With an increasing number of traditional concert promoters moving into the entertainment-driven exhibitions market, Access explores the flourishing world of immersive shows and why it is attracting so many live music moguls.
The rise in popularity of family-focused immersive exhibitions has seen numerous traditional concert promoters diversify their offerings and expand into the burgeoning sector.
In the past 12 months, pan-European live music promoter FKP Scorpio has found success with both the Jurassic World and Disney exhibitions at ExCeL London; Kilimanjaro Group made its first major move into exhibitions by taking a long-term lease on dedicated venue space Arches at London Bridge; and the team behind Boomtown festival is now a year and a half into its ambitious Wake The Tiger ‘amazement park’ project in Bristol.
Meanwhile, Live Nation’s partnership with BBC Studios and Moon Eye Productions on the BBC Earth Experience at London’s purpose-built Daikin Centre, has seen the event’s run extended to August next year, with an exhibition also opening in Melbourne, Australia.
Another key development is the recently announced new 45,000sqft immersive entertainment venue Wonderverse, which will open in Chicago as an expansion of Sony Picture’s growing focus on creating location-based experiences. Netflix has also announced plans to step into the world of immersive events in the US, with Netflix Houses set to open in 2025 as a mix of retail, dining and live experiences.
Following the record-breaking success of Jurassic World: The Exhibition, which sold almost 315,000 tickets in 137 days at ExCeL London before wrapping up in February, FKP Scorpio and Luna Cinema joined forces again to bring Disney:100 The Exhibition to the Royal Docks venue in October.
The 20,000sqft event – a 100-year celebration of Walt Disney – is the largest exhibition The Walt Disney Archives has created, and the at ExCeL London run follows previous residencies at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and Munich’s Small Olympic Hall. The planning process for the event involved four years of assembling artefacts, many of which are on display for the first time.
FKP Scorpio Entertainment UK director and COO James Cassidy says the company was encouraged to expand into the family-orientated exhibitions market in the UK following the success of its events in Germany, including Paw Patrol. The promoter created a separate division, FKP Scorpio Entertainment, to oversee its exhibition events. FKP worked with production company Cityneon, which has partnerships with The Walt Disney Company and Marvel Entertainment, on Jurassic World.
Cassidy cites the Van Gogh exhibition, promoted by the Exhibition Hub, as one of the ‘unicorn successes’ of the Covid lockdowns: “From there, a lot of producers and promoters saw a whole new market economy that the public wanted to embrace.”
The company was also impressed by the success of the Atelier des Lumières – an immersive art gallery which opened in 2018 in Paris: “[The venue] was ahead of the pack and heavily invested in the digital mapping world. Obviously, technology is advancing quickly with AR and VR and it seemed like a good sector to get into given the public demand for it. There’s a lot of fantastic IP that lends itself to curation, development and building an experience.”
On the difference between running concerts and exhibitions, Cassidy says, “When you launch an exhibition it becomes a living and breathing operation. It consumes your whole life, it’s non-stop. It’s not like preparing for a show, then the show happens, and you move on. When you open an exhibition, that is when the hard work really starts.”
With just over three months to put together all the event’s components, including operations, marketing, PR and stakeholder liaison, Cassidy says Jurassic World was a huge learning experience for the FKP team: “We had to ship 32 crates of production from Shanghai and China. Shanghai was still coming out of partial lockdown and we had to get that container from Shanghai to Folkstone, setup, build, market and launch within three months from May to August. There was a huge team of people non-stop around the clock. There were moments when we didn’t know if it would happen or not.”
Cassidy says the initial plan was to bring Jurassic World to other European locations but the project met with challenges: “The thing about big IPs, it’s all about venue space. Finding a venue to put an IP down for six months is not easy, especially at that scale with 3,000sqm and a nine-metre clearance. There aren’t many venues like that.”
The success of these shows is not just attracting investment from concert promoters, venues are also adapting to accommodate them. The team at ExCeL London, traditionally an exhibition and convention centre, plan to build on the success of Jurassic World, which became the venue’s longest running event, and expand its entertainment offering. The venue, which also hosts the Formula E Championships and London International Horse Show, is one year away from seeing the start of a 25,000sqm expansion programme, involving major investment in its waterfront area with the aim of it hosting more of these live attractions.
At the forefront of ExCeL’s diversification is head of attractions and live events Damian Norman. “If you imagine the industry as tectonic plates, there’s a lot of movement at the moment from big IP owners,” he says. “There’s a natural strategy from gigantic media owners and producers to have a physical representation of their brand. There’s also a huge market for high quality promoters like FKP who have diversified into immersive exhibitions.
“It’s an art-form – a carefully crafted balance of selling the right number tickets and being a good promoter, and making sure things like the dwell time, content, merch and green screen is spot on and matches the ticket price. This is different to a concert where the audience pretty much knows what they are going to get.”
Just six miles west of the River Thames from ExCeL sits another immersive experience by another concert promoter with German roots. Arches at London Bridge operated by DEAG subsidiary Kilimanjaro Group, opened this year to expand on DEAG’s Arts+Exhibitions business segment. Arches houses an event space of around 1,050sqm with up to 400,000 visitors expected annually. The permanent space, designed by architects Cubit3D, features seven-metre-high, 360-degree, cavernous galleries. It is made up of five giant railway tunnels underneath platforms 1 and 2 of London Bridge Station – forming part of the massive redevelopment that the station has undergone since 2008. The venue is currently home to the Direct from Graceland: Elvis exhibition, and in Spring it is set to host Monet’s Garden; a journey through the history and works of French painter Claude Monet.
Liz Koravos, managing director of Arches London Bridge and executive director of the British Music Experience, says Kilimanjaro had been looking for an exhibition space for around five years before securing the London Bridge location: “[Kilimanjaro] had seen a big gap in the London market and had watched entertainment productions toured all around the world – and had been offered these products but did not have the venue to put them into.
“When a big product comes knocking at the door saying they want to come to London and are looking for a promoter, it becomes difficult to find that venue. Having a venue controlled by the promoter became the only way that we could seek to do this in a viable way. It was the big barrier to making this work.”
Having searched high and low for a suitable London venue space, Kilimanjaro signed a 15-year lease agreement with landlord Network Rail for the Arches. Kilimanjaro CEO Stuart Galbraith says the venue will give London the opportunity to host experiences and interactive events that are already enjoyed by other major cities.
Koravos says large-scale exhibitions have long been easily accommodated in the US but the UK market is somewhat different: “Every big city has a convention centre that sits on the outskirts and can take these big, large-scale, exhibitions in a heartbeat. People in America are happier to drive so going to these locations, that might not be in the centre of the city, is normal. Tourists in London want to be in walking distance of something else that they want to do in a day, so you want to be in that hub of activity.”
As to why live show promoters are moving into the immersive exhibition sector, Koravos says, “It is the natural merging of art forms as music, 3D projection and other effects layer together to create a new form of entertainment. Gone are the days of reading text panels in a quiet gallery, now there is a much more experiential and interactive way to enjoy some of the great stories and brands.
“Diversifying out of live outdoor events, which are at risk of weather and travel, is appealing, especially following Covid when big live music events were hit the hardest and exhibitions were allowed to reopen with social distancing far sooner.”
The challenge of finding the right central London venue space for the team behind BBC Earth Experience led to the creation of the purpose-built, 1,608sqm, Daikin Centre in London’s Earl’s Court.
The multi-sensory BBC Earth Experience, produced by BBC Studios, Moon Eye Productions and Live Nation, has proven so successful that its run has been extended to August. It has also been rolled out at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre in Australia. The 360° audio-visual experience features footage from the BBC Studios TV series Seven Worlds, One Planet, featuring narration from Sir David Attenborough.
“We thought let’s build a venue ourselves so we can build it to spec and do it sustainably,” says Moon Eye Productions chief marketing officer Amy Farrant. “The great thing about the London venue is that it’s completely demountable. Everything has a story beyond the life of the building as it stands today. We could pop it up anywhere, in another territory, if we wanted to.”
In line with the show’s content, a focus on sustainability has seen the building and its contents created using recyclable materials, while LED lighting is powered solely by renewable energy and an outdoor space includes plants and insect houses with the aim of encouraging biodiversity.
Farrant, who has previously worked for companies such as Live Nation and AEG Live, says the BBC Earth Experience has seen a flurry of interest from promoters around the world asking about the show. “There’s an appetite to find the next home for it,” she says.
While the BBC Earth Experience focuses on real-world wonders, the Wake The Tiger ‘amazement park’, produced by the team behind Boomtown Fair, instead transports attendees into an entirely new world called Meridia, which involves 27 imaginatively designed artistic environments.
Produced by a team including Boomtown site and operations manager Graham MacVoy and the festival’s co-founders and directors Lak Mitchell and Chris Rutherford, Wake The Tiger is to be expanded on the b ack of 250,000 tickets having been sold since it was opened at Boomtown’s Bristol HQ in July 2022.
“It’s an incredibly different environment from the festival sector,” says MacVoy. “Unlike festivals, which build up and then fall quiet, this is relentless all the time in peaks and troughs. You’re dealing with staff and P&L every day.
“With something that’s permanent, you need all your money up front. Festival organisers can, maybe, gamble if they’ve got enough cash flow but you can’t do that with a permanent attraction, you need X amount up front to build it and then the tickets come later. It’s capex rather than temporary hire equipment. Once you’ve got that permanent set up, it’s about how you keep it fresh.
“You think building a festival is tough? Try building a visitor attraction in six months from scratch.”
There may be no shortages of challenges involved but with many major IP owners showing an interest in bringing their brands to life with family-focused exhibitions, it is little surprise that UK concert and festival promoters are looking to immerse themselves in this area.