HISTORIC VENUES: Lure of the past

British heritage is a magnet for event planners. Mike Fletcher takes a look at the enduring appeal of a step back in time

A key draw for visitors flocking to the UK is the country's heritage. Overseas exhibitors, visitors and business travellers will often extend their trips to take in the Shakespearean delights of Stratford-upon-Avon or stay an extra night in the capital to soak up the regal splendour of Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. It's little wonder then that venues that are the epitome of UK heritage are experiencing increased interest from corporate event organisers.

Unique Venues of London chairman Ian Lovat-Fraser says: "Venues with history offer quality surroundings that may be additional to those the public has access to during the day. Hotels are similar the world over, but our members can provide something special and the venues have a renewed enthusiasm to hire out their heritage and promote their facilities both here and abroad."

More than meets the eye

Unique Venues of London comprises 55 sites in the capital that market their non-core offers to event planners. Members who have joined this year include Wellington Arch, Somerset House, the Museum of Garden History and the Tower Bridge Experience. Lovat-Fraser, who is also general manager of conferences and events at the Natural History Museum, believes event planners are guilty of assuming they know historic venues because they have seen the main areas that are open to the public, but often it is only half the story.

"At the Natural History Museum, the Earth Galleries can seat 180 for dinner or host 400 for a cocktail reception.

But the intimate and less well-known Darwin Centre is available for groups of less than 100," he says. "Venues need to work harder to showcase their full offers as the majority have hidden gems."

Oxon Hoath country manor retreat in Kent is trying to strengthen its position as a corporate venue. Since 1999, the 73-acre estate has been owned by Tindle Conferences and Education. At weekends the 28-bedroom house, which dates back to the early 14th century, is filled with people who have come to relax in the peaceful surroundings and make use of the spa treatment rooms, dance studio and library complete with roaring fireplace.

The grounds are suitable for most outdoor corporate activities and include a fishing lake and a secret walled garden. "We need to attract corporate clients during the week," says Tindle managing director Owen Tindle. "We have a unique facility surrounded by countryside and the interior of the house can be adapted to suit most small conference or team-building requirements."

High pedigree of clients

The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace and the Banqueting House at Whitehall all fall under the Historic Royal Palaces umbrella. The success of the marketing consortium is evident by the high pedigree of clients that host corporate functions at each venue. Charitable organisations including Save the Children and the Cliff Richard Tennis Foundation are long-time fans of the Banqueting House, which dates from 1619, and the Tudor splendour of Hampton Court Palace.

Save the Children has been hosting fund-raising events at The Banqueting House for almost 20 years. The central London venue was the scene of the execution of Charles I in 1649 and it is all that remains of Whitehall Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698.

A spokeswoman for Save the Children says: "The venue adds prestige and importance to our raft of events. The only downside is that there is no lift because of its age, but it's too nice a venue to let that get in the way."

The Cliff Richard Tennis Foundation was set up by the singer and tennis fan to encourage under-privileged kids to take up the sport. For the past three years it has held events at Hampton Court Palace, once the home of Henry VIII and William III, and a 30-minute train ride from the centre of London.

Last December, Sir Cliff organised a Christmas event that involved a reception in the Tudor Kitchens, a 200-seat dinner in the 18th century Georgian Rooms and exclusive access to the Chapel Royal for a carol concert.

Spectacular setting

"The setting helps with the sale of tables as it is a beautiful venue, especially around Christmas time," says a spokeswoman for the sports charity.

"It is not as convenient as a central London venue but the intimate feel and spectacular setting ensures that our events linger in the minds of our guests."

One venue nearer the centre of the capital is Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which stands on Bankside, just across the Thames from St Paul's. The building is a faithful reconstruction of the 16th century open-air playhouse where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed. For 2003 the theatre has created dining and reception packages in three areas. The Balcony Room can host 120 guests for a reception or 70 seated for dinner, the Founders' Foyer can house 100 for cocktails and 40 for a seated buffet, while the Under Globe, which is situated at the heart of Shakespeare's Globe Exhibition, can seat 270 for dinner and host 650 for a reception. The theatre also offers hospitality packages for groups that want to take in a show. Private boxes, known as Gentlemen's Rooms, are available at £1,555 for a group of ten or instead clients can buy Best House Seats tickets, which include a three-course pre-performance meal, at a cost of £155 a head.

Moving out to west London, The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew recently invested in its 18th century Orangery and built a terrace on the front to increase its appeal for corporate events. Telecoms outfit Nokia was the first to use the refurbished venue after it opened in November 2002.

The company invited 130 of its top directors to a reception and dinner dance and was given access to other areas of the estate including the Glass House and the Temperate House.

Royal Botanic Gardens commercial events manager Andrea Laird says: "The evening began with a reception in our stunning Princess of Wales Conservatory followed by dinner and a jazz band in the Orangery. The Temperate House can host ten events during the summer months and the Glass House is popular with clients because it houses 1,500 species of plants and palm trees and we allow people on the viewing balcony."

In Scotland, the Victorian architecture of the Royal Museum in Edinburgh's old town proved the perfect backdrop for a party to celebrate the release of Return to Me, starring Minnie Driver. United International Pictures event planner Caroline Lockyer-Nibbs says: "We needed a venue that combined culture with character. The Royal Museum's stunning interior made it perfect and all our guests were extremely impressed."

At the other end of the country in Kent stands the Hop Farm, which boasts the world's largest collection of kilns to dry hops and dates back to the 1800s.

Hop Farm owner Fiona Pollard says: "Any venue with historical relevance can offer a diversity that you can't find in hotels and purpose-built conference facilities. With the scope covered by our meeting rooms and 250 acres of flat event land, we are proud to be among those venues that excel at providing something a little bit different."

FIVE OF THE BEST HISTORIC HOUSES

Castle Ashby stands at the heart of a 10,000-acre working estate that includes 200 acres of parkland in Northamptonshire just 55 miles north of London. The 26 en-suite bedrooms and myriad elegant reception rooms are each adorned with paintings, tapestries and antiques. The house offers four rooms for conferences, dining or receptions. The Reynolds Room is the largest space and can host 200 guests for a reception or 120 theatre-style for a conference. The Armoury is the smallest area and holds up to 22 people for an intimate dinner or small meeting.

The royal palace of Leeds Castle, which stands four miles east of Maidstone in Kent offers accommodation for meetings plus a choice of banqueting venues to suit a wide spread of budgets. The castle boasts 20 luxurious bedrooms and15 courtyard bedrooms in a cottage style. The Fairfax Hall has a capacity of 250 guests for a reception or 200 for dining and a site beside the moat is ideal for functions in a marqueee for up to 1,200 guests.

The gothic facade of Knebworth House, which has been home to the Lytton family since 1490, is surrounded by 250 acres of parkland, and a 16th century conference and banqueting centre. Local hotels are available to complement the three-star 100-bedroom hotel in the park grounds.

The stately home specialises in providing outdoor event space for up to 125,000 people depending on the activity. Inside, the Banqueting Hall can host receptions for 120 and banquets for 70.

Hever Castle in Edenbridge, Kent is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and dates from 1270. A Tudor Village, which adjoins the castle, is used for residential conferences and private dining. There are 20 bedrooms in the Tudor Village and an additional five bedrooms in the Stables House (100 yards for the Tudor House). The castle's Banqueting Hall can host 120 guests for a reception or 70 for a banquet.

The Bridgeman family, the Earls of Bradford, built Weston Park in 1671.

The house, which is 30 miles from central Birmingham and close to The International Centre, Telford,is home to collections of fine art and antiques and offers 28 bedrooms all with private bathrooms. The venue hosted the Retreat Day for the G8 Summit of world leaders in 2001.

CASE STUDY

Stately home Brocket Hall played host last month to a Cannes Convention Bureau (CCB) summit in which the french resort's hotels and convention centres showcased their offers to UK buyers and agencies.

The first Brocket Hall was built on the Hertfordshire site in 1239, but the present house was built in 1760 and designed by renowned architect James Paine. It features 46 bedrooms, a boardroom that seats up to 160 people and a dining room that can host a banquet for 70. The surrounding 543-acre grounds boast two championship golf courses and a short six-hole course.

Representatives from the Palais des Festivals et des Congres as well as Cannes hotels including the Carlton International, the Noga Hilton and the Majestic Barriere entertained guests with an afternoon of clay pigeon shooting, followed by a murder mystery. In the evening 54 guests were treated to a reception in the Morning Room followed by a banquet in the Ballroom.

After dinner, a casino was organised along with cigars in the Billiard Room. "We wanted a venue that was traditionally English so we could show our appreciation for the vast amount of UK business that comes to Cannes," says CCB commercial director Jean Jacques Lottermoser.

Noga Hilton hotel general manager Richard Duvauchelle adds: "Everyone had heard of the historical importance attached to the venue but no one had been so we decided to pay it a visit."


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