South of England: Capital lights up the south

London continues to steal the limelight as the events hub of the South. But Steve Hemsley finds its rivals remain upbeat.

As free publicity goes, being chosen to host the final of this year's successful BBC2 show The Apprentice is hard to beat for any venue. More than 5.5 million people tuned in to watch engineer Michelle Dewberry and sales manager Ruth Badger battle it out as event organisers on Tower Bridge's Walkways.

The Walkways span the north and south towers 45 metres above the River Thames, offering views of the Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and The Monument. This creates the 'wow' factor hosts need and helped Dewberry attract guests to her James Bond-themed evening, which ultimately won her a six-figure job with Sir Alan Sugar.

The BBC's choice of such a glamorous and unusual venue for the show's finale emphasises the attraction London continues to hold for event organisers and their clients. It is a magnetism that venues across the South of England surely find themselves always pulling against.

London-based production company Octopus sympathises with venues in counties such as Kent, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex as well as those in the South West that work hard to woo clients away from the capital.

Director of event management Paul Smith says: "Many large clients such as Deutsche Bank are based in London and prefer not to attend corporate events, meetings or product launches more than one hour's drive from the office."

Nevertheless, this unwritten rule still means there is plenty of opportunity to book more rural locations such as Cliveden House in Taplow, Berkshire.

The 17th century hotel is only 40 minutes from central London and 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport. Its restaurant, Waldo's, has a Michelin star. Meanwhile, The Grove near Watford in Hertfordshire, on the outskirts of the capital, is marketing itself as London's Country Estate. It only opened as an events location in 2003 but was named AA Hotel of the Year 2004/05. This year it will host a round of the American Express World Golf championships.

Another destination just below the one-hour barrier attracting a lot of interest is the Four Seasons in Hampshire. This Georgian manor house at Hook can provide business guests with equestrian or shooting sessions or fishing on the hotel's own stretch of canal. In June Octopus organised a high-level business meeting for 20 executives from a pharmaceutical company at the Four Seasons after the prospect of a boat trip convinced the client to abandon the city. "There are boxes that have to be ticked to get London clients to travel even one hour, and these are the kind of venues that will tempt them," says Smith.

He adds that for other venues in the South to break London's dominance in events, will require more competitive pricing and better transport.

"If an event is being held in Hampshire the venue could organise a luxury coach from the client's London office so delegates can work on their laptops and mobiles on the journey," says Smith.

Events organiser Penguins sales and marketing director Jonathan Story says the pressure on southern venues to compete with London has led to considerable investment in facilities.

"You do get better value for money in the North, but southern venues away from London should certainly be shouting louder about what they can offer clients because location still wins over cost," he says. "Even those venues one and a half hours from London can generate significant events revenue. People may want to stay in the capital for an exhibition or product launch but they are increasingly looking to go away for more activity-led events."

Brighton is investing heavily in its facilities. Since it achieved city status the council's marketing arm Visit Brighton has worked with other British Heritage cities in the South such as Bath to promote the whole region. Key events this year have included the Brighton Art Festival at the end of May while the Brighton & Hove Food and Drink Festival takes place throughout September.

Seaside resorts have always been famous for hosting political conferences and The Brighton Centre will host the Liberal Democrat party conference this year, the Conservatives in 2007 and the Labour party the following year, in partnership with the city's major hotels The Grand and The Hilton Metropole.

However, with the council having announced four years ago that Brighton Centre would close in January 2006 - now not until 2010 - it is having trouble communicating that it is in fact open.

In response, the centre appointed its first sales manager Debbie Matthews in April to spread the word that its facilities - including a main hall for 4,500 people and 2,000sqm of exhibition space - are available. "I will be visiting IMEX, The National Venue Show and maybe International Confex as well as launching a direct marketing campaign. We are even taking a marketing roadshow to London," says Matthews.

She hopes to win more event business from northern organisers at the National Venue Show and regards the refurbished Bournemouth International Centre as one of Brighton Centre's main competitors. The South East, including Brighton, is home to more than 8 million people and despite containing 22% of England's motorway network there is growing concern about congestion.

This can be also deter organisers from bringing business or public events to the region.

On the other hand, Kent, the UK's most populated county with 1.6 million people, and on London's doorstep, has a number of successful venues. These include Leeds Castle near Maidstone, situated just off the M20 and set in 500 acres of parkland. Once again it will host a number of outdoor classical music concerts throughout the summer.

Events consultancy Write Style Communications is working with the Kent Conference Bureau (KCB) to train hotel and venue staff from around the county on how to run successful familiarisation trips and promote their venues. Two facilities the KCB has been promoting to organisers with special offers so far this year are the Priestfield Conference and Banqueting site at Gillingham Football Club and the Witherdane Conference Centre at Wye near Ashford.

Further west and situated within the New Forest in Hampshire, the Beaulieu Motor Museum is also striving to win more event business. It hosted around 40 events last year and has an ongoing promotional campaign using online and direct marketing activity to attract new clients, particularly from around the Southampton and Portsmouth areas.

The banqueting facilities in the motor museum can seat up to 250 people, and so far this year it has hosted a race themed night for private doctors and their partners from Nuffield Hospital and an awards ceremony for pub company Hall and Woodhouse. Sales manager for Leith's at Beaulieu Cloe Vanlerenberghe says the corporate events market in the South is more competitive than ever. "Although we have great facilities we do not have a hotel onsite.

Companies that book hotels in Southampton, for instance, tend to want to stay in Southampton, so we constantly have to create awareness about what we can offer," she says. "One of our biggest rivals these days is Legoland."

Another classic venue looking to ramp up its event business is Bovey Castle, set in 368sqm of Dartmoor National Park in Devon. Although it is more than two hours from London by train, it does benefit from good road links from Exeter and Plymouth to tempt the local market. Like Beaulieu, Bovey Castle is aware of the need to constantly market its facilities, which include a golf course built in 1926, 65 bedrooms and a capacity of 120 people for a product launch.

"This is a luxury destination popular with the incentive travel market as well as companies wanting to impress the media when they want to unveil something new," says spokeswoman Adrienne Eastwood.

"We are spending heavily on PR, direct mail and on educational visits to show event organisers from the UK and across the world what is on offer." For suppliers the investment by venues across the South should mean more of their business comes from outside of London. Yet there are questions as to whether they will be tempted away from the capital because of the rise in the number of venues in the city itself.

London-based independent catering company Richmond Catering has run catering at the Hammersmith Palais and traditional corporate dinners at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Director Barry Seaman says the emergence of art galleries, museums and landmarks such as Tower Bridge as venues means many southern-based suppliers need not pitch outside the M25.

"This can create difficulties. Often when a client does book an event away from the capital they will ask for a London caterer rather than a local supplier for a London menu. This will mean a big difference in price so companies have to make a choice," says Seaman. He adds many southern venues rely on caterers to bring them new business but believes destinations that do well are those that market themselves effectively. "We have started to work a lot with Woburn Abbey which has taken a proactive approach by promoting itself to local businesses to stop them taking so much of its event business to London," he says.

British Association of Conference Destinations chief executive Tony Rogers says there has always been a 'golden triangle' in the UK touching London, Bristol and Birmingham and all southern venues within these points benefit.

"Industry research has shown that event organisers and clients still place location ahead of price and quality of facilities when booking events, but if there are good transport links organisers will look away from London," he says.

The South of England is a competitive market and London's dominance will not disappear. Maybe other destinations should ask Sir Alan for the phone numbers of those talented applicants he fired so publicly to help fight their corner.

2006 EVENTS

- Simply Red, The Who and Pink Floyd will play at Beaulieu National Motor Museum's only music event over the weekend of 1-3 July. Situated in the heart of the New Forest at Brockenhurst, the Beaulieu Summer Pop festival will attract up to 30,000 people across the three nights.

- The 150-acre South of England Showground at Ardingly in West Sussex hosts the 40th anniversary of the South of England Agricultural Society's annual show on 9-10 June. Thousands of visitors will see farming and countryside demonstrations as well as 1,500 trade stands selling everything from strawberries to saunas.

- Windsor Racecourse will host the trade exhibition IOG Saltex on 5-7 September attended by around 15,000 representatives from the ground care, sports amenities and landscaping industry. There will be more than 400 suppliers, live demonstrations and product launches. The show also includes the national final of the Landscape Skills Competition with the winner going to the world finals in Japan.

- The absence of Glastonbury this year could boost numbers attending the five-day Big Green Gathering in Somerset's Mendip Hills from 2-6 August.

More than 20,000 people are expected to attend this craft and music event which promotes a green lifestyle and uses a bicycle-powered sound system.

It is organised by the Big Green Gathering Company.

- The Bournemouth Ideal Home Exhibition will take place at the Bournemouth International Centre for the 11th consecutive year from 31 August until 3 September. Organiser Premier Exhibitions will make the most of the venue's £22m revamp in its marketing campaign.

The event is sponsored by the local Daily Echo and Advertiser which is producing a 16-page supplement.

NEW & REFURBISHED SOUTHERN VENUES

HOLIDAY INN BRIGHTON

More than £3.5m has been spent refurbishing the Holiday Inn on Brighton's seafront. All conference rooms now have air conditioning and the popular Arundel Room has had a major makeover. The largest event last year was the Unison gathering around the Labour party conference. This year the Liberal Democrats will hold all meetings related to health issues in the hotel. "We face stiff competition in Brighton but because we are not too big we can offer more personal attention to detail," says general manager Paul Wright.

THE HOP FARM COUNTRY PARK

Owner Kent Attractions hopes a significant investment in 64 chalets at The Hop Farm Country Park near Tonbridge will attract more event business from outside the county. Currently most of its half a million visitors a year travel less than an hour to the venue which was traditionally owned by brewer Whitbread and sits in 250 acres of Kent countryside. Its big public events include a War and Peace show attracting more than 100,000 people over five days (19-23 July). "Corporate events such as product launches are not yet a significant part of our business, but this is something we expect will grow next year when we can offer attendees accommodation," says events manager Susan Murphy.

LAVERSTOKE PARK

Former Formula One world champion Jody Scheckter's 2,500-acre organic farm estate at Laverstoke Park in Overton, Hampshire, has launched an events business. Laverstoke Events will focus on attracting corporate entertainment, product launches, family fun days and team building bookings to the farm, which can hold up to 5,000 people at a time. The chefs at the Park can cater for up to 1,000 guests serving food raised or grown on the farm. Commercial director Nick Rudlin will host an open day on 1 July where well-known chef Raymond Blanc will give food demonstrations.

There will also be a tour of the event facilities and a chance to taste food from the farm, including Buffalo Milk ice cream.

BOURNEMOUTH INTERNATIONAL CENTRE

The BIC has benefited from a £22m redevelopment which has included the construction of an extra hall to allow larger events to be staged. The 1,500sqm Solent Hall has already been used by the Royal College of Nurses Congress which returned to the venue after an absence of six years, while the Police Federation and union Unison will each bring more than 2,000 delegates this summer. The refurbishment project received £4.4m from the South West Regional Development Agency and bookings for the BIC now stretch to 2014. The first event following the revamp was the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies conference last October.

NORTON PARK

The hotel near Winchester has been acquired by Leeds-based Quintessential Hotels. It has changed its name and is benefiting from an £11m expansion programme due for completion in January 2007. The hotel is being transformed from a management training centre into a four-star hotel. There will be a new conference centre with a capacity of 300 and the number of bedrooms will increase from 97 to 185. Bar and dining facilities are being rebranded and a modern health and beauty suite is being built.


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