To mark the 50th anniversary of Arena Seating, its team returned to its birthplace in Newbury to celebrate five decades of achievement and the evolution of a business that has become a stalwart contributor to many of the world’s landmark sports and entertainment events. 

A key player behind the London 2012 Olympic Games, Arena has been a supplier to The Queen’s Club Championships since the outset and has been involved in countless other mayor events over the years; from huge stadium concerts to the London Marathon, Wimbledon Championships, The Open Championships and the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia.

Among Arena’s very many landmark moments was another project in Saudi Arabia. Commissioned by the Saudi General Sports Authority, it designed and installed the 15,000-seat Diriyah Arena and hospitality structure (pictured below) to accommodate the Anthony Joshua’s 2019 heavyweight boxing fight in Riyadh. Constructed in just 56 days, it was the largest temporary seating structure Arena had built since the London 2012 Olympics


The Arena story started some 4,000 miles away, back in 1967, at Newbury’s Corn Exchange Theatre. In the 1960s the town was a hotbed for table tennis, and locals Ron and Grace Smith were asked to put on an exhibition match between England and the USA at the venue.

Ron managed to acquire some temporary seating from a contact at Greenham Common air base where the seating was used for clashes between games of American football between US Air Force teams.

A draughtsman engineer by trade, Ron soon realised he was perfectly capable of creating a similar seating set up himself, and by 1971 he had launched Arena Seating, under the original branding of Arena Promotional Facilities Ltd.

Ron’s son, and Arena Seating managing director Terry Smith, says, “Dad realised there might be a market for temporary seating as seemingly no one in the UK was offering it. He got together with a couple of colleagues and designed his own seating system, which remarkably, we’re still using to this day – it’s still the bread-and-butter product that we use in the UK for a lot of events.”

Smith has been working for Arena since he was a teenager, but he recalls getting involved at an even earlier age: “I was five when the business started, I can remember often going in the lorry to sites with dad and watching the seats being built.”

At 17 Smith began working as a member of the site crew, before progressing to site manager, operations manager, and in 1999 he became operations director before being later appointed MD.

Smith says his hands-on-experience with the site crew was invaluable: “I was very determined to prove myself and succeed on merit rather than be seen just as the boss’s son. It was very hard work, lots of hours but lots of fun. That experience stood me in good stead because all these years later when I see young lads doing it, I know how hard that work is and can relate to them.”

Arena’s MD is far from the only executive to have spent decades at the business. Among the many long stayers is sales & marketing director David Withey, who joined the business back in 1977, and relative newcomer Bradley Merchant – the company’s project director – who joined in 1990.

“We’ve around 15 staff, at different levels in this business, who have been with us for at least 30 years,” says Withey. “That provides a continuity in service and gives our clients confidence, because many of our staff are very experienced and really know their stuff.”

Arena Seating operated as a family-run business for 24 years before being bought out in the mid-90s. It was floated on the AMES market in 2018, and is now part of the multi-disciplinary Arena Group.

In terms of its product offering, one of the most pivotal moments for the business was the launch of its Clearview seating system; a reconfigurable, demountable seating grandstand that was rolled out at the London 2012 Olympics. The system has since been used at Queen’s Club, the Commonwealth Games 2022 and Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

“All the design work leading up to the Olympics led to the development of our Clearview system – a multi rake system forming a parabolic curve,” says Withey. “The further you go back in a stadium, the steeper you need the seats, so we developed the system and rolled it out for the very first time at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert outside Buckingham Palace. We then shipped it down the road and built the arena for the beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade. It meant that you had a great view from any given seat, which before was almost impossible.”

The Arena Seating offering has continued to evolve to include upholstered and padded seating system, which Withey compares to multiplex cinema seats, used for the British Film Festival on the Embankment in London.

“We’re constantly looking for improvements and increasing the flexibility in the system,” he says.

Among the many recent mayor wins that Bradley Merchant has been involved in was a partnership with Scottish Rugby to develop and supply a seating system for Edinburgh Rugby’s new DAM Health Stadium, and temporary seating and an Arena Super Deck temporary structure for the first ever Major League Baseball Series in Europe, at London Stadium.

Merchant says that the Olympics has always proven to be a landmark focus for the company when it comes to developing and investing in new product solutions, and the event is very much central to the business’ ten-year plan.

“We delivered significantly to London 2012, less to Brazil 2016 but increased our involvement again for Tokyo 2020,” he says. “We’re looking at Paris 2024 as being the start of the next era for us. It’s all about new product, innovative design and bringing in new equipment, new services, new offerings, with sustainability at the forefront of that. Not just sustainability in terms of responsible sourcing and carbon impact but sustainability in the way that the products are used going forward. So, we’re not just looking at the Paris Olympic Games, we’re looking forward to two or three Games. While nothing in life is guaranteed, we have to look at it that way for the investment to make sense, because investment in seating is a very significant cost. The investment that goes into Paris, will then strengthen our business and allow us to provide existing customers with new products.”

When it comes to minimising the environmental impact of the business, Merchant says a focus on sustainability is ingrained into everyone who works in the business: “It’s across everything  we do on a day-to-day basis; our business is inherently sustainable due to the fact that we’re recycling everything we use and if we don’t do it efficiently then we don’t make money – it’s as simple as that.

“For Paris 2024, the organising committee is a procuring with a significant weighting on sustainability and the corporate social responsibility side. By coincidence, where we’re going and what we’re trying to achieve mirrors their goals as an organisation; we’re on the same path. If we’ve got huge amounts of waste, we’re not efficient. If we don’t recycle things properly, we’re not efficient, and if we don’t fill lorries properly, we’re not efficient. Everything we do is about being sustainable and that inherently makes you efficient.”

Looking ahead, Merchant says the success of the company will be based on its ability to combine that focus on sustainability with the provision of first class products and service: “We have to maintain a point of difference between us and our competition by being even more innovative and even more sustainable. We want to continue pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved and how it can be achieved.”

“Every day is a surprise. When I look back and reflect on what I’ve done and where I’ve been; it’s a very privileged position.”

Clearly proud of the past and excited about the future, Merchant says his years at Arena have been well spent: “Every day is a surprise. When I look back and reflect on what I’ve done and where I’ve been; it’s a very privileged position.”

Withey says there have been myriad highlights during his 45 years spent at Arena but among the first to come to mind was his work on one of the company’s first major international projects – creating the set up for a production of Aida on the banks of the Nile in Egypt: “I spent 12 weeks in Egypt building temporary stands to form an arena for the performances, which was a real eye opener.”

In terms of what has enabled Arena to expand from table tennis to the Olympics, and maintain its position as a go-to company for organisers of some of the world’s biggest events, Withey says it is a matter of continued forward thinking, never resting on your laurels and having really good people that form strong relationships and never let people down.

For Smith, it’s personal: “All these years later I am proudly looking after my father’s legacy,” he says. “Even though we are now part of a big corporate group, we’ve managed to maintain a lot of our family values and I like to think a lot of our personal commitment in terms of our clients and that personal service.”