The SSE Arena, Wembley, situated next to Wembley Stadium, has a certain amount of prestige. Built in 1934, it’s hosted a number of legendary acts, including Rolling Stones, The Beatles (who played their last ever live show at the venue), David Bowie, The Who, ABBA, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. In more recent years, contemporaries such as Christina Aguilera, Paramore (whose frontwoman Hayley Williams is pictured), Beyoncé, Queens Of The Stone Age, Frank Turner, Elbow, You Me At Six, Pink and Madonna have graced its stage.
Last year it was renamed for the first time since 1978 (when it changed from the Empire Pool to Wembley Arena). In June, a deal with UK energy company SSE Plc was negotiated by AEG Global Partnerships, the sponsorship arm of AEG, for a 10-year partnership that saw the arrival of its new name, The SSE Arena, Wembley (a similar agreement was done for Glasgow’s new Hydro venue). The iconic London venue, owned by Quintain, also benefited from the investment of the partnership through refurbishment.
Changing the name wasn’t a difficult decision, says John Drury, SSE Arena manager – who’s held the role since 2008. “[Rebranding] gave us the ability to draw everybody’s attention to the changes. SSE are a great partner to work with and they’ve helped us to emphasise the positive changes to the building, whilst still retaining that ‘Hello Wembley’ aspect which nobody wants to lose.”
Changes include updates to the inner facilities, as well as Quintain’s Wembley Park development, which houses the London Designer Outlet, 20 new restaurants and coffee shops and a nine screen Cineworld cinema. “It’s become the destination that we’ve always wanted it to be,” explains Drury. “Rather than relying on events at the arena or stadium to bring people in, there are people here anyway and we’re adding to that. We’re making it more attractive and we’ve got more to offer to the customers that come, there are so many different things they can do.”
Music content makes up around 40% of the venue’s shows, with the rest filled by comedy and family entertainment. Boasting a 12,500 capacity, the arena has the flexibility to host smaller events by bringing the stage forward and operating with seating only.
Drury made a return to Wembley after working in event programming, sales and marketing for the venue during the ‘90s. He then held stints at London Arena and Live Nation’s venues booking department. Today, he represents The SSE Arena, Wembley at meetings of the European Arenas Association and National Arenas Association.
How does the SSE Arena, Wembley, stand against other live venues in London?
We do brand ourselves as iconic. It’s an overused word but I think it does work for this venue given the history that we’ve got. When bands play for the first time, it’s a big deal. All Time Low have been tweeting about selling out, they think it’s amazing, and we had You Me At Six doing similar. When Frank Turner made a special DVD of The Road To Wembley, it was a big affair. There are nights when it’s almost a religious experience, it was like that for Frank Turner and for Elbow the first time they played here, it was the biggest headline show they’d done.
What also makes us special is the way we can reach out to the north and west of town, as well as the central area. If you draw a line to the nearest arenas to the north, Nottingham, then out to the north west is Birmingham and the west is Cardiff, if you draw a line halfway to that, you’ve got about 6 million other people you can reach, and they can all get here very easily on the road network or the rail network. We do bill ourselves as the most accessible arena in London, which nobody can dispute. If you’re already playing London, you can still play here, because it works. We’d like that to become more common because we think there’s potential there. If you’re selling two shows in another arena in London, you could add one here and reach out to people that might be traveling in from the north and west of town for work. If somebody is living in North Hampton, Wembley is quite easy to get to because it’s an hour down the road or an easy run on the train. If you’ve got a marketing budget at work in London you could use it for this venue as well. It’s just adding the date and the venue to what’s already there. It works really well, so we want a lot more artists doing that. I don’t want to say if there’s somewhere else on the tour, if you’ve got a limited number of dates on the tour then drop somewhere else that doesn’t sell as quickly or isn’t as big, but, ultimately, that’s what we would say because we think we’re worth playing.
Music makes up about 40% of your shows, do you think that’s likely to reduce in future? There’s lots of talk about the lack of headlining acts.
I would hope not. I think that percentage is where we’ve got to after having gone through the process [of reduction].
What was that percentage 10 years ago?
It was probably 50/55%. It’s dipped a little but what’s come in to take its place has been the comedy shows. We’re at the point where we probably do 10 comedy gigs a year, on average. Family entertainment is another, X Factor are doing another live tour in March here. We sort of see ourselves as the home of the X Factor in some ways.
Yet you’ve got a long history in rock music…
I wouldn’t say it’s us being selective, we’re reaching out to that market but at the same time we don’t want to be, ‘This is our niche and this is all we do’. Rock and pop are very different things but we see ourselves working for both. The changes to the [surrounding] area help to bring that younger audience, and then for the rock fans, when we clear out the seats, we’ve got a great standing floor and good views for everybody else.
Do you ever worry there’s going to be a point where you don’t have enough music acts that can sell out the arena?
No, and that’s where you stay flexible. If you could sell a full-on sold-out arena every day then of course you would do that but the business has changed a little, everybody has evolved to react to what’s out there. If somebody comes along and needs to do it slightly differently, we can do 6,000 fully seated or 6,000 part standing. We’re still bigger than pretty much everywhere else in London, so even if capacity gets cut, you’re still headlining an arena. Having the floor isolated and taking the seats away visually is something we’ve not done before so we’re looking at that. It doesn’t matter if you’re saying Hello Wembley to 4,000, 6,000 or 12,000 people; you’re still here and doing it and have got to that level. The intention after that would be to come back and do the full capacity, but to get acts in in the first place is good.
Has the growing open-air festival market affected what you do?
The proliferation of festivals has meant that sometimes a band can do the rounds of festivals and not take the risk themselves to play to their own audience. That’s had an affect on the touring business generally, in arenas and at every level. I think we’ve reacted to that by looking at different ways we can get into different things. For example, we did [e-sports event] League of Legends in June last year. If there isn’t the same number of bands doing the rounds then what else can you get into and how do you use your room differently? Promoters are doing the same, what used to be out and out music promoters will now look into different types of entertainment, whether its the live gaming or using the arena for awards ceremonies. We can use the set up for anything we like