A decade on from hosting the London 2012 Olympics, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park remains a hive of activity. Access investigates the impressive range of venue spaces, and major events and initiatives planned at the 560-acre site this year
In 2012 the eyes of the world fell on Stratford East London, when an audience of around 900 million people watched Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.
Previously an area that had experienced sharp economic decline following the closure of the London Docks in the 1960s, Stratford was not synonymous with spectacular international events, but in the decade since Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP) opened it has been at the heart of the area’s transformation.
From the 114.5m high ArcelorMittal Orbit – the UK’s tallest sculpture, to the verdant greenery of the parklands, the huge London Stadium (cap. 80,000), the Copper Box Arena (7,500), the London Aquatics Centre with its wave-shaped roof, and the Lee Valley VeloPark; the site has become a hub of activity including everything from elite sport and huge outdoor events to family strolls in the park.
The site is managed by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which was set up in 2012 to oversee the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics with the aim of ensuring that QEOP became a vibrant, sustainable area for Londoners.
There is no doubt that the year ahead is going to be another busy one for the LLDC, but there are also major construction projects in the pipeline that are set to further transform the park and surrounding area in the years to come.
They include the building of a new 21,500 arena next to Stratford Station. In March, the LLDC approved the planning application, subject to conditions, to build the MSG Sphere arena. The project is spearheaded by the Madison Square Garden Company, which claims it will generate 4,300 jobs during construction, and more than 1,000 full time jobs thereafter. The plans include the arena having a programmable exterior ‘skin’ of LED displays.
Already under construction is the East Bank at QEOP, which the LLDC describes as “one of the world’s largest and most ambitious culture and education districts”. The £1.1bn regeneration project involves buildings spread across three sites at the park. It will include a new 550-seat Sadler’s Wells theatre, a V&A museum, BBC Music studios and academic facilities from University College London and UAL’s London College of Fashion.
The first new venue to open its doors at QEOP this year, albeit temporarily, will be the ground-breaking ABBA Arena. Touring stage show designers Stufish Entertainment Architects is behind the purpose-built 3,000-capacity (1,647 seated and 1,353 standing) arena built by ES Global for ABBA Voyage; the come-back concert series by ABBA that is due to commence on 27 May.
The 6,710sqm theatre will see band members Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid perform digitally with a 10-piece band during a residency that is due to run until October next year.
This summer will once again see QEOP host its annual, free-to-attend, community festival the Great Get Together, but this year the event’s capacity will be 20,000 – double the size of previous years. The festival, which will run over the weekend of 23-24 July, will feature a wide range of entertainment including live performances and workshops from the V&A, BBC and Sadler’s Wells.
During that same weekend, London mayor Sadiq Khan will mark the anniversary of the Games by using an Olympic torch to light the “Anniversary Legacy Flame” next to the former Olympic stadium; now home to West Ham United FC and known as the London Stadium.
Aside from hosting Premier League football, London Stadium has a busy summer of events planned. Two Foo Fighters shows were cancelled following the death of the band’s drummer but the stadium will host Green Day on 24 June, followed by two concerts by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Other events include truck show Monster Jam on 18 June and Soccer Aid with Robbie Williams on 12 June.
West Ham United Football Club said it is planning a renovation of London Stadium ahead of the 2022/2023 season that will see its matchday capacity increase by 2,500 to 62,500 – the second highest in the Premier League, behind Manchester United.
Aside from the additional 2,500 seats being added to the venue, the West Stand Lower Tier will be fully reconfigured, with the upper and lower tiers brought closer together to bring fans closer to the pitch. Birmingham may be the host city for the Commonwealth Games, but such is the ongoing importance of QEOP’s velodrome in the world of professional cycling that it has been selected to host the track events over four days from 29 July.
Among this year’s other major events at QEOP is the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup in November, at the Copper Box arena, while the London Aquatics Centre has already hosted the SuperLeague Triathlon.
Fresh from showing an event promoter around QEOP, LLDC’s director of park operations and venues Peter Tudor says it is great to see the park so busy and continuing to evolve a decade after the London Olympics.
“We’re not standing still, there’s plenty of new things coming,” he says. “We’ve got all sorts of other events we’re working on that we aren’t quite yet able to announce, but there will be a massive celebration to mark the anniversary that is very much focused on the community that lives in and around the park because it is not just an events destination – it is a place where people live now as well.”
Tudor works closely with LLDC head of events (pictured below), who was involved in the staging of the Olympics and has worked at the park ever since.
“It has been a great opportunity and really interesting being here for 10 years and seeing the park evolve,” she says. “Ten years ago we knew we were doing a brilliant Olympics and now you can see this vibrant legacy venue that is like no other on the planet. More and more businesses and residents are coming on board and it’s continuing to evolve.
“Some of the things we’ve done here have been rather wonderful. When Arcadia came here in 2018 that was extraordinary, but we also do a lot of the small events such as charity runs and community shows; all of which are important.”
Williams works in a team of five event managers, with delivery partners brought in to work on specific projects when needed. In the case of the Great Get Together festival this year it will be Continental Drifts.
It is a small team and with so much planned, Williams says the pace of work this year is a sharp contrast to the lengthy period when the pandemic prevented all but a sprinkling of events: “It’s extraordinary to come out of the two-year pandemic period straight into one of the busiest years for events since 2012. It feels like we are at top speed, but basically it means we must be even more diligent and careful and make sure we do everything absolutely right.”
While some events were able to take place at the park during the pandemic, ranging from drive-in shows with social distancing to football matches and elite swimming events without spectators, clearly it had a huge impact.
Williams says she is extremely proud of the work that was undertaken to ensure the park continued to remain open during the pandemic: “Before I came here I was a freelancer and so helping to bring back events during the pandemic was really important to me because it was so hard to see so many special people so severely impacted by it and so many leave the industry.
“We worked very closely with Newham Council to bring back our small runs, and of course we did a drive-in cinema. For me that was really important because we were able to do safe events and work with small promoters, which led to activities for people, but more importantly jobs for people in this industry. That is one of the biggest things I’ve achieved here.”
Williams says Newham Council was one of the first boroughs to create Covid-safe event guidelines, which was shared via the LLDC and Greater London Authority with event organisers.
“Newham Council has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “The park spans four boroughs, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest and Newham. It has been great to work with the councils and have an open and transparent conversations when planning new projects and outdoor events.”
Very few inner-city sites can boast such a remarkable selection of event facilities and QEOP is not limited to the obvious options. Among the less immediately apparent event spaces is the 5,500 capacity Stadium Island, which can be used for outside events and festivals.
London Stadium sits on a man-made island within the park, with a canal around it that is straddled by five bridges. The 20,000m2 space around the stadium has been used for music and food festival set ups with multiple stages and retail outlets, and mass participation sports events combining brand and experiential activations. Among the events to be staged in the space this year are food events Wing Fest and the London Halal Food Festival.
Williams says that opening the area up to events is a great use of the space: “It’s very evocative of the Games and can be used for indoor and outdoor event elements.”
In an average year, the park and its many venues attracts around 6 million visitors per year, but Tudor says that footfall will be considerably more this year, with the ABBA Arena alone expected to attract a further one million. Once complete, the East Bank facilities are also expected to add a further one million.
Tudor says the East Bank buildings will begin to open over the next couple of years, starting with the University College London student accommodation this year. Once complete, he says the project will have a huge impact on the park: “It will mean a whole new audience and night-time economy coming into the park on top of everything else that we do.”
There is clearly immense pride among the team about what has been achieved at the park during the past decade, and according to an LLDC survey 80% of respondents felt the investment was worth it.
“We’ve just got to persuade the other 20%,” says Tudor. “I think the more they see the things that are happening here around the park, particularly the East Bank development and the great line up of events we’ve got this year, the easier it will be to persuade everybody that staging the Olympics here and the development of the Park’s facilities has benefitted everybody who lives here.
“The London 2012 Olympics was a showcase for the UK events industry, not least with all the hospitality spaces and temporary pavilions that were built. Now we’ve got these brilliant buildings in which all sorts of different things happen. We’ve got spaces for events for everything from 80,000 people, with the stadium, to 6,000 at the Copper Box, down to 300 at the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit where we launched a new venue space back in September.