THE moment he realised they were no longer the new kids on the block, that the financial troubles were solvable, that people would stop complaining about Nottingham Arena, was thanks to Rod Stewart.
“The turning point was when we got Rod Stewart in July 2002,” says chief executive Geoff Huckstep.
“Once we’d persuaded the promoter to bring him here then I thought the strategy was working. On the back of that we got Elton John, Bryan Adams and quite a few other big acts. And he put on a fantastic show. It’s still one of the best I’ve seen here.”
One of the biggest challenges he faced when he took over managing the National Ice Centre and Arena, 18 months after its opening in April 2000, was to convince the UK’s key concert promoters that Nottingham Arena had its own audience. That 9,000 East Midlanders would fill the place time after time. In other words, you can book tours in to Sheffield, Birmingham AND Nottingham.
“It was hard work but we did it.”
At a cost of £30,000 -- at a time when they were operating at an annual loss of half a million pounds -- they sponsored the International Live Music Conference, the coming together of all the key players in the industry. He also chaired meetings of the National Arenas Association. In layman’s terms, Geoff and his team ‘got in’ with the key live music promoters, who book all the tours in to UK arenas.
There were a few other issues to deal with too.
“The expression ‘white elephant’ had been bandied around,” admits Geoff.
“There were big problems with budgets. When we came here we were operating at a loss of a million and a half. And rising. It took us 18 months to sort out the finances, then another year to understand the music business.”
After dribs and drabs, the floodgates steadily opened as international names came to play. Beyonce, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Pink, Bob Dylan, The Killers, Kings Of Leon, Neil Young, Justin Timberlake, Metallica...
“We’ve had everyone we could possibly get at an arena of this size. We’re never going to get Take That or U2 as they’re stadium artists.
“I would like to get Peter Kay. I’m working on that.”
The difficulty Nottingham’s Arena faced on opening was the larger stadiums so close by. Sheffield’s can hold 11,500. Birmingham’s revamped LG Arena, 13,000.
On average a sell-out at the Trent FM Arena, as it was renamed in 2007 after a sponsorship deal, is around 9,000.
But plans are afoot to increase that to around 11,000.
“We’re looking at ways of doing that.”
He’s also looking at smaller, all-standing shows for bands that outsell Rock City and the Royal Concert Hall.
“We’re just about to invest £25,000 in a new draping system that will enable us to do 4,000 capacity all standing gigs. It’ll be like a self-contained black box with its own bar and we’re looking to work with Rock City on that.”
More than five million people have been through the doors of the NIC since it opened.
More than three million of them saw a show in the Arena. Others were there for the Nottingham Panthers, boxing, football, WWE or ice skating.
But we’re here to talk entertainment. Music and comedy, the TV shows on tour like X Factor, Dancing On Ice, Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent.
There have been around 600 of them.
The first was Simply Red, who will be back on their farewell tour in December. Rod Stewart, Rihanna, Michael Buble, Leona Lewis and Boyzone are also due back this year.
Westlife have played more shows than anyone else -- their visit in May will be their 14th.
But it’s the Killers who hold the record for the fastest selling -- shifting all 9661 tickets in just an hour.
But in terms of attendance, Metallica hold the record at the venue. By playing in the round they could accommodate 10,337 fans.
Says Geoff: “Metallica’s show last year was also the loudest, at 101 db, close to the level of a jet flying overhead at 1000ft.”
The record for the most nights played on a single tour belongs to Michael McIntyre with six.
“Comedy really is the new rock n roll,” says Geoff.
“Lee Evans played five shows. We’ve also had Steve Coogan, Al Murray, Eddie Izzard, and this week we’ve announced both Russell Howard and John Bishop.”
Dancing On Ice is another show that keeps returning, featuring local ice dance legends Torvill & Dean. It was Jayne Torvill who opened the venue with the Queen giving it an official opening in July 2002.
“I had to kneel at her feet,” says Junior Wood, senior events manager, who has worked at the NIC since its opening.
“I was de-rigging her microphone trying not to move too quickly because there were a number of secret service operatives watching my every move.”
The Royal visit was also a highlight for assistant rink manager Alan Levers.
“Myself and five of my hockey team mates from The Nottingham Lions performed a routine choreographed by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, which was filled with Olympic and World figure skating champions. It was the most nerve racking time of my life but the most incredible experience.”
Scouting For Girls frontman Roy Stride says it was their Arena show that made them realise they’d hit the big time.
“It was our biggest show and probably the best we’ve ever done. The guy from our record label who signed us came down for it and he was quite emotional by the end of it. Because 18 months earlier when he signed us we were playing to 30 people.”
For Geoff, who used to book old school entertainers for a seaside theatre many years ago, the highlights have been Rod Stewart, Oasis, Kings Of Leon, Pink, Dolly Parton, The Killers and Metallica.
“I’ve seen most of the shows because we entertain a lot in the house suite so I’ve seen hundreds. Some better than others,” he laughs.
Bob Dylan was a disappointment and he didn’t rate the White Stripes.
Many sign the Arena Guest Book. Jack Johnson drew a castle and Kenny Rogers a deck of cards. Cliff Richard wrote “What a place! I loved my two nights here!” Oasis scribbled a baffling message “Welcome The Empires!” as did Girls Aloud: “Tweedy The Roast”, while Justin Timberlake had a message for us: “Tell the Sheriff to **** himself.”
“Pete Doherty signed the dressing room wall,” says press officer Kim Blood.
“He’s the only one to have done that. We’ve had it painted since then though.”
Less troublesome was Bob The Builder, although his appearance proved to the management that you can’t please everyone.
“I had a letter from a lady who had been to the show with her son. He was traumatised. They’re always traumatised so they can get their money back. But he was traumatised because Bob The Building was miming. So I wrote back ‘it’s a puppet, you muppet!”
“Well, I didn’t but I felt like it.”
Top ten audience attendance
1. Metallica 10337
2. The Killers 9661
3. Snow Patrol 9608
4. Pink 9519
5. Arctic Monkeys 9438
6. Kasabian 9298
7. Neil Young 9084
8. The Prodigy 8953
9. Beyonce 8747
10. Kaiser Chiefs 8729
What they say
“There’s something about Trent FM Arena Nottingham that makes it difficult for an artist to have a bad gig there whether it’s James Morrison or the Scissor Sisters or the Killers. I’m not sure if it’s the room, the audience or the local water but all the shows I put in there always seem to be amongst the best on a tour.”
Matt Woolliscroft, SJM Concerts
“From doing the arena’s first ever show with Simply Red back in 1990 through to putting on the enormous, in the round Metallica show in 2009, our experience of working with the Trent FM Arena has always been nothing other than fun.”
Stuart Galbraith, Kilimanjaro Live
“Over the last 10 years Nottingham Arena has become an essential part of Nottingham's live music and entertainment scene. We are proud to have worked with a venue of this calibre with artists such as James Blunt, System Of A Down and Scouting For Girls. Here’s to 10 more years.”
George Akins, DHP Group
“One of the most artist friendly arenas out there. There is always a great atmosphere and bands love coming back.”
Toby Leighton-Pope, Live Nation
“One of the strongest and friendliest teams in the country. All of which helps with the running of the show both out front and backstage.”
Tony Denton, Tony Denton Promotions
“An excellent platform for the very best of Off the Kerb’s comedic talent bringing laughter to thousands of people. It's always a pleasure to play at the venue.”
Joe Norris, Off The Kerb