In July, Live Nation-owned Festival Republic staged Wireless festival (cap. 45,000) at Birmingham’s NEC for the first time. Ian Taylor, managing director of the NEC, reflects on the event and its future at the venue.  

Wireless festival had only been staged in Birmingham once previously, in 2014 at Perry Park, before Festival Republic brought the rap and urban music event back to the city on 8-10 July this year. The NEC Group’s Resorts World Arena (15,685) has hosted many major indoor live music productions but the venue complex, which includes the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) and the Vox Conference Venue, is also becoming an established festival site.

The NEC’s outdoor space has been used for festivals including the 15,000-capacity Slam Dunk but this summer’s Wireless was the largest outdoor event of its kind to take place at the Birmingham venue, which is largely known for its exhibition and conference activity. Along with some of the NEC Hall space, the event used five carparks which form part of 446 acres of outdoor event space available on the campus.

“This allowed Festival Republic to operate its back office, production facilities and talent rooms in a slightly different way,” says Taylor (pictured). “Post-pandemic, we wanted to diversify, to try out different formats and bring new audiences and events to the campus. What we’ve been keen to do is to spot gaps in the market in terms of our venue provision.”

While more common in other countries, such as the US, a music festival held on concrete is a rare sight in the UK. Taylor says the format worked well and had several advantages: “We worked closely with Festival Republic to make sure that we were addressing any possible concerns that would arise from that and really positioning what the positives were in the proposition. Around scale and speed of build, it’s easier on hardstanding in many respects. It reduces any kind of weather risk to a certain extent and it reduces an accessibility risk as well.”

Opportunities ahead

Taylor says the feedback from attendees was largely positive: “Both individuals attending the event and media coverage recognised that it was a different way of doing things in the UK, but there were benefits. It brought a massive, globally renowned, event into Birmingham. People had a real sense of pride and excitement that it was happening at the NEC and in Birmingham.

The NEC team is now in talks with other festival organisers about bringing events to the site. Says Taylor, “It’s about how to utilise this space that we’ve got in a way that isn’t just exhibitions and conferences. Hopefully what Wireless has done is put down a marker as to what you can do here. We’re confident that the conversations we’re having within the marketplace will bring more opportunities in the next few years.”

He says the main learnings from the event were centred around how the organising team can continue to improve the visitor experience, including how to make it a more “seamless journey” for attendees. These included considerations around the hot weather.

“You have to acknowledge that we’re all operating now in an environment where the weather is more of an issue,” says Taylor. “There’s some learnings about how you prepare and adapt for that type of situation in order to keep people safe. it’s about how we take some of those learnings and work with a bigger and wider range of brands and commercial partners to add to that festival experience.

“A lot of people took advantage of the hotels on the NEC site for example. We think there are ways of packaging that and making that a better experience for customers. Everything we’re looking at is focused around that customer and visitor experience across all angles.”

Second city success

On the back of the success of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the UK’s second most populated city has thrown its hat into the ring to host Eurovision 2023 and is one of the seven cities shortlisted.

Taylor says, “Our infrastructure is the best in the UK. I often use the phrase ‘major events are in our DNA’ in Birmingham. It’s what we do.

“People talk about the scale of Wireless, [but] every year we host an outdoor event for 100,000 people at Gardeners’ World Live. [It’s a] very different audience for a very different demographic but that’s business as usual for us. We’re well used to hosting massive events at the NEC and in Birmingham.

“A lot of what we do at the NEC, although they’re huge events, is business as usual for the wider community and it almost flies under the radar. If we’ve got an exhibition for 100,000 people, if you’re not part of that industry, you’re maybe not aware of it happening. Whereas events like Wireless are visible and recognisable to people.”