Another time, another place

A memorable venue adds to the external training experience. And what could be more impressive than a moated castle or an Anglo-Saxon burial site – both of which can be hired as venues.

A wave of nostalgia is sweeping over the conference and meetings market as more historical venues become available for hire.

The biggest guardians of the nation’s treasures, English Heritage and the National Trust, are now actively marketing their properties to the conference market. And both council-owned and other private stately homes and castles have joined the fray.

It all adds up to a quest for something different. More than a quarter of corporate buyers prefer an unusual venue, according to research from the Meetings Industry Association (MIA). The key reason is that such venues are seen to create an entire event experience.

Ironically, tight budgets are also a driving factor in the rise of historic, potentially sumptuous venues. The ‘wow’ factor is already built in, which means organisers can cut back on spending on extras.

Savings

“The lively interest in such places is down to the trend of cutting back on overnight events,” says event organiser Paul Horton, business development manager of conference planners M+Mr.

“People are time and budget-conscious. Using a large historic building with its own land adds impact and often means people can hold a meeting or conference in the morning, followed by activities in the afternoon. Companies feel that they will get a lot out of the day.”

A similar trend has been spotted by Sodexho Prestige, which operates dedicated specialist events and hospitality. It manages more than 25 historic venues, including the Cabinet War rooms and Blenheim Palace, and says that delegates have an immediate emotional buy-in to the day.

“The main factor for choosing an unusual venue is the added value,” says Charles Abraham, who manages the Sodexho Prestige accounts at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London. “We have the ability to offer a product which a hotel can’t match – the inspirational interest factor for a delegate.”

Abraham offers his clients, which include the Department of Transport, Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, interactive tours of the museum, themed events and 1940s briefings by actors.

“We organise leadership seminars, which use a Churchill theme, and invite inspirational speakers, including Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys,” he says. It costs about £1,600 to hire a 140-seat auditorium for day.

An earlier British bastion is offered by English Heritage. “We are finding that Henry VIII’s sea fortress, Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, is very popular,” says Susan Holding, head of hospitality at English Heritage.

Attached to the castle and its keep from 1540 are the recently refurbished Royal Artillery Barracks, built in 1910. They offer a variety of conference rooms accommodating 60 to 89 people, theatre style, and a dedicated registration area. Prices range from £250 to £650 for a day’s room hire.

“All of the meeting rooms look out on to the sea,” says Holding. “They also have natural daylight, which is very popular among meetings organisers.” She points out that the castle, refurbished with ISDN lines, is suitable for most modern computing and technical needs.

“It is authentic, but has a modern infrastructure,” she says.

Delegates can also enjoy bracing sea air at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The palatial retreat of Queen Victoria was built in 1845, and among its assets for the conference organiser are the Durbar Room – which is decorated in an Indian style to reflect Victoria’s role as Empress of that continent – and Victoria Hall, formerly the Queen’s Chapel, which opens on to garden terraces and can seat 90 people theatre style, and 50 in boardroom configuration. Room hire costs vary from £1,000 for the Durbar Room, and £2,500 for the hall.

Unique

English Heritage offers hospitality at 16 of its eclectic mix of 400 properties. All have their quirks, but the prize for most unusual goes to Wellington Arch.

Built on London’s Hyde Park Corner to commemorate the defeat of Napolean, it was dismantled and rebuilt to make room for wider roads, and had been used as a police station before being restored to its former glory. Its top most rooms offer fabulous views of the capital and can seat 22 people boardroom style or 45 theatre style. A day’s room hire costs around £1,750.

Conference organisers considering these properties have to bear in mind that prices quoted are for room hire only. Separate arrangements need to be made for food and refreshments, often with contract caterers. However, most venues have an in-house hospitality manager who can offer advice on who to choose.

A dedicated functions service is now available from the National Trust, which launched a business called The Portfolio this year to market eight of its South East properties for dinners and small meetings. It expects to market its Northern properties next year.

“We are offering fine dining and corporate entertaining in stately rooms,” says head of functions Alice Ogilvie. “And our clients tell us that because the delegates have not experienced this before in those unique venues, there is always a high acceptance rate. International clients find that their foreign visitors really enjoy these venues.”

There are no limits to these journeys through time. The National Trust is even offering a ‘Page One of English History’ event as it promotes events at Sutton Hoo, the burial ground of Anglo-Saxon kings and warriors.

This Suffolk location is said to be one of Britain’s most important archaeological sites. It offers receptions for 40 people in the Exhibition Hall around the full-size replica of the ship’s chamber, or theatre-style seating for 80 in the modern Scandinavian-style Glass Restaurant overlooking this ancient landscape.

Other National Trust treasures available for corporate hire include Buckinghamshire’s Waddesdon Manor, designed for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the late 19th century, and the Jacobean splendour of Blickling Hall in Norfolk.

Budgets

History doesn’t have to be expensive. Council-owned properties are often reasonably priced – for example, in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council offers rooms in Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery for around £45 per hour. However, at this price, it comes as no surprise that the Victorian castellated mansion – which entrepreneur William Crawshay built to overlook his ironworks – only provides standard presentation equipment, and catering from the museum tea shop.

The fabulous exteriors of historic venues can add cachet to any event, says David Boreham, business development manager of event agency D3.

Boreham and his team have put together a new programme of outdoor challenges under the brand name of Outside to exploit the stunning exterior of Eastnor Castle near Tewkesbury.

“As soon as anyone arrives at Eastnor they are amazed by the sight of the castle and its grounds,” he says. “We look after them and put them into a different world from their working environment to show them new skills.”

Among the tasks on offer are travelling 300 metres by zip line across the lake from a castle turret, or participating in ‘Assignment 8′, a pseudo-espionage exercise that makes the most of the castle’s 5,000 acres. Eastnor, built in 1810 in the style of a medieval fortress, has the advantage over many other historic venues in that it offers 12 bedrooms for overnight stays – although intrepid delegates can camp in the grounds.

It costs £2,200 to hire the castle for a day. “Places like this offer heritage, a sense of wilderness and accessible adventure,” says Boreham.

History lessons: top tips on booking a historic venue

  • Check that you can gain access prior to the event to set up: if a venue is first and foremost a tourism attraction, you may have to juggle your diary around its visiting hours.
  • Book early: as some venues are used for weekday weddings, you may have to reserve your historic settings up to a year before the event. Conservation days also eat into the calendar – for example, the banqueting hall, library and drawing room at Cardiff Castle are closed for this purpose for most of 2007.
  • Secure your contacts: find out before you confirm your booking if there will be a dedicated point of contact throughout the booking process and the event on the day
  • Remember that ‘unique’ means just that: There might not be a standard conference and meetings package which all the modern hotel chains offer. Check your contract carefully for details of AV equipment and service. And don’t make assumptions about the environment – air conditioning is not standard, and not all listed buildings have suitable access for disabled visitors.

Venues: Royal College of Physicians

The Georgian splendour of The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh has proved an inspiring backdrop for training consultant Catherine Bowie.

Bowie, whose eponymous company specialises in customer care and soft skills training for the hospitality and tourism industries, has been using “a beautifully proportioned boardroom” at the Scottish venue for two years. Known as the Cullen Room, it is in the oldest part of the college, built in 1771.

“The architecture has impact,” she says. “The large Georgian windows flood the room with daylight and there is a beautiful corniced ceiling. It gets people talking and the whole day becomes an experience. Some people ask us for tours of the college at lunchtime. I much prefer this to a concrete egg box [hotel].”

As Bowie points out, historic venues do not equate to antique facilities. ” The technical support is great,” she says. “An IT technician is always on hand and I have no problem running PowerPoint presentations or anything else.”

The city centre location means the venue is easy to get to and its old-world charm can work to an organiser’s advantage. “There is a concierge at the front desk and a butler-type assistant helps throughout the day,” she says. “The sense of excitement and interest at an attractive venue means it can really enhance a delegate’s learning.”

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