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Connexin Live Celebrates Its 5th Birthday - A Retrospective

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Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds recently took to the stage on Wednesday, 30th August, while the award-winning Connexin Live celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Let's rewind to 2014.

Hull City Council have just published their 2013 City Plan. A massive contributor to this plan was the Connexin Arena (which was called the Bonus Arena at this time), which has since enabled employment in Hull to be the highest on record and unemployment to be the lowest in over a decade.

We were appointed to this project to ensure that the venue was flexible enough to support several types of events, such as concerts, conferences, family shows and exhibitions, while delivering an annual economic impact that resulted in the creation of full-time equivalent jobs.

After completing our concept design, organising contractors, and completing all processes, construction began in 2016.

Fast forward two years, full of construction and careful planning, this work led us to one moment.

On 30th August 2018, Irish music legend Van Morrison took to the stage, performing the first of many sold-out shows at the city's new 3500-capacity venue and kicking off a new era for live entertainment in Hull.

As the soft, smooth saxophone rang out, Paul Savage, Head of Sales and Marketing for the venue, remembers his opening night nerves.

"I remember vividly this hum of excitement and nervousness. The saxophone was the first thing we heard. This note was played, and you could almost sense this drop in tension, and everyone was okay. He was on the stage, playing, the event was happening, and all of that build-up, that sort of crescendo, there was this one note and then everyone just breathed this massive sigh of relief, and it was fine. We ensured there were people from Hull City Council, AFL Architects, and the building contractor; there was just a swathe of people involved in the process from start to finish who all enjoyed that first moment. It was special."
Paul Savage, Head of Sales and Marketing

Although Morrison's magical performance marked the official opening, there had been a few test events, including a BBC Introducing show featuring local artists including Chiedu Oraka, Bud Sugar, The Hubbards, and End of Level Baddie.

There have been several staff members at the venue from the very start, both Paul and his colleague, Sam Ryder, the venue's General manager. They often watched from the car park of Princes Quay as it was being built.

"We both saw it from the ground up. We were here in hard hats, working on the plans, all that kind of thing. There's something extraordinary about seeing a building as a CAD drawing and walking in and realising it."
Sam Ryder, General Manager

Another confidence-boosting sign that the venue would be successful and well-supported came with an early sold-out concert before anyone had set foot on stage.

"There have been so many stand-out moments. I remember we announced George Ezra before the building opened, and the tickets sold out within two or three minutes. That was the first time that tickets had flown straight out.

It was the second or third show we'd announce, and, at that point, you're not sure and hope everything will be fine. That was the moment of realisation for us. We were onto a winner."
Paul Savage

As anyone who's worked in the entertainment industry will know, keeping things ticking along doesn't just require tackling day-to-day problems but dealing with the unexpected and catering to the preferences of some of the stars people are coming to see. Creating the right ambience for one of Sam's musical heroes - Jack White - falls into the latter.

"We got a complaint that there weren't enough sofas in his dressing room, so we rang the Holiday Inn across the road.

I've got a vivid memory of seeing our technical manager at the time, who's now our head of operations, and six crew carrying two sofas across the A63."
Sam Ryder

Some stars who have appeared at the venue have made themselves surprisingly accessible. Richard Ashcroft, frontman of Verve, was among those. Richard surprised the team by arriving in Hull by train and walking across to the arena, defying the rock star expectations of tour buses and security.

When asked for his personal highlights over the last five years, Paul said:

"Paul Heaton was impressive. The Offspring were terrific. For me, two songs still make the back of my neck stand up when I think about them. One was Richard Ashcroft doing Bitter Sweet Symphony, and the strings started, and everybody just went crazy. That gig was incredible.

The other was when Noel Gallagher played Don't Look Back in Anger. It was a seated gig, and the crowd was into the gig but fairly sedate. And then I remember he started playing that, and the audience went bananas. It was almost like a pinch-me moment, all the work we'd done to get to this point of having, for me, one of the greatest songwriters of my generation sat on the stage."
Paul Savage

Other huge names the venue has hosted include Stereophonics, Sean Paul, Sarah Millican, Tom Grennan, WWE Live, Jack Whitehall, Blondie, Bryan Adams, Paloma Faith, and Romesh Ranganathan. It welcomed 200,000 visitors in 2022 alone.

More than half a million tickets have been sold for well over 300 events at the venue since 2018. In 2022, it ranked as the 51st busiest arena in Europe as part of the Pollstar rankings, the first time the venue cracked the prestigious Top 100. Billboard also rated it among the Top 20 Venues to Watch in the World 2019. The venue has also seen multiple architectural awards, winning the MSA Architects Design Awards 2019 in the Community Category, the RICS 2019 Design through Innovation Award, the LABC 2019 Best Public Service Building Award and the Winner Amongst Winners Trophy.

It's not just a concert venue, though. The venue itself lends itself well to being a multifunctional space, hosting War of the Worlds, darts, snooker, and even the Harlem Globe Trotters. Connexin Live also caters to corporate events, hosting big dinners, award ceremonies, workshops, and conferences. A mixed event space is essential, bringing people in from all over.

Twenty-five percent of the venue's audience comes from outside Hull and East Riding; the reach is global for some events. Among those who attended Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds on Wednesday travelled from mainland Europe and North America, with other shows attracting visitors from New Zealand and Japan. The pulling power provides a welcome boost to Hull's economy. Paul said:

"I remember receiving an email from someone coming to see Boy George and Culture Club in 2019. They spent five days in Hull, having flown from Japan to see the gig. They wanted to know where to stay, what to do, and where to go. That's astonishing, but it proves the benefits of having a space like this again."
Paul Savage

However, a significant part of Connexin Live's success has been the support the venue has enjoyed from closer to home.

"The people of Hull are also fiercely proud and supportive of the venue. They're our best brand ambassadors, and this is a 2017 City of Culture thing. I'm not from Hull originally, but I have been and worked in the city now for five or six years. 2017 was a shift from people being fiercely proud of their city but not being vocal to being vocal about being fiercely proud of their city.

They saw a change that things would come to the city and be successful, and they've taken it and ran with it."
Paul Savage

It can be a challenging and high-pressure environment, and it's not nine-to-five for some. For example, the War of the Worlds show accommodated 35 tonnes of steel that arrived on 14 articulated lorries. For Sam, that was a huge logistical challenge that ended with a load-out at 2:30 a.m. He was back in at 6:30 a.m. the next day for Paul Weller's load-in.

"We knew Connexin Live would be special, but it has far exceeded our expectations. The awards it has won, the diversity of events it has hosted, and the way in which the Hull community has embraced it is testimony to that. We're very pleased, and look forward to future events."
Marcel Ridyard, AFL Architects

Connexin Live has emerged as a vibrant and valuable cornerstone of entertainment and community pride. From its beginnings as the Bonus Arena to its transformation into Connexin Live and every performance in-between, this venue has woven itself into the fabric of Hull's identity.

Reflecting on five years of unforgettable concerts, sporting events, and conferences, we look forward to an exciting future for Connexin Live. The Journey has seen sold-out shows, global reach, and a city that stands firmly behind its cultural gems. Connexin Live's success is not just the artists who have graced the stage but also the people of Hull who have made it their own.

Here's to many more years of unforgettable moments and shared experiences at Connexin Live!

This article was originally published on The Hull Story, and has been adapted. You can read the original article here.