is also home to Europe’s biggest country music festival, Country to Country, which was developed with SJM and has been expanded to three days. Next year will see the debut at The O2 of longstanding Canadian comedy festival Just For Laughs. In partnership with AEG Presents, the annual comedy festival, will run from 2-5 March 2023 and will include solo performances, live podcast recordings and in-conversation events involving UK-based comedians and international stars.
Sayer also wants to build on the success of artist residences and create a situation where acts perform regularly, similar to what Billy Joel has done at New York’s Madison Square Gardens – who has played well over 100 shows at the venue bolstered by a series of monthly shows he started in 2014.
In terms of genres making inroads at The O2, Sayer says Afrobeat and K-pop have begun to make a major impact in recent years and AEG has partnered with touring K-pop festival KPOP.FLEX to present a multi-day show at the venue in September next year.
Looking ahead to the next 15 years, Sayer says he is confident The O2 will remain one of Europe’s busiest and best live entertainment venues: “We will continue to look at how we refresh and renew a venue that is still the flagship in the UK. It is about having the right team, creating the right culture, reducing our environmental footprint, and continuing to provide the best stage for artists to do what they do best.”