Leeds First Direct Arena marks a year of concerts

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There were doubts over the site, the cost, over whether it would be built at all but one year on Leeds First Direct Arena is proving its critics wrong.

It might not feel like it but it’s been one year since Leeds First Direct Arena staged its first gig and in so doing ushered in a new era for the city by bringing some of the biggest names in showbiz to Leeds.

Concerts for big names such as Elton John and Prince pull in around £1m in sales and since January the arena has sold more than 240,000 tickets and raked in more than £10m in sales.

It is also estimated to have generated something like £25m for wider economy - that’s things like hotel rooms, restaurant and cafe bookings, taxi rides and shopping.

In the beginning, of course, there were doubts raised about whether Leeds ought to have an arena at all, not least from those worried how the venue might impact on Sheffield arena.

It was the sale of Leeds/Bradford Airport in 2007 which netted Leeds City Counil £55m (it had a 40 per cent share in the airport). Then council leader Coun Andrew Carter was instrumental in earmarking almost half of that to make sure Leeds got its own arena and despite opposition, the project was green-lit.

That act alone was enough to boost confidence in the city - the Trinity Shopping Centre project, then in the doldrums because of the recession, was dramatically restarted so it would be finished in time for the arena’s opening.

Coun Carter said in a previous interview: “That project would possibly not have happened if we hadn’t taken the opportunity when it arose.”

Since its launch several other projects have been green-lit - a new Hilton hotel is being built a stone’s throw from the arena, the Merrion Centre is undergoing its first refurbishment in years and business is generally improving in the so-called Northern Quarter and Grand Arcade.

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In terms of the big names, we’ve had Elton John, Prince, Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, the Kaiser Chiefs, not to mention the WI, the world of American wrestling and - what turned out to be one of the most susprising nights - darts.

Tony Watson is sales and marketing manager for the venue.

He said: “When we had Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, there were some people who said we would never top it but then we had Prince. The names just keep coming. When we had Pearl Jam last week, it was one of the best nights I can remember - I didn’t know any of their songs but the atmosphere was electric and they played for something like three and and a half hours.”

Like the rest of the team at SMG Europe, who manage the arena for First Direct, Tony is used to doing whatever it takes to ensure the show goes on. When Prince came to Leeds - one of only three venues the artists played in the UK - he was up at 4am and still going after mindnight.

“You do whatever it takes, there are busy times and times when things calm down a little. What makes it worthwhile is seeing people like Dolly Parton walking around and bringing those big names to Leeds.

“We’ve had an awesome first year. Our official civic opening was September 4 but we like to think of July 24 as our ‘Bruciversary’.”

The number of big name artists who have performed at the arena has meant the first 12 months have been relentless for staff but their work has paid off.

Just last month the arena was voted Best New Venue In The World 2014 by the Stadium Business Awards and concert industry trade publication Pollstar ranked Leeds as having had the 5th busiest venue in the UK.

“We’ve brought some of the biggest names in showbiz to the city,” said Tony. “Elton John, Prince, it was a full house for the Stereophonics, Rudimental have played twice and the Kaisers are booked to return on St Valentine’s Day. When Pearl Jam played, according to booking.com, there were no rooms left in Leeds - we like to call it our Bethlehem moment - it’s the first time it’s happened in Leeds.”

In terms of the arena benefiting the local economy, you only have to look at the surrounding area to see the effect. When the arena hosted a private event for a women’s charity, one local restaurant had an extra 500 lunch bookings.

Pearl Jam called it their ‘Goldilocks venue’, Andrea Bochelli described the acoustics as ‘wonderful’ and another said it was second only to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. All these artists talk to each other, Leeds is gaining a great reputation - we are in a quiet period at the moment through July and August as people, including musicians, go to festivals but we’ve already got some big announcements lined up for September, the big names will keep on coming.”

Earlier this year, the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post became official media partners of the Leeds First Direct Arena.

Last week, another deal was struck with Yorkshire car retailer JCT600 - it was the first time supercars had been inside the 13,000-seater venue.

JCT600 chief executive John Tordoff said: “Having supported many sports teams and venues in the region over the years, this is a great opportunity for us to do something a little different and partner with Yorkshire’s newest entertainment centre which is already having a huge impact on local people by bringing world class entertainers to Leeds.

“Working with the arena, we believe we can offer many benefits to our customers and colleagues as well as sharing our pride and passion in Yorkshire.”

With its head office in Bradford, the JCT600 group is a family business with 47 dealerships throughout Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and the North East and sells 19 of the world’s most respected brands such as Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW/MINI, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Vauxhall and Volkswagen. The group now employs a workforce of 1,800 people.

Nigel Foster, president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce said: “The First Direct Arena has had a huge impact on the city, not just bringing economic benefit, which is significant but also on the city’s confidence.

“The opening of the Arena coinciding with the opening of Trinity Leeds has provided a real boost to the visitor economy and collectively they have brought millions of people to the city.

“Overall, confidence across the city is manifestly higher and we are seeing this reflected in increased investment as companies seek to expand and grow. Billboard magazine listed the arena as one of the global ‘must see’ venues of 2014 and seeing the arena dressed as it was for the Sports Personality of the Year for example I don’t think any of us would disagree.”

Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication covering the worldwide concert industry, said: “The new arena has really put Leeds on the global touring map. First Direct ranked No 17 on our worldwide ticket sales chart for the first six months of this year.”

Phil Marshall, a club promoter who runs the Warehouse and Control in Leeds, opened The Proper Sandwich Company because of the arena.

Mr Marshall said they would open late - until 11pm - on gig nights.

He said: “We opened here about three months ago because of the arena, I just saw an opportunity. There are a lot of offices around here which is good for trade but on arena days we stay open late.”

History of the world’s best new music venue

Leeds Arena was talked about more than a decade ago. It was finally green-lit after the sale of Leeds-Bradford Airport in 2007 - the site was at the time jointly-owned by the five local authorities in West Yorkshire - Leeds City Council gained £55m from the sale and half the money was earmarked for an arena.

The Yorkshire Evening Post ran a successful ‘Leeds Needs An Arena’ campaign as the debate hotted up.

In March 2008, SMG were chosen as the future operators of the First Direct Arena.

Relations between Leeds and Sheffield became frayed after officials in the south, including Sheffield MP Clive Betts, objected to the use of around £18m in public money being earmarked for the scheme by the now defunct regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.

The arena officially launched on September 4 with Sir Elton John - Bruce Springsteen kicked off proceedings on July 24.

The venue has a capacity of 13,500.

In the first six months of this year, Leeds First Direct Arena has sold 240,052 tickets, generating over £10m.

The average number of tickets sold per concert is 12,003.

Robbie Williams’ concert sold 11,470 tickets, while Prince sold 12,735, while Dolly Parton drew just over 10,000 tickets.

In February last year, chief executive of Sheffield’s Motorpooint Arena Steve Brailey denied recent £2m improvements were a direct response to the challenge posed by Leeds, he said at the time: “Promoters go to the venues that sell tickets. Sheffield Arena sells tickets, Leeds Arena has not yet been tested....

“We believe that both venues are sustainable but we think parking and transport and access from the motorway is better in Sheffield than for any other arena in the UK.”

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