As thousands get to see the newly opened exhibition hall extension at the Norfolk Showground, Business editor Shaun Lowthorpe reports how the venue is a key plank of the showground’s future growth

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Thousands of people will be enjoying the many events taking place at the Royal Norfolk Show over the next two days.

But the showground has a new jewel in the crown – the £1.4m exhibition hall extension which looks set to open up a host of new business opportunities for the showground and the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA).

Officially opened this month, the Norfolk Showground Arena is the county’s largest indoor venue and for the RNAA’s outgoing chief executive, John Purling, there is a strong sense that the new venture will be helping to hit the right note and provide a whole host of business opportunities for the years to come.

Mr Purling, who is due to step down as chief executive, said the facility was an ideal place to stage classical music concerts and his own wish was to see operatic singers such as Katherine Jenkins, or Hayley Westenra while he thought the venue would be perfect for symphonic music and even soloists.

“We all know what St Andrew’s Hall is like, and Norwich cathedral is a lovely venue but the acoustics aren’t brilliant and this is a lovely venue,” he said.

“The launch event went extremely well We got nothing but compliments for it and the acoustics worked wonderfully well. It’s made such a difference.”

Designed by David Footer Associates, and built by RG Carter, the new 3,000sqm facility forms the cornerstone of a business strategy which aims to substantially increase the current £400,000 turnover for Norfolk Show Ltd.

The venue has been brought up to date with a distinctive two-storey circular reception area and greatly enhanced visitor facilities.

And already a deal has been struck as is music promoter Envy Promotions to put on up to six big-name gigs at the Arena including at September’s Sundown Festival.

The exhibition hall itself is set to be a venue for boxing as part of a bid to attract more sporting events.

Louise Wilkinson, business development manager at the showground, said: “Our main thinking is we want to move forward into new markets including music, live sport and corporate work, which we haven’t had much of in the past.

“We’re looking to get the kind of big- name acts, which you would normally have to travel to London to see.

“In terms of the corporate side, there is an awful lot of interest in business exhibitions, and we have booked the East of England Energy Group.

The venue is also set to host this year’s EDP Food Awards.

“If we get the business, we may well be able to invest in other buildings, which could potentially open other markets.

“We operate across markets, whether it’s the Sundance Festival to the VW White Noise festival, there’s something for everybody.

“The Royal Norfolk Show is our flagship event, but we have now reached the point where the showground is used all the year around. It’s a crucial part of the business model. We are looking to attract across the board to suit all musical tastes.

“We set up a project team to make decisions en route and that’s something which worked quite well. There were four of us on the working group working with the architects and contractors, and everyone was represented. We sourced everything locally where we could, which is part of our policy as an association.”

Mr Purling said the project was funded in part from the Association and in part from the banks as well as through a host of successful fundraising events and Mr Purling said the building of the new extension was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition.

“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said.

“Hitting the right formula, which was acceptable across the board within our price range, has certainly not been easy.

“We have done a limited study which shows the economic benefit we put into the local Norfolk economy is something in the order of £40m to £50m a year ranging from catering to hotels to transport.

“Earning money all year around is very important to the association. Norfolk Show Ltd turns over £400,000 a year and we are looking for a very significant increase on that.

“But I think we have really got there now. We have got an excellent facility and something really suitable to meet the needs of the market for the next decade or so.

“People have wanted a facility like this for years, and now they have got it, right in the middle of Norfolk, next to a main highway and within three miles of the city. What people love about coming here is that it’s a very central location.”

And he admitted that the RNAA was already looking to the future with ideas in the pipeline for a further extension and potentially even a hotel on the showground site.

“I think people will look at us to put a hotel here so that we have got accommodation on the doorstep,” he said. “I think it may well depend on the pattern of events, but we may well see a change in the pattern of events we have.

“We are already thinking very seriously about phase two, which will be a smaller project opening up the first floor of the new extension, which will form a very attractive meeting facility with an attractive panoramic view facing south to Bawburgh Golf course. It will be ideal for conventions and smaller conferences and receptions.

“That will take some further investment and we haven’t actually costed that up yet, but we are already thinking in terms of that and I think that will add yet another dimensions to the appeal of the facility.”

For Mr Purling, who retires at the end of July, the opening of the new venue marks a fitting end to nearly two decades at the helm of the RNAA.

“It’s a suitable milestone to go,” he said. “I am 65 next month, and you have got to hand over the baton some time. I am leaving with very solid foundations for the future, and my successor, I am sure will work to continue in that vein.

I know he has got a strong brief to develop that side of the business.

“Louise has been with us for two years and has grown it tremendously,” he added. “I know it will go from strength to strength.

“We have now got the tools to do the job, whereas before we were limited and we were losing business because a few people would say to us that it wasn’t quite what they were looking for.

“I think once word gets out, people will want to give it a try.

“It was pretty tough – there were a lot of hurdles to cross, for one thing, we had to convince the trustees it was worth spending the money, and once you have done it, you are stuck with it – you can’t just turn around and say it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“Over all it’s given us a great opportunity and now we have got to capitalise on it and make it all worthwhile. I’m absolutely 100pc confident it will be.”

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