The first time John Langford visited The O2 Arena in London in 2014, he took a river bus along the Thames, disembarked outside the venue and stared up at the vast 25-acre architectural dome standing before him.
"I remember thinking, 'Jesus, that's a big place,'" recalls the Johannesburg-born executive, who took over as vice president/GM of the world's highest-grossing arena -- the "Holy Grail," as he refers to it -- last November after serving as director of live entertainment at the SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow and, before that, a promoter in his native South Africa.
Now, the AEG-owned 21,000-capacity venue is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a string of shows by alt-J, Céline Dion and Ed Sheeran. Grossing $141 million from 182 shows in 2016, according to Billboard Boxscore, sellouts in 2017 have included Drake (eight nights), Take That (six) and Sheeran (three). "We're going in a great direction," says Langford. "It's just about having a steady hand on the tiller."
But Langford has challenges amid the celebrations, as the United Kingdom reels from two terrorist attacks in the weeks following the May 22 bombing at an Ariana Grande show at the Manchester Arena, which killed 22 people and put venues around the world on edge.
"Things like that make us all stop, think and review," says Langford. After the May 22 attack, the O2 Arena -- which had metal detectors installed in 2016 -- further strengthened its already-robust security measures by increasing the number of covert and overt staff, banning large bags and working closely with the Metropolitan Police to have armed officers patrolling the building. "The industry is a target, and we need to be at the forefront of security and on the front foot."
Langford credits AEG CEO Philip Anschutz with laying the foundation for the O2 Arena's success by spotting untapped potential in an undeveloped part of East London, previously home to the government-funded Millennium Dome. After acquiring the building’s 999-year lease, AEG spent two years transforming it into a world-class music arena and officially opened with a Bon Jovi concert on June 24, 2007. By 2009, the O2 Arena had usurped Madison Square Garden in New York as the world's top-grossing venue, a title it has held ever since.
"If an artist sells out the O2, it's a big feather in their cap and speaks globally," says James Whitting, partner at London-based Coda Agency. In-house bookings like the annual three-day Country 2 Country festival (co-produced by SJM Concerts; now in its fifth year) prop up its 200 shows a year, 60 percent of which are music. In February, the venue renewed its decade-long naming rights partnership with telecoms company O2 – a deal that sources say is likely to be worth over $15 million per year.
For audiences, part of the appeal is the wider entertainment offering housed within the O2 complex, which also contains a second 2,800-capacity venue, the 3,000-capacity Building Six, a dedicated exhibition space (currently home to Star Wars Identities), cinema complex and close to 30 bars and restaurants. Next year a designer outlet village opens within The O2, which Langford says will “significantly change our destination offering,” transforming it from a predominantly nighttime economy into one operating around the clock.
“Our philosophy has always been to super-size the customer service,” Langford says. “We’re not competing with the show down the road. We’re competing for consumer spend with the best restaurants, bars and clubs in London, so we need to meet those expectations.”