Fountains outside The SSE Arena, Wembley in Wembley Park

A Jewel in the Crown - by John Dury

We manage The SSE Arena on behalf of AEG and for Quintain. I’ve been here – this time – just over ten years. I first started in August 1990. It was a big jump from running a 2,000 capacity venue and leisure centre in Newport, South Wales!

After a job programming both the Stadium and the Arena, I became Sales and Marketing Manager for the Arena in 1995. I moved away to work in other venues, but was back again in 2008. Very happily.

The SSE Arena is the jewel in the crown. Certainly, it’s globally known, a world-famous venue as relevant as ever. We have so many first-time headliners. It’s always good to see somebody breaking through to an audience of 12,500.

Last year we had George Ezra, who hadn’t headlined a venue of this scale. A huge deal for him. I’m reminded every time how important it is for artists to play here. You sit with George Ezra or, like last year, Five Seconds of Summer from Australia, All Time Low from the States or Babymetal from Japan, and wonder how relevant can this venue be to them from thousands of miles away? And they all say,

“It’s Wembley. The Beatles played here, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin ... ”

The SSE Arena is a milestone place on the way up to so many acts. We call ourselves iconic, and I think we’re justified.

A Concert at The SSE Arena Wembley in Wembley Park

We held 157 events in 2018. Just over 900,000 people came through. We have a million in sight for 2019. I’m proud of that. I usually say to any act that we get in to play here, before they go on stage, to please say “Hello Wembley” and I am delighted to see that 99% of the time they do. You get the odd person who says “Hello London”, but it’s rare. They don’t shout out “Hello Greenwich” at the O2!

The diversity of acts is extraordinary. Hillsong is a great example, a three-day women’s conference held every spring. They put in about 9,000 delegates. They love it at Wembley. More than anything now, they love it that there are places to eat and sleep. And there’s more entertainment here.

I remember driving into the area for the first ever time and thinking ‘wow’. It was in the 80’s and a big adventure for me coming from a 500 seat theatre in Chesterfield. There was the Stadium, the Arena and nothing else, just a big old car park. Even then, as a music fan, I knew this was a very special venue.

Back then, you could see the remnants of the Empire Exhibition, the ruins of the Palace of Arts, but they’re all gone now. This is the last building that dates from that time. Wembley Park’s development has made an enormous difference. Concert-goers and performers just expect more. It’s been important that it’s not just the venue that has changed, even though we completely, literally, turned the building around when Quintain refurbished it in 2006. (The entrance is now at the other end). We talked a lot about the Hilton when it was launched in 2012, a four-star hotel in the area where there had been none at all! We now have the Novotel, a new Premier Inn, Boxpark and the LDO. Perception went from Wembley being all about Indian restaurants down the road to having 30 different places to eat on your doorstep.

Concert at the SSE Arena, Wembley in Wembley Park

We talk about it being the biggest Build to Rent operation in the UK. By 2027, I think there’s going to be 20,000 people living and working here. There’s a school, there’s something for everybody which there never has been before. It’s a sizeable chunk of North West London that was largely ignored and forgotten until Quintain came along. And to be able to turn it into its own little community, so close to the centre of London, with two world class venues is very, very special.

In 25 years’ time, looking back I think people will remember how a new community was developed in such a well-positioned area. We’re seeing the transformation every single day. We can see the vision and we can see where it’s going and it’s been well documented and well explained by Quintain. It really helps us understand where it’s going and it helps us sell our business, sell the venue, sell The SSE Arena, Wembley to the wider music industry.

My favourite thing to do is, and will always be, to see a show at the Arena. So, for example, we did three shows last year with Arcade Fire. They were fantastic. The promoter was really happy, so was the agent. We gave the band awards and they were really pleased. It’s something to do with the building. With The Cure a couple of years ago, their tour was built around our dates because they wanted to finish with three days here. Sometimes we might be the only UK date – just recently the Smashing Pumpkins, for example – and it helps makes us that little bit special. Elton John calls it his ‘favourite venue’ and Michael McIntyre, a local boy, finishes his tours here.

Crowds outside The SSE Arena, Wembley

I have only once been at the microphone in front of the audience. I didn’t really want to do it. We had Arijit Singh who had sold out with 11,000 people on the night. It was the biggest Bollywood show we’ve ever had. We said to the promoters that he’d done so well, please could we give him an award. I thought, it’s just going to be the announcement and the announcer will say, this is John Drury. He’s coming in to give an award to Arijit, there’ll be a handshake, a photo and that’ll be it. Before I went on, they said, “Right ok what are you going to say?” And I thought, ‘Ohhh... really?’ But I went on and started with, “Hello Wembley.” I got a cheer for that, said a few more things and it all worked really nicely.

There are certain artists who, from the time that we see them here, really capture the Wembley ‘thing’. Elbow were like that, Frank Turner is like that, and there are a lot of acts we love. But the individual who always comes to mind because I know him so well is James Saunders who has Wembley in his bones. When his job changed and he was moved further up, I thought, OK, we’re not going to see you as much now. But he said, “Oh yes you will, because being connected to everyone is what I really enjoy.” He’s remarkable and very approachable.

I’d pass it on to him.

An extract from PASS IT ON...Voices from Wembley Park originally published in 2019. View the full book here.