Museums and Attractions: The old guard fights back

Historical building venues are brushing up their offerings to compete with modern rivals. Claire Bond reports.

The UK might occasionally score sporting greatness or make a popular film, but one thing it produces with consistence is history. The country is steeped in historical artefacts both large and small - a trait that has not escaped the events trade. Historical venues are not renowned for providing the much sought-after 'blank canvas' as spaces, but do add presence and, on occasion, a feeling of grandeur.

The Signet Library in Edinburgh is one such. The building was completed in 1822 and designed by Robert Reid. As an event space it offers both the Lower and Upper libraries, which can accommodate 220 and 400 guests for drinks receptions respectively.

"The venue has an extraordinary history," says event manager Philly Nicholson.

"It's the oldest legal society in the world which certainly provides a good edge for the corporate work especially if the company has a law connection.

The history is spectacular and demonstrates Georgian grandeur at its best.

The wow factor is created when you look at the ornate cornice stone and pillars but also appreciate the modern twist."

A recent coup for the venue was staging the last show of the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival.

In April fashion designer Matthew Williamson showed his latest collection as part of his 'Then, Now, Next' catwalk show.

"The Signet team was immensely proud to be chosen by organiser Edinburgh City Centre Management Company to host the closing event of the festival.

We had a fantastic response and it was delighted. The venue is long and narrow and so lent itself well to a catwalk show," says Nicholson.

Although the venue obviously carries a traditional theme, Nicholson says creativity is welcomed and clients can stamp their own ideas onto the venue.

Unique creation

"Of course delegates can do the standard hire and enjoy the venue as it is because it is heavily decorated," says Nicholson. "But organisers can introduce their own influence and create something uniquely theirs.

We're happy to add theming and signage. Clients can use their own event design, especially lighting. Visitors can pick out certain features and highlight aspects if they wish."

She insists the venue provides a mixture of both past and present as it offers all modern facilities. Being able to offer both a contemporary feel as well as state-of-the-art event technology is something historical venues fully appreciate.

At Hampton Court Palace, which houses its own festival in June, the events team increasingly receives requests for marquees despite the venue's expansive capacities. When added to the venue these offer a blank canvas space with which clients have a free rein to decorate as they wish.

"An increasing trend is to host part of the event within a marquee. It provides the best of both worlds. Some companies then theme the area in keeping with the venue, others will go off on a tangent and use bold themes such as black and white," says Hampton Court Palace event manager Stuart MacFarlane. "The history is just a part of it but the venue remains extremely versatile."

London-based Wellington Arch marketing manager Kath Jones agrees. The iconic landmark's contemporary white interior belies the ornate historical nature of its exterior. "Each event is individual," says Jones. "We have two hospitality managers that can tailor the event to particular needs.

Some clients use it as it stands but others choose to theme it accordingly," she adds.

The arch remains a relatively untapped resource as most are unaware of its capabilities as a venue. "It remains a well-kept secret and at most of the events that we stage none of the guests have been before so that adds a novelty value," says Jones. Recent clients at the space, which can accommodate 80 people for a drinks reception and 36 dining guests, include BBC MasterChef and Mumm Champagne.

For Hampton Court Palace, which falls under the Historic Royal Palaces umbrella, the historical angle remains at the forefront of the venue's marketing.

MacFarlane, however, suggests clients are also enticed to the venue because of its space, location and increasingly for its security. Last year the palace hosted the EU summit, which of course demanded the highest levels of security. Demonstrating its versatility the team staged the international event in October, welcoming 25 EU leaders through its Tudor doors. The event required the palace to be closed for the first time.

Historical venues insist that the antiquity of a number of their buildings does not affect their ability to remain competitive with contemporary peers. "If you want the history you can have it but if you want to be contemporary we can do that too. We, of course, have conservational requirements but the venue is also quite flexible," adds MacFarlane.

Ashton Court Mansion near Bristol's city centre is another venue eager to prove it can go head-to-head with contemporary rivals. Despite being steeped in 900 years of history its 2006 Christmas package - organised by The Christmas Company - is themed 'The night it snowed in Rio.'

The parties will include a four-course dinner and Caipirinha cocktail bar, Samba drummers, Salsa dancers, acrobats, fire-eaters and indoor pyrotechnics.

The venue, also available through Sodexho Prestige, can offer 300sqm of space for exhibitions.

Team-building package

For the die-hard historians, however, there is a new visitor attraction in St Saviour's Church, York that now welcomes corporate firms as part of its team-building package. DIG, which opened in April, allows visitors the chance to take part in a range of archaeological themed activities.

The team-building concept, from specialist City Challenge, is designed to build morale and improve communication skills.

"DIG is a fantastic new interactive attraction for visitors to York," says York Archaeological Trust sales and business development executive Dominic Burton. "It really is a world first because people can actually take part in a real excavation, discover artefacts from ancient civilisations and understand how archaeologists recreate the past. The historical theme which is at the heart of City Challenge's other events meant there was a natural synergy between the two companies and we like the fact that it gives us a very different product to promote to the corporate hospitality and event marketplace."

The pull of the past, it seems, is compelling provided venues remain flexible and are prepared to cater for organisers' every requirement.

The divide between old and new is often bridged by local convention bureaux or marketing outfits. Many share marketing consortia as part of their promotional strategy.

Hull's Aquatic venue The Deep competes with event venues in Leeds, York and Sheffield but belongs to the Yorkshire Magnificent Venues group, which includes the National Railway Museum and Harewood House and Bird Garden.

The Deep business centre manager Freya Cross says the venues can remain unique while also complementing each other in terms of resources.

Cross believes The Deep's contemporary theme is one of a number of reasons clients are attracted to the venue. "They are drawn to The Deep for the flexibility it allows them in terms of designing or creating a theme, while rays, sharks and tropical fish provide a magnificent backdrop impossible to replicate elsewhere," she says.

Tank-side views

Cross adds: "The Deep has attracted more than 2.2 million visitors since opening in March 2002. This has provided a huge audience for us to talk up not only the corporate facilities on offer but also education, conservation and more recently the opening of our a la carte restaurant Two Rivers, where diners can enjoy 'tank side' views on Friday and Saturday evenings."

State-of-the-art venues such as The Deep and the Glasgow Science Centre insist that much of their attraction does indeed lie with their iconic structures. "Glasgow Science Centre's futuristic titanium-clad exterior certainly makes it a Glasgow landmark and an unforgettable backdrop," says centre spokesperson Claire Gemson. "But it's what's inside that makes it truly special,"

The space can hold up to 3,000 guests and is currently undergoing a number of improvements including expanding the floor space by 500sqm and an LED-lit feature wall that clients can theme.

The capital is also not immune to the touch of the contemporary. As London becomes more and more cosmopolitan, the skyline continues to change alongside it. Iconic historical venues sit beside futuristic additions such as the Tussauds Group-owned British Airways London Eye. Launched as part of the millennium celebrations it has become an integral symbol of modern architecture.

"Due to our location, within the M25 we do have a lot of competition," says spokesperson Liz Edwards. "But the unique experience of flying 135 metres above the capital with sparkling Laurent-Perrier champagne and canapes is unrivalled. We are immensely proud of our corporate offering.

We have the 21st century's most contemporary iconic venue so we can change our corporate packages to suit every pocket and seasonal occasion, without changing the experience of flying the Eye."

Despite the cosmetic differences there are examples of where old meets new and the edges blur. The Eye's neighbour, County Hall, is one such space housing one of the more contemporary spaces, Namco Station. It can house from 10 to 1,200 guests for a party, with Techno Bowling and bumper cars on offer to entertain the crowds. Proof, if proof be needed, that UK venues can offer every mix of rich historical presence alongside 21st century icons.

NEW & REFURBISHED VENUES

BATTLE ABBEY IN EAST SUSSEX

Battle Abbey and Battlefield has just undergone a £2.3m refurbishment of its visitor facilities. New features include a purpose-built visitor centre, which can be used as an exhibition space and auditorium. It also features interactive displays, hands-on objects and listening points to give visitors an idea of Anglo-Saxon and Norman life.

LIVERPOOL CATHEDRAL

The cathedral celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004. A £10m refurbishment is due to complete this year. It will include a new visitor centre. The cathedral is 9,687sqm and the grand organ is said to be the largest in the world with 9,765 pipes.

A number of its areas are available for events.

NEW

ALL STAR LANES IN HOLBORN

Based in Bloomsbury Square, All Star Lanes features a bowling alley, American diner and bar. Its four main public bowling lanes can accommodate up to 70 guests, the American Brasserie 65, and the bar can host up to 120 for a reception. The whole venue can accommodate 260.

The Big Brother house in Hertfordshire It is the second year agency the Ultimate Event Company has been chosen to manage the infamous house as an event venue. It is available for hire during the last two weeks of September and throughout October.


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