Building an icon

Jonathan Read, our Commercial Director, reflects on the 7 years since launching Tobacco Dock.

Tobacco Dock has famously seen many incarnations over its 200-year life, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that its latest chapter is its most exciting yet.

It was chance which led us here. My business partner, Patrick Donovan, and I first viewed the building in 2010, as part of a brief for a destination branding project. At that stage, it took quite a leap of imagination to envision how we could make Tobacco Dock into a successful venture, but there was a magic in the historic building which got the little grey cells activated. With the approach of the Olympics, we believed East London was set to become a hub of activity and enterprise, and this enormous, purposeless space was just lying in wait ready to be brought back to life.

I spent over 20 years as an event producer being underwhelmed by purpose built events venues around the world. While offering large spaces and scope for branding, one large grey box feels very much like another, and we were both excited at the prospect Tobacco Dock offered for adding a sense of place to events, with architecture acting as a creative catalyst. It’s unmistakably ‘London’. You couldn’t be anywhere else in the world. Its character and history grabbed us – there was so much potential, but at that stage there was a long way to go.

We submitted a proposal to the owners and never heard anything back, so didn’t think too much about it. But then, two long years later, we heard from a new team who had been sorting through a filing cabinet and spotted our proposal document.

Starting out

We struck a deal and launched Tobacco Dock to the events industry in October 2012 with one existing client: the London Tattoo Convention. With a tiny team of just 4, we set about creating a venue like no other. Working to create spaces for world-class events in a Grade 1 listed building was certainly not without its challenges – we had to work with English Heritage to remove walls to create our largest spaces, agree fixing methodologies for rigging points and cable runs for data networks and power distribution without disrupting the fabric of the building.

Creating the best

There were certain things we knew we had to absolutely get right and place heavy investment into to be able to provide the level of service and standard of execution which would set us at the head of the pack. We made sure we had an immensely secure, fast and capacious tech infrastructure – our WiFi can support up to 8,000 devices simultaneously. We work with a terrific service partner, Max WiFi, who can create bespoke packages for those of our clients who need more than our already generous provision. For example, last year when Samsung held the launch of the Galaxy Fold here, we helped them increase the capacity they needed to live-stream across the globe.

A fail-safe list of best-in-class suppliers was another key aspect. We wanted to give clients an opportunity to create innovative and non-formulaic events, so kept the main offering as a dry-hire proposition. Having a carefully vetted and experienced list of service partners meant that everyone involved on an event has familiarity with our building, which, with a Grade 1 listing, has particular requirements for the ways in which it can physically accommodate events. Working in this way, gives our clients creative freedom to push beyond any generic event forms. I love the way in which we’re constantly surprised by the events we host. Whether it’s turning our bandstands into giant barbecues, DJ booths or swag stores, transforming our car park into a rave space or the immense Great Gallery into a circus big top, our clients are constantly pushing the boundaries of what you can expect from events here.

Room to grow

One of the great pleasures of our time here has been seeing so many of our returning events grow over time. There has sometimes been a tendency for to people think of Tobacco Dock as somewhere only for large-scale events, but we have a layout which lends itself to creating complete event footprints in just one area. We’ve five different entrances, and two levels, so events are able to take up just one group of spaces, then expand over subsequent years with demand. Bike Shed, for example, has hosted at Tobacco Dock since 2014. It began by taking up just the Quayside spaces and now occupies the entire ground floor and outside space, plus North Dock, welcoming over 15,000 visitors in 2019. The choice of Tobacco Dock as the venue for their flagship event has been an influential one for Bike Shed, informing their identity. For example, their head office in Old Street is in a building which strongly echoes our architecture and makes their annual takeover here a seamless one from their brand’s perspective.

New heights

Having a committed and passionate team makes all the difference to our clients, but also means that we continue to evolve and to find ways in which we can keep ahead of the curve. Creating Skylight was another proud moment for us. The demolition of the News of the World building adjacent to us meant that the top floor of our old car park suddenly benefitted from a magnificent view of the distinctive financial district skyline. The car park’s low head-heights had made it unfit for modern vehicles, and so we hit upon the idea of using it instead as a destination rooftop bar. Our team rose to the challenge – installing plumbing and electricity, constructing a mezzanine viewing platform and even craning in both a shipping container to serve as the bar and an ice rink! From a disused car park to one of London’s hottest destinations in a few short years; last year we welcomed over 100,000 guests at Skylight!

Other key initiatives have been creating over 25,000 sq ft of co-working space, private offices and small meeting rooms. We have a thriving community of entrepreneurs and scaling businesses many of which are in the creative, events and tech industries. We also have a music industry incubator – The Rattle – and have designed and built two recording studios, writing rooms and rehearsal spaces for them.

2020 Vision

As we move into the new decade we have commenced the next phase of our extensive development programme. Our iconic Quayside entrance has undergone a transformation with generous planting, seating areas and a 50m2 living wall. Inside, we’ve installed a winter pavilion, linking the Great and Little Galleries, so that guests can navigate their way between the spaces without battling the elements. The Vaults have new smart lighting and digital signage and we’ve installed specialist magnetic fascias to enable fast, cost-effective branding and personalisation. A second production kitchen means we’re now able to cater for up to 4,000 covers with all food produced on site rather than from a central production unit  and a new tasting room provides a stylish place for our clients to sample menus, hold briefings and can also act as a VIP Green Room for events using the adjacent Great Gallery. Later in the year all the lifts in the building are being replaced.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important and so we’re in the process of assessing a whole raft of innovative initiatives to run our building in an increasingly environmentally friendly way and to help our clients deliver ecologically low-impact events. Photo-voltaic cells on our immense roof, battery storage systems and rainwater harvesting are all schemes we’re investigating.  We are already the first venue to achieve Green Mark accreditation and measures such as these will put Tobacco Dock at the top of the list of sustainable venues.

Since our launch in 2012, we have held over 1,500 events. Some of them have been challenging, some instructive, others exhilarating, but they’ve all been immensely rewarding. I am looking forward to inspiring my team to see what the next seven years bring to Tobacco Dock and also to other cities around the world as we seek out other buildings that can be brought back to life and repurposed as event spaces.