With the cry of ’I need something different’ ringing ever louder in
their ears, an increasing number of corporate-event planners are
choosing to shrug off the reassurance that comes with a
tried-and-tested, purpose-built hotel or conference centre, in favour of
a more unusual venue.
While groups are keen to elope to continental Europe for larger meetings
that feature dedicated space and sophisticated technical equipment, for
smaller events, demanding a more exotic environment, it can often be
wiser to look closer to home.
’There are great chateaux in France and wonderful castles in Germany and
Austria but, as yet, organisers travelling abroad are not that
sophisticated or adventurous,’ says Motivforce chairman Randle Stonier.
He adds that in a country such as France, companies tend to err on the
conservative side with conference briefs, dictating little other than
hotels as appropriate venues. As a result, the hunt for a unique
location in mainland Europe needs a lot of research.
By comparison, companies organising an event in the UK tend to be more
innovative. With conferences now revolving less around stages and
keynote speakers reading from lecturns, and more on team-building and
motivational activities, organisers are increasingly hankering after
venues that will both incentivise delegates and suit an idiosyncratic
Castles and stately homes with a rich heritage, museums and art
galleries with their cultural references, football stadia, racetracks
and television studios, among others, have all been quick to respond to
The Heritage Motor Centre in Warwick, for example, is to host a
forthcoming conference for IBM, while US investment bank Merrill Lynch
has chosen The Grand Hall at Madame Tussauds for an event for its
clients from the Asia-Pacific region this month. And in February,
Caribiner took over the SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron-hulled
steam ship, docked in Bristol, for a presentation and exhibition to
launch a defence division for British Aerospace to 200 guests and key
Unusual locations also lend themselves to promotional campaigns in
advance of the actual event - helpful when a third-party audience is
involved and needs to be wooed to attend. Moreover, original venues can
give an event a high profile and endow it with a certain elitism, while
at the same time flattering the egos of the attendees.
With this in mind, Motivforce selected Highclere Castle near Newbury and
Ripley Castle in Yorkshire for one company targeting a third party.
Spending a week at each venue, with an audience of 400 every day, the
event embraced a business presentation, exhibition and ride and
So appealing were the venues that the client enjoyed a 92% turnout - the
highest ever take-up. ’The right venue can reinforce brand values if it
is sophisticated and leading-edge. People are now so conference-drunk
that you have to ensure that you stand out from the clutter,
particularly for a third-party audience,’ says Stonier.
Jason Pratt, marketing manager at Tate Bramald Consultancy, agrees. He
organises an average of 25 forums a year for senior finance
professionals and chooses venues such as The Royal Armouries in Leeds
and London’s Royal Society of Arts over a more conventional hotel or
exhibition hall, largely for the kudos in the face of increased
competition. ’You have to add more and more to an event to get people
out of the office,’ he says. ’You’re battling for the same delegates who
only go to a certain number of events a year, so the market is being
flooded with invites. You have to create something different, and the
venue is part of that.’
Many venues have seen the wisdom of throwing open their doors to the
corporate market for the income that it generates - particularly as
corporate business makes such a comfortable bedfellow with the tourist
trade: when one peaks, the other is in a trough. In the tourist high
season corporate bookings are scarce, but when visitor numbers wane
during the shoulder months, the conference market is at its peak.
Add to that the fact that the vast majority of meetings held in the UK
are for under 250 delegates, a number that a good proportion of unusual
venues can comfortably cater for, and it is easy to see why, correctly
packaged with a good business message, they are gaining such a
Out of the 3000 members of the British Association of Conference
Destinations (BACD), 25% are now classified as unusual, says executive
director Tony Rogers. These range from Lord Trevor’s baronial pile,
Brynkinalt, near Chester, which hosts up to 120 for meetings, to the
lighthouse on the tiny St Mary’s Island just outside Newcastle, with a
conference room for 40. Looking to the new millennium, The National
Maritime Museum at Greenwich, with dramatic new galleries capable of
catering for dinners for 300, opens at the end of March.
As more venues jump on the bandwagon, realising that while visitor
numbers can fluctuate the conference trade offers a more regular revenue
stream, they are also becoming more commercially minded.
Corporate business now accounts for 50% of total income at Granada
Studios in Manchester, where delegates can hold a bespoke scripted
debate in a replica House of Commons or take over Coronation Street’s
pub, The Rovers Return, the Starlight Theatre, or the original set of
Baker Street. The attraction provides a total conference support team,
and positions itself against the four-star Midland Crown Plaza and The
Palace hotels in the city on pricing.
Meanwhile, The William Younger Centre, on the edge of Holyrood Park in
Edinburgh, has already taken pounds 1m in corporate bookings before it
even opens in July. A striking stone building with a tented roof and
glass walls on the upper levels, it will be home to ’Dynamic Earth’, a
visitor attraction telling the story of the planet. Two venues within
the centre have also been built with the conference market in mind.
’Stratosphere’, only available in the evenings, will accommodate 950 for
dinner for a competitive rate of pounds 1000, while ’Biosphere’ will be
able to host 450 people theatre-style, day or night.
Stonier praises Highclere Castle, where guests are allowed unlimited use
of the extravagantly appointed state rooms. ’It doesn’t have classic
conference space,’ he says, ’but it has a flexible mindset. It is
service oriented, works as a turnkey operation and will bring in
specific furniture as a matter of course.’ Other venues he singles out
include The Magic Circle near Euston in London, which has a 250-seat
theatre, and The Roundhouse at Camden, ideal for business presentations
and product launches. Pratt, meanwhile, rates the National Motorcycle
Museum in Birmingham, not just because it is sufficiently different to
attract delegates, but also because of its accessible location next to
the NEC and its parking.
However, since the meetings business is not their raison d’etre, such
venues do come with limitations. Tourist attractions are often only
available for corporate hire in the evenings and are more suited to
corporate entertaining than meetings.
Many of the buildings that are members of the Unique Venues of London
association - The Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and
The Queen’s House at Greenwich for example, along with the galleries at
The Science Museum - will only permit corporate functions outside normal
Additionally, on-site accommodation and break-out rooms for syndicate
sessions are rare. Venues may not black out properly for audio-visual
displays or be free of noise pollution. Access for heavy equipment can
also be restricted, as can smoking and drinking red wine. Some venues
even prohibit high-heeled shoes, especially those where guests are
surrounded by old masters or antique furniture.
’It is easier to go into a purpose-built hotel or convention centre if
you are doing something other than corporate hospitality,’ says
Caribiner chairman Lois Jacobs. ’The venue might be quaint and quirky,
but it may not be geared up from a personnel point of view and access
time can often be limited. The ceiling height could be too low or the
power inadequate. If you require high production values it is often not
A further barrier is cost. While a hotel will offer an all-inclusive,
day delegate- or 24-hour rate, groups usually have to pay a premium for
the privilege of using a site which functions as both a tourist
attraction and a corporate venue. The first major expense is facility
hire. Some venues, such as The Royal Academy and The Tate Gallery, only
allow sponsors to use the venue; others charge anything from pounds 500
to pounds 12,000. Added to that is the question of accommodation, often
at a nearby hotel, transport to the hotel, equipment hire and food,
including tea and coffee breaks.
Nevertheless, corporates are still prepared to work with such
encumbrances and expense. As Jacobs says: ’On balance it is worth doing
to make an event more special.’ A case in point, she adds, is the event
organised for the launch of the Millennium Dome last year, held one
morning in the People’s Palace, a restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall
with spectacular views over the Thames.
Because the People’s Palace is a working restaurant it was inaccessible
until dinner had finished in the evening, leaving the production crew no
alternative but to set up overnight. As the room has pillars, lots of
monitors also had to be brought in, and the on-site staff had no
previous experience of serving breakfast instead of dinner. But still,
says Jacobs, ’it was absolutely relevant. It was the right place at the
right time and suited the event very well’.
At the end of the day, a hotel will always be a hotel, whether it is The
Dorchester or the Forte Posthouse Bristol on the M4. With purpose-built
conference suites and audio-visual equipment, break-out rooms and
trained staff, accommodation and catering on site, there is no doubting
their ability to provide a suitable learning atmosphere for training
courses or mainstream conferences.
Conscious that there will always be potential clients craving a one-stop
shop, hotel groups have carved their own niche in the marketplace. This
includes the introduction of all-inclusive delegate packages and
conference brands such as Hilton’s Meeting 2000 and Stakis’ Assured
However, the fact that these offerings are now so standardised can be a
deterrent. ’If you go to a Hilton or a Stakis you are treated as just
another customer, because of the volume of business,’ says Banks Sadler
conference co-ordinator Alex Jackson.
’The smaller, more unusual venues are more flexible. You are the focal
point and there is more of a one- to-one relationship.’
Often, the most novel way is the winning way. There will always be
clients who will remain loyal to one particular hotel brand, but there
are plenty of others looking to create memorable events with real
appeal. For a board meeting, roadshow or corporate hospitality function
where a company insists on an individual experience, a readily available
hotel package is simply not impressive enough. By comparison, venues
like Cardiff Castle and the Roman Baths in the city of Bath, which the
BACD has used for its own events, will inevitably exert more of a
But although the venue is important and can act as the principal call to
action, Rogers warns that groups must still consider the purpose of the
conference and ensure that the business message is clear and
’Unusual venues help make an event memorable, but they do have their
limitations and you have to balance the requirements of the event with
the need to communicate effectively,’ he says. ’You have to identify the
real priorities for a conference in looking to choose between a hotel
and a more unusual venue. For a business session it is important to have
the highest-quality facilities, rather than a spectacular backdrop.’
ENTERTAINING ON THE ROYAL YACHT
For an evening event following a conference, there are few more
memorable venues than the former Royal Yacht Britannia. It now has a
permanent berth in Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, and has been available for
corporate hire since October.
The yacht is open to the public from 10am to 5pm, and can then host up
to 90 guests for dinner, and up to 250 for receptions, in the state
The resident team of event specialists can organise entertainment,
after-dinner speakers, firework displays, VIP transport, accommodation
and crested and branded table gifts. Packages range from pounds 45 per
head for a champagne reception and canapes, to pounds 145 per person for
a royal invitation, champagne reception, canapes, tour, dinner with
butler service, personalised menu and place-cards, table gift and
candelabra and flowers. On top of that is a facility fee of pounds
Ford of Britain was the first company to hold a corporate banquet on
board which included a champagne reception in the drawing room, followed
by a dinner for 60 guests and a finale of fireworks.
Last November, HMV UK also used the venue to tie in with the opening of
its flagship northern store in Edinburgh.
’We were inviting managing directors and chairmen of record, video and
games companies. These people go to award dinners every week and so we
were looking for something a bit special and different. The yacht made a
big difference in getting people there,’ says the PR events officer,
As part of the evening the 82 guests were piped off their coaches and
enjoyed a champagne reception and dinner and a tour of the Royal
apartments, followed by the Beating of the Retreat and Scottish sword
Morrison Homes, Barclays Capital and Lloyds TSB have also used the venue
since it became available.