Paul Colston lines out with Excel London CEO David Pegler to hear about Blenheim, the Olympics, Abu Dhabi investment, the event model of the future and drinking champagne with Will Carling
David Pegler is a boy from the West Country who has played a major role in turning London’s powerhouse events axis towards the East in recent years.
Pegler’s career has spanned 28 years in the events and publishing business at the highest level, including stints at companies such as Blenheim Exhibitions, Miller Freeman, Imark Communications Europe and UKIP Media & Events.
He joined ExCeL London in November 2008 as MD and was promoted to chief executive officer in January 2013, although his first ambition was to be a professional sportsman. Pegler captained England Rugby Union teams at every level from English schools U16 through to England ‘A’, as well as captaining Wasps and London Irish rugby clubs.
One highlight, he says, was playing (and winning) for England in a 7-a-side tournament in Monaco. “We ended up on a private yatcht drinking champagne with Will Carling and Gavin Hastings”.
So where did it all go wrong..?
Those, of course, were the days of ‘shamateurism’ in rugby, before the really lucrative contracts came in. By then Pegler already had a serious day job at Blenheim, whose CEO and chairman Neville Buch he cites as an early mentor who offered him his best piece of early career advice: ‘If you provide people with the right support and opportunities, you create an environment where people want to succeed and deliver the best possible outcomes’.
Good advice for any captain. And Pegler’s drive was not confined to the rugby pitch. One early win was a 12-month advertising campaign involving the agency responsible for Ford. It was, he says, 36 DPS ads across three titles, targeting 250,000 tradesmen.
“Traditionally, these titles had been used to advertise building services and materials, so bringing in a client like Ford was the first step in targeting new business,” he adds.
A theme of finding a new switch in play was beginning to emerge in Pegler’s career.
“At Blenheim in those days,” he says, “there was a sense that anything was possible. People were just starting to realise the potential of face-to-face. By bringing together suppliers and buyers in the right environment we started to recognise that there was a much more effective outcome for everyone involved.”
These ‘golden days’ were not without their challenges and Pegler learned to work hard and play hard.
“I think one of the greatest challenges in the early days was the speed at which businesses were growing. This didn’t always allow for a streamlined, strategic approach,” he admits.
“In business, you’re always going to make some mistakes and I think the key to success is to recognise mistakes and move on from them quickly. Your first loss is your best loss.”
It was an old competitor and AEO chairman Kevin Murphy that brought David Pegler to ExCeL London.
“I’d known Kevin for a long time, particularly in his role as chairman of the Association of Event Organisers. We had also been competitors when he was at EMAP. I always had a great deal of respect for him and the approach to join ExCeL was made directly from him.”
Pegler has now been at ExCeL for seven years. Had the challenge turned out as expected?
“I think the challenge was far greater than anyone realised.
“I joined in October 2008 at what was an exciting time with the announcement that we were going to open London’s first ICC. Then the global recession hit, which brought with it enormous challenges.
“Following the recession, we were faced with being the most complex venue in the history of the Olympic Games, hosting seven Olympic and six Paralympic events. I was very aware of the pressure to deliver.”
We would probably not have the success that is ExCeL London, nor witnessed London’s rise up the ICCA rankings had it not been for Emirati investment.
An International Convention Centre (ICC) for the capital simply did not seem to excite British investors either private or public. (Let us remember it was Malaysian money that got ExCeL off the ground).
Pegler is a key link between the venue and its current, Emirati owners at ADNEC Group. How does he manage that relationship?
“We have a very strong relationship with our owners. They are incredibly supportive of what we are trying to achieve and match that support with continued investment. I attend four board meetings a year (two are held in London and two in Abu Dhabi) and make up to two other trips to Abu Dhabi each year.
“It’s important to have the courage of your convictions and stick to the plan. The biggest example of this, since I’ve been at ExCeL, is continuing with the plan to build the ICC while being faced with one of the worst economic downturns in history.”
Local investors and politicians, Pegler believes, have been slow to realise the economic benefits of world-class events and the UK events industry’s full potential. “The British events industry has been an unrecognised gem,” he asserts.
The ICC London is certainly a jewel that is sparkling now and Pegler believes there is no convention centre in the world that does the volume of business that ICC London ExCeL does. “We are outperforming stand alone centres by a considerable margin,” he claims.
And he gives as testimony the case of Cisco, which five years ago thought 4,000 was their maximum audience for their big convention in Europe, when it was held in Barcelona. “We got it up to 7,000,” says Pegler, who sees the ICC as ‘an enabler’ for organisers. It certainly has ‘enabled’ London to move up the ICCA rankings steadily over recent years.
But, why did it take so long for London to get such a facility?
“Firstly, London didn’t recognise it needed an ICC and no importance was placed on having this type of facility in the capital. Secondly, no-one would invest in it. Our partnership with ADNEC changed that – they believed in our vision to open London’s ICC and back it with substantial investment.”
The Emirati investment tap has not shut off. Recent investments include:
• £15m investment in the delegate catering experience
• A suite of six executive boardrooms providing a high-end executive facility
• Upgraded free Ruckus Wi-Fi – allowing 16,000 concurrent users at any one time
• Another four-star hotel, The Sunborn Yacht, with 136 rooms
Pegler’s task now, he says, is to prove ExCeL London can deliver the big congresses. “Next month,” he says, “we will welcome the biggest congress that London has ever hosted when the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) host their annual event.”
It is a congress that will bring 35,000 healthcare professionals, from 140 countries, over five days, and is forecast to generate up to £200m of economic impact.
Pegler plays his cards close to his chest on the matter of future acquisitions, but ExCeL has signed a 10-year contract with Compass Group UK and Ireland to continue their catering partnership and big plans for facilities refurbishment are in progress.
The business has moved over the years from being an 80-20% split for exhibitions over conferencing, to a 65-35% split in terms of value, with both sides of the business growing, the CEO notes.
Aligning with customers
Pegler observes the market is far more sophisticated than being simply a battlefield for competition solely on price.
He says the challenge is now about aligning the services with the needs of the customer, and their customers, as well as identifying the shape and format that events will take in future.
The venue-organiser relationship, he believes, has changed massively over the years.
“Today it’s all about using our expertise to help our clients achieve great results.”
He is a believer that the events format has to evolve to appeal to Generations X and Y. And he brings the argument of ExCeL being a ‘solution’ full circle: “That is how ExCeL came about, when organisers came together to call for a solution to the lack of venue capacity”.
And, as an organiser turned venue-keeper, he should know about delivering what the events market scrum for business demands.