From Dome to O2: how to rebrand a big top

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The Independent Online

As rebranding exercises go, it is a bold effort.

With all references to the D-word deleted by corporate image-makers, the nation's most infamous tent is attempting a renaissance. Thanks to a £6m-a-year deal, "The O2" - formerly known as the Millennium Dome - will re-open in July next year after more than five years in mothballs.

The billionaire developer Philip Anschutz, America's foremost indoor arena guru and owner of Los Angeles' superlative Staples Centre, aims to prove that £600m of investment and private-sector expertise honed in the world's entertainment capital can finally make it a success.

Conceived under John Major's Conservative government, the Dome project grew in scale and cost under New Labour. The exhibition it housed, criticised for lacking in content and pandering to political correctness, consisted of 14 themed zones. It closed in 2000 after just one year - and at a cost of £789m.

The Dome became an object of derision not only because it quickly assumed the role of white elephant, but also because it was dogged by practical problems such as long queues, ticketing problems, poor acoustics and transport. But all that, insists Mr Anschutz's company, AEG, is a thing of the past.

"We want to completely rebrand the place. It's a great iconic building and it is recognised across the world - but there's little that remains from before. Everything has been cleared and started afresh - it's now a permanent entertainment building," said David Campbell, head of the European arm of AEG.

Since the venue changed hands in 2001, the Dome has been gutted and all that remains is the greying canopy, at 365 metres in diameter. In the past month a second ceiling, built on the ground and then raised to the roof, has created a 23,000-capacity music arena.

The venue aims to plug a perceived gap in the market for medium-sized music venues in the capital. A line-up of up to five acts for the second half of next year will be announced soon. AEG says it has bucked the British trend of making music venues out of sporting arenas and claims the acoustics, designed by the operations manager of the band U2, will prove that.

AEG says the space will be able to morph within a couple of hours from the scene of a Metallica concert into a sports field. The arena will host the 2009 world gymnastics championships and will be leased for August 2012 to the organisers of the London Olympics for the gymnastics and basketball events. If the mobile phone company O2 still holds the naming rights to the arena, it will not be able to use its company title for the duration of the Olympics, because the Games' officials insist on "clean" venues.

Apart from the music venue, which accounts for 40 per cent of the space, the remainder will be typical of an AEG leisure complex. There will be a 32-storey hotel designed by the Dome's original architect, Richard Rogers, and a multiplex cinema. A supercasino can expect a licence and an exhibition "bubble" will play host to a Tutankhamun show when it crosses the Atlantic next year. The British Phonographic Institute will also install a permanent Hall of Fame of contemporary British music.

Mr Campbell, a former business partner of the media entrepreneur Chris Evans, insists he has not underestimated the stigma attached to the Dome. "We are not embarrassed. It was nothing to do with me. Quite a lot of good things came out of it - they got six-and-a-half million visitors, which we know was short of estimates but it was still the biggest tourist attraction in the UK. I don't see it as a brave move to take on the site," he said.

Millennium hits and misses

SHEFFIELD CENTRE FOR POPULAR MUSIC

This "celebration" of music, which trumpeted local talents such as Jarvis Cocker, Joe Cocker and the Human League, closed in 2000. It received a £15m Lottery grant, but poor reviews meant an expected 400,000 visitors a year proved wildly optimistic.

EDEN PROJECT

The environmental complex near St Austell in Cornwall quickly became one of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK. It includes two transparent domes that house plants from around the world. The project was funded with a £43m Lottery grant from the Millennium Commission.

TATE MODERN

Britain's national museum of modern art, which includes works by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, is housed in the Bankside power station on the Thames. The giant Turbine Hall also hosts specially commissioned work. Built with £50m of Lottery money, it has proved a major attraction.

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