It would be hard to argue against the claim that Liverpool constitutes the North West's most culturally significant city.The Merseyside area that Disraeli once called the "second city" of the British Empire boasts more galleries and museums than any UK location outside London, was the birthplace of equine painter George Stubbs, and was once home to a marginally successful four-piece band of the sixties. And, when the powers that decide such things designated it as European Capital of Culture in 2008, Liverpool received a timely boost, reminding people of its quality heritage and highlighting the new venues and facilities it offers the world.
Decades of slow decay after the Second World War had left Liverpudlians hoping something would come along to provide a much-needed fillip to the city's standing. But billions of pounds of investment, much of it timed to coincide with the City of Culture tenure, has helped Liverpool break free from the chains of a reputation not exactly welcome to an area trying to bring in a wide range of event-based business.
This Christmas, a year on from its successful stint as Europe's cultural centre, the revolution is complete and the area has a plethora of offers and opportunities for anyone looking to stage an event outside of London.
Perhaps the jewel in Liverpool's venue crown is the ACC, which opened in January last year. To date, its BT Convention Centre Liverpool has welcomed more than 318 events, claiming to have produced an economic impact in excess of £142m. This Christmas it is host to a variety of shows that could be used as a festive staff incentive, including the touring Thriller production and an ABBA show. VIP boxes for up to 12 people include a three-course meal produced by Heathcotes.
More traditional Christmas offerings, certainly in a Liverpudlian sense, are available at the Hard Days Night Hotel, a four-star, Beatles-themed venue. This year it is producing an extensive festive menu perhaps best enjoyed before a trip over to The Cavern - the spiritual home of Beatles fans - for the China Crisis Christmas show on 11-12 December.
"Liverpool has everything to offer for events," says Hard Days Night Hotel sales manager Neil Sankey. "The Beatles market is a big factor. And more businesses are coming here due to the vastly improved international and internal transport connections."
Transport has long been an issue for an area that relied on vast docks for most of its commerce during the British Empire's golden age. Recently, though, airline KLM's regular flights into Amsterdam Schiphol have helped stimulate global trade. And Virgin Trains' speedy connections from the capital mean visitors no longer have to traverse the often-busy roads into the area. This Christmas, Virgin is offering tickets from £11 standard and £34 first class, if booked ahead.
Business and tourism group The Mersey Partnership contends that over the past two years there has been a rise of 17 per cent in the number of international visitors, as a result of improved transport links. And in the past eight years the city and its surrounding area's share of international visitors to the North West has increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.
The Mersey Partnership itself has done much to improve events business in the region. For one reason or another many services are actually based outside the city walls (although that is gradually getting better) and The Mersey Partnership has helped to galvanise them.
"Larger companies such as (Bootle-based) Merseysound are in Liverpool, but many are situated in the wider area because of its links to the rest of the country," says Andy Ray, project manager at Preston-based event management company Glasgows.
This winter, the whole of Liverpool is to be transformed into a scene from March of the Penguins as statues of the flightless bird are placed around the city from the Playhouse Theatre to Penny Lane. Visitors can follow the trail of penguins to various major city attractions and events, perhaps after staying at the Hilton and Novotel hotels, due to open this autumn.
For those looking for an alternative festive destination to the Big Smoke, a trip up the long and winding road to Liverpool might just be the answer. With improved transport links and festive offers, it's a North West City that no longer feels as if it is halfway across the universe.
CAROL O'REILLY, Acting Convention Bureau manager, The Mersey Partnership
- What makes Liverpool such an attractive events destination?
My feeling is Liverpool has always been a great leisure destination. Not only do you have the Beatles, football clubs and great golf courses, there are now excellent transport links and huge venues such as the ACC and Liverpool One. There is even a cruise liner outside my office today; the city is really attracting people.
- What has the impact been of the Capital of Culture?
It concentrated minds. Improvements to the road system and investment happened very quickly, and some of them are still going on today. Lime Street Station (Liverpool's main station) has needed improvements for some time, and now the exit of the station is looking more appealing. The planned changes will make it much more attractive.
- What's big in the city this Christmas?
What should corporates come there for? It's all about penguins this year. Go Penguins will be a parade of the birds around the city, forming a trail. We are also promoting the practice of combining meetings with parties in Liverpool - having business meetings and then visiting a hotel, theatre or yet-to-be-announced Liverpool One events.
- Hard Days Night Hotel
This year offering a Christmas party lunch menu from £27.95 a head. Best combined with a trip around the Beatles quarter, perhaps catching one of the shows at The Carvern for around £15 a head.
- Liverpool Football Club
The club is offering 'festive party buffet nights' that give guests the opportunity to meet legends from the club and enjoy welcome drinks, party games and dance floor-filling Christmas classics from £27 a head.
- Knowsley Safari Park
A trip back to colonial 1930s Kenya complete with pink gin, traditional Christmas dinner and the distant sound of drums from the 'African Warrior King'. Priced from £50 a head.
- Go Penguin
Before the trip itself, how about sponsoring and designing a 5ft penguin from the parade (see main copy, left). Then you can visit and see what £3,000 has bought you.