With Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park set to celebrate its 10th anniversary next year with the arrival of the ABBA Arena and a host of other events across its venue portfolio, London Legacy Development Corporation head of events Sara-Ellen Williams reflects on a remarkable decade for the site’s team and discusses a landmark year ahead.
Given your significant experience in events, how challenging and perhaps worrying have the last 18 months been?
For an industry that prides itself on making sure the show must go on, the last 18 months have been a huge challenge. It’s also an industry where a substantial proportion didn’t receive any support or help, and as events have returned they’ve done so at speed across a couple of months instead of a whole season. And we’re not out of the woods yet. There continue to be challenges, many experts have left the industry, and supply chains remain vulnerable to the ongoing impacts of Covid and the fallout of Brexit.
That’s why it was so important that we could bring back Parkland events, even on a small scale as soon as was legal. Many of our outdoor events are put on by small and medium scale enterprises who were working hard to stay afloat. Likewise, the venues have done brilliantly. Firstly, with behind-closed-door events to now where audiences have come back.
A big part of your job must be meeting people and selling the Park to them in a physical setting. How much did your job change when we went into lockdown in March 2020 and what did you learn about your team?
Strangely, everything changed and yet nothing changed. At the same time, I was also splitting my time with the Greater London Authority events team. We went from a period of managing postponements through to quickly focussing on facilitating filming and location bases which has increased across this period.
Key to bringing back events and filming was the support of Newham Council who were incredibly supportive with even the smallest events having to clear local public health guidelines. Newham were one of the first boroughs to do event guidelines which we shared not only on our website and with organisers but also on the GLA website.
What is it over the last 18 months that has made you especially proud to be part of the events industry?
I have been incredibly proud and incredibly mindful of the privilege it is to have a job. I’ve spent most of my career as a freelancer. Indeed, this is the longest I’ve ever been in one place and I could have easily been one of the amazing events professionals whose world and employment just stopped with no idea of when it was going to come back. I think a lot of people found it incredibly challenging to find themselves in a position where it seemed their work and indeed identity was not valued.
My personal and professional objective was to do whatever I could in my capacity to support events coming back and in turn create work which would then create employment for people. I was also very proud to have also been involved in re-imagining some activities to be delivered at this time. It’s always good to have something which challenges the little grey cells!
Getting ABBA to the Park is a great achievement. How challenging was that to orchestrate given the challenges of the last 18 months and the global interest in a pop group such as ABBA?
I think the biggest challenge was keeping it a secret. That secret keeping went on for over two years so it was fantastic when ABBA Voyage was announced. All worthwhile projects have challenges but even with the extra issues raised by the pandemic; they are an amazing global group who do world class work and in so many ways fit with what and how we work at LLDC.
The Park is the perfect location to host this extraordinary project and it is always great to work with people and organisations that are just going to do the highest standard of work and that’s what I really love about events and projects is that drive to achieve such a high standard of delivery. I am also driven by finding solutions to problems and I think that ethos grew from my work on the London Olympic opening and closing ceremonies and other major events.
I am so very proud to have led on this project from LLDC’s side and it is continuing to be a great project to work with colleagues on. Indeed, I know the Olympic closing ceremony was a celebration of British music, but given ABBA’s influence it seems highly appropriate in our 10-year anniversary year they bring this exciting and innovative project to the Park.
The eyes of the world will be on the Park once the show begins next year. Indeed, about 25% of ticket sales to date for ABBA Voyage have come from overseas buyers.
What makes Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park special to you?
There’s a lot of special memories both from Games time and since I joined LLDC in 2013. When I first joined LLDC it was planned as a short contract between London’s opening and closing Ceremonies and the next “big gig”. It turned into an amazing, sometimes challenging nine years.
The first National Paralympic Day stands out as one of my favourites still, alongside facilitating the staging of Shrouds of the Somme in 2018 which was truly moving. Indeed, of the 1000 or so events and filming requests we have put on or helped facilitate over the past nine years there has been a lot memories.
The Park itself is special and no more so than during the pandemic. It was a huge privilege to work with the teams to help open the London Blossom Garden, and it’s particularly special for me as I get to walk past it most days and it really is beautiful yet incredibly poignant given it was created as a way of remembering those who lost their lives due to coronavirus.
What excites you about what is to come over the next 18 months at the Park?
First and foremost, I am very excited to see events return. We have had lots of enquiries from those who want to film or hold events on the Park. It is also brilliant to see the venues thriving again. I’m looking forward to the concerts at London Stadium, seeing what is happening at the Copper Box Arena and London Aquatics Centre, as well as the unveiling and opening of the ABBA Arena. And, of course, in the summer at Lee Valley VeloPark which will host track cycling for Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
How much of an eye do you have on the legacy of the 2012 Games and how does that come through in your work, particularly looking ahead to the 10-year anniversary?
Our role in events has always contributed to the legacy whether through programmed events over the years like the Great Get Together or the Great British Carnival or when we celebrate the Park as a place for the local communities, Londoners and beyond. Our wider events programme helps promote the Park as a destination that so many can come and enjoy for years to come. What we’ve achieved so far as an organisation fills me with so much pride and there is so much to look forward to over the coming months and years.