Coworking in the UK is red hot right now. The market is growing, investment capital is pouring in and coworking is now considered mainstream by most commercial real estate analysts.
Despite the growth, increased market research and capital, however, the UK coworking industry doesn’t have an event that brings together leading providers from all types of spaces, from small independent coworking spaces to scaled flexible workspace brands.
GCUC UK aims to fix that. Part of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference series, GCUC UK will bring together coworking and flexible workspace operators from all over the UK and Europe to connect, collaborate and further conversations around coworking and the future of work.
We spoke with GCUC UK producer Justin Harley, who founded Hubcreate and is a longtime workspace industry leader, about the vision to make GCUC UK as relevant as possible for attendees, conference topics he’s particularly excited about, and the blurring of the line between coworking and hospitality.
Why is this a good time for GCUC UK?
Justin Harley: It’s a good time for a number of reasons. The UK market continues to grow. We all know about London’s staggering growth but regional cities such as Manchester and Birmingham are expanding at a staggering rate. According to Cushman Wakefield take-up of flexible workplace in the UK’s largest regional cities, including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle, increased from 2% of all city centre lettings in 2016 to 7.5%.
London has seen a 41% increase in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) since 2010, much of which has been driven by a marked increase in funding from venture capital. This combined with economic uncertainty caused by Brexit has fuelled the demand for flexible working. It has seen the industry thrive and rebrand to align itself with the digital age. With such strong drivers, coworking is attracting significant investment capital, which is just fueling the growth. The industry is becoming more and more mainstream yet, in the UK, we don’t have a conference that represents the workspace industry as a whole.
We have a Business Centre conference and small meetups in the coworking world but we don’t have an event that allows all shapes and sizes, all different types of coworking spaces, to come together, share, collaborate, network, learn from each other—we just don’t have that.
In my previous career, I was in a very fortunate position. Being someone who was providing services to many of these companies, I saw lots of brilliant innovations that I would share. I found myself in the luxurious position of being able to share knowledge and connect people. Now, getting people all under one roof is just fantastic. With the momentum [GCUC executive producer] Liz Elam has created through GCUC around the world, the time is absolutely right.
What’s the coworking landscape in London like right now? What are you seeing?
Staggeringly, WeWork is the single biggest occupier outside the government, with over two million square feet. This addresses only 1% of London’s working population. The coworking industry accounts for more than 21% of all office leases in London. The industry has evolved and matured. As a result, investment capital is being raised by organisations that have a terrific business model, as witnessed by Blackstone’s investment in The Office Group.
However Carlysle’s venture with the Adir Group to create Uncommon is equally as significant. Uncommon’s Spaces are fine-tuned to improve productivity while supporting well-being. There are quiet spaces that encourage focus, greenery throughout the buildings to purify the air, and everything from the furniture to the music has been chosen to prime people for a successful day.
Investors are looking at investing in the big guys, which will always be there, but they’re investing in the smaller end of the spectrum, as well, which is incredible. If your product is good, your proposition is good, and your business plan is strong, then the opportunity right now is fantastic.
What’s your big picture vision for GCUC UK? What will make the event a success from your perspective?
Positive feedback from attendees is everything. If people are learning something and getting value then, overall, that’s the thing that will make me feel like we’re on the right wavelength.
I don’t know if we’ll get everything right—it’s the first GCUC UK, but we have a great template from GCUC USA and GCUC Australia. Positive feedback from the people who attend is the most important thing for me because it will allow us to move forward and improve for the next one.
What are some of the conference topics you’re particularly excited about?
I’m very excited about having Olly Olsen and Charlie Green from The Office Group sharing their experience and their views on the UK market. I’ve known them for a long time, since when Olly had one centre in London. To see them evolve and still retain the beliefs they had 15 years ago is inspirational. They’re still loyal to those beliefs. I have a lot of respect for that.
They really put the customer first and, in fact, they will talk about the customer, not the community, which is really interesting. They believe they create a natural sense of community, but it’s the customer first. Everything is about the customer. They’ll be interviewed on stage by a member of the Property press, which will be an interesting segment for everybody. If you are in the early stages of developing your business you can’t afford to miss this slot.
Another subject that will be prevalent is the blurring of the lines between coworking and hospitality. We are delighted to Have Ministry of Sound sharing their vision for the sector and the likes of Giles and Niki Fuchs sharing their vision for customer experience, having just acquired the Burgh Island hotel. Wellness is another major subject area and we are proud to have Victoria Lockhart from the Well Institute sharing their experiences of what is happening in this area as well as projects such as Landid’s Porter Building, this years winner of the BCO (British Council for Offices) Innovation Award sharing what they have done in this area.
We’ll also have a panel with the customers themselves. We’ll have a number of members from different spaces and different backgrounds, from freelancers, to small and medium size businesses, to corporates. We’ll talk about how they use coworking, what they like about it, what they don’t like about it and how we can improve. If anyone who hates coworking wants to be on the panel, that would be even better. It’s not about real estate, or investors, or us, it’s about the customer and client sharing with our community what’s good and what’s not so good.
Another topic we’ll discuss is that there’s a feeling the market here might be over its peak. While the market is still strong, there’s a feeling that it’s tougher to get new memberships and lettings, partly because WeWork has become so aggressive in London. Having strategies for how you’ll cope with a downturn is very important. A lot of operators have already coped with a downturn and, if you haven’t been through one, you should talk to someone who has. Who better to speak to than the people who have already done it?
Amongst all of this we will have some fun and lots of data about the market too.
Why should people outside the UK come to GCUC UK?
There is a massive amount of innovation in coworking in the UK. London is still considered to be the capital of coworking, as well as a fantastic please to visit. I think people should come see, hear and experience some of the brilliant things that are happening here. It’s a different market, but it’s a mature and experienced market.
Another reason is that it’s just a fabulous, vibrant city. To be there among industry friends and colleagues to share experiences is just absolutely fantastic. So far, of the confirmed people, 25% are from overseas. We have people coming from India, Russia, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, the States.
How do you aim to reach space operators of all types at this first GCUC UK?
There are all sorts of ecosystems and each one serves the customer, so it’s important that they all have a voice at industry conferences. The key is to be relevant to space operators.
When I go to some Industry events, I find myself listening to speakers who are not relevant to me in any way, shape or form. The speakers may know a little about this industry but have no first-hand experience. They can be interesting or entertaining, but they’re not relevant. I aim to have speakers and presenters that are truly relevant to our industry. We will be doing a series of articles running up to the events so follow us on twitter @gcucgb and at uk.gcuc.co.
GCUC UK takes place September 25 and 26 in London, England. Purchase your ticket now.
by Cat Johnson