THEME PARKS: Park life - Despite the UK weather, theme parks can make a great place to hold an event whatever the time of year, says Abigail Wills

Alton Towers closed its doors to the public for one weekend in June this year and handed the Staffordshire theme park to BT for exclusive use. The family fun day, rumoured to cost the telecoms giant £1m, was open to 15,000 employees and their families. It was the biggest corporate event Alton Towers has hosted and is a prime example of how seriously theme parks take corporate business.

Penny Ellis, managing director at venue-finding and event management firm EventWise, notes that theme parks are traditionally used for a combination of events in one day, such as team-building followed by a gala dinner.

She warns that companies must be careful not to send a mixed message to staff by holding a serious business event at a venue traditionally associated with fun.

However, theme parks up and down the UK are reporting an increase in the level of corporate business they deal with and stress that they can cater for any kind of corporate event.

Thorpe Park event executive Lynne Paterson says the Surrey theme park hosts more than 100 corporate events a year and lists Gillette, Bank of Scotland, Vodafone and international courier DHL among its clients.

Repeat business

Legoland corporate sales manager Penny Jenkins names Shell, Big Yellow and Lloyds TSB as regular clients at the Windsor venue. "We have seen a big increase in repeat business, which has come as a surprise even to us. We would expect companies to vary their choice of venue more," she comments.

Holding an event at a theme park has many benefits - easy access from motorways, experienced event staff, flexible spaces, a host of activities on site and a sense of originality. But there is one big drawback. Thanks mainly to the British climate, UK attractions are only open from April to September.

"Groups can use the hospitality venues outside the usual season but there is a limited offer because of the extensive maintenance that takes place," explains Legoland's Jenkins. "Sometimes groups get lucky and can use the park's rides but we don't advertise the fact to avoid disappointment."

However, theme parks are becoming more flexible. Rides at Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park can be hired on weekdays in September and October when the park is closed to the public. And this year Chessington will throw open its doors to the public over Christmas for the first time when a new range of festive corporate packages will be available at the Surrey attraction.

Widening the offer

Legoland anticipates a busy Christmas party season following the introduction of a Hawaiian theme night, and Blackpool Pleasure Beach has widened its corporate offer with murder mystery evenings. Alton Towers sales manager Helen Johnson says the creation of more purpose-built space means it is open for corporate events all year round.

EventWise's Ellis agrees that theme parks' opening times are no longer dictated by seasonality and have a much better year-round cycle, but adds that bank holidays and peak holiday seasons are still best avoided.

However, for companies looking to conduct product sampling, launch a product, or increase brand knowledge, the sponsorship and branding opportunities at the venues and the footfall in peak season are definite advantages.

In the past, the novelty factor has meant companies paying a premium but as the market stands every venue is striving to be more cost-effective and theme parks are no exception. Value for money, combined with the growing realisation among the corporate market that they offer a versatile, professional product, means theme parks are establishing a well-deserved foothold in the hearts and minds of event organisers.

FIVE OF THE BEST THEME PARKS

- Alton Towers

The Alton Towers Conference Centre, 391-room Splash Landings Hotel and Cariba Creek Waterpark opened earlier this year. The Hospitality Suite can seat 350 guests for dinner and the Stateroom can accommodate 440 for a dinner-dance.

- Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Groups can combine dinner with hiring their favourite ride for exclusive use in the evenings. Murder mystery evenings can also be organised.

- Chessington World of Adventures

Groups of up to 3,000 can make use of greenfield area The Glade, or The Meadow is ideal for events for up to 5,000. The Krazy Keg Family Inn is available for Wild West-themed events at the Surrey theme park.

- Legoland

The virtual reality Rocket Racers Attraction can be hired for groups to build and race their own cars, or groups can opt for dinner events. The Windsor park's model makers can be hired to show how it's done.

- Thorpe Park

The Surrey attraction's Extreme Nites corporate package combines exclusive use of two of the park's fastest rides, Colossus and Nemesis Inferno, with dinner and extreme entertainers such as fire-eaters and chainsaw jugglers. The Thorpe Bell paddle steamer and Lakeside hospitality area have recently been refurbished.


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