Unique Venues: You ain't seen nothing yet

From a cutlers' HQ to a custard factory, offbeat function spaces are thriving, says Clive Walker.

Looking for a venue that's out of the ordinary? You're not alone: 26 % of UK corporate buyers are going off the beaten track in search of function spaces with the wow-factor, according to the Meetings Industry Association (MIA).

Soaring demand has brought with it a rash of new entrants like Birmingham's Custard Factory and northern England's Woodhorn Museum hoping to capitalise on the trend. Meanwhile industry stalwarts, namely Butlins and Warwick Castle, are upgrading to retain market share in an increasingly competitive sector.

Arguably the most refreshing events venue of recent years is the aptly named Energy Clinic containing six invigorating Feng Shui meeting zones based on the five Chinese elements: water, wood, earth, fire and metal.

The largest, earth, seats 72 or 130 standing and the smallest, fire, is ideal for intimate dinners up to 12 or receptions for 15.

Delegates can get their karma into kilter before, during and after events with 20-minute head and shoulder massages or revitalising vocal sessions.

Energising services are being given an extra boost with the introduction of Qi rejuvenation, offering a luxurious lesson in pampering for 90, 45 or 15-minute sessions. Meridian pressure-point treatment is another innovation comprising head, neck and shoulder massage using Chinese wooden hammers.

The clinic - a stone's throw from Liverpool Street Station, London - is proving a hit with the cosmetic, health and technology sectors. Apple is showcasing its new Xserve Quad Xeon 64-bit server here in February.

Event designer Matt Volk says: "Energising services are being stepped up to help attract a larger share of corporate buyers."

It's stopped making gooey yellow pudding but Bird's Custard Factory in Birmingham is still on everyone's lips. The five-acre cluster of riverside Victorian factories is now an arts and media quarter where 500 artists live and work. The community includes a theatre cafe, antique shops, meeting rooms, dance studios, holistic therapy rooms, art galleries, Medicine Bar and Code nightclub.

Bosses are hoping to sweeten event buyers with plans for a 40,000 exhibition centre supported by a boutique hotel. For the time being, organisers can stage dinner dances and cocktails in the recently restored Old Library which holds up to 300.

Versatile space

The Custard Factory was recently transformed into a winter wonderland by Pure Events for recruitment company Tal-os Europe. For Vicki Ashley, the agency's marketing manager, its wow-factor is the simplicity of design.

"It doesn't have any overbearing characteristics that dominate or influence the room, so it is the most versatile space that we have worked with."

Commenting on potential enhancements, Ashley suggests dedicated catering facilities in the Old Library. She explains: "There was no catering on site so food had to be brought from another building. This could cause problems for larger groups."

Woodhorn Museum is the newest kid on the corporate entertainment block.

Just four months old, the former colliery is developing a rich seam of business clients intrigued by its re-creation of yesteryear Northumberland.

The £16m attraction includes a restored coalmine set within 40 acres of parkland plus a purpose-built archive holding 700 years of history, mystery, folklore and commerce. Function spaces range from an intimate meeting space for eight to a multi-purpose exhibition hall seating 96 or 130 standing.

Work is underway transforming a former mine works shop into a second exhibition space accommodating in excess of 140 standing. That's welcome news to regular client Michael Arnot, manager at Wansbeck Business Forum, who believes the local area is desperately short of unique function spaces.

"We struggle to find rooms that hold above 50 delegates apart from community centres which are not ideal," says Arnot. "Woodhorn works because it is in the district - our members are local businesses - and it has historical wow-factor."

January saw Wansbeck stage its third business networking event at Woodhorn.

While generally satisfied, Arnot suggests management could significantly improve service quality with a streamlined event space booking service.

"Pre-event, you can have trouble getting in touch by telephone to book space. You can find yourself talking to an answer machine or playing telephone tennis," he adds.

The MIA has identified 40 areas where unique venues need to tighten service.

Top of the list is staff service, followed by catering and quality of facilities.

Heeding MIA's advice, Cutlers' Hall, Sheffield has launched Success Guaranteed - a quality charter mark enshrining customer service, operating standards and food quality. "Success Guaranteed promises to get it right or put it right every time," says sales manager Simon Leak.

This Grade II-listed livery hall - headquarters of the Company of Cutlers - dates from 1638 and houses silver, paintings, furniture and of course cutlery. It offers seven ornate function rooms suited to gala dinners, ranging from the Main Hall, seating 500, to the Windsor Room, accommodating 20 for private dinners.

Meanwhile Butlins is shedding its Hi-De-Hi image by investing heavily in the quality of its corporate event spaces. Bookings are up 50% with Deloitte Touche, Ernst & Young and ICI among blue-chip clients holding events here. Around £1m has been spent creating two high-capacity suites at its Bognor Regis and Skegness sites. Some 350 guests can be seated for gala dinners, themed parties and product launches at Bognor, while Skegness holds 320 for similar functions.

Every venue claims to be unique. But historical options like the Tower of London and Warwick Castle really do have something special to shout about. "Where other venues recreate historical settings we offer places where some of the most significant events in British history took place," says Tower events manager Rosemary Ridyard.

Where else can clients entertain in a reconstructed king's bedchamber or mingle among 12,314 diamonds in a 'white' tower? Receptions for up to 300 or dinners for 240 can be held in a host of ancient rooms, including a working officers' mess or a military storehouse.

"Finding new ideas for this 1000-year-old venue and incorporating them can be something of a challenge. This year we're anxious to include areas currently not open to the public but this will depend on finances," adds Ridyard.

Warwick Castle - also 1,000 years old - is sharpening its act with swashbuckling teambuilding such as Knight School, where wannabe Sir Galahads are instructed in medieval sword-fighting. Themed events range from ghost tours, highwayman's supper or kingmaker's feast to dinners in the Great Hall rounded off by fireworks. The castle itself accommodates relatively modest numbers: the Great Hall seats 130 or 150 standing, the state dining room holds 30 for dinner and the Georgian coach house 80. However, large-scale events for up to 2,000 can be comfortably staged in the dedicated marquee within the castle walls.

Buyers will spend at least £500m this year on events staged in unusual venues, according to Sodexho Prestige. But rising demand could prove a double-edged sword. Organisers expect to be consistently wowed and venues will need to work harder and harder to keep the magic fresh and exciting.

GHOULISHNESS, GREENWICH AND GAMESHOWS

Unique venue: Knebworth is best known for its huge open-air rock concerts, but the gothic mansion, with its eerie turrets, griffins and gargoyles, is perfect for horror-themed events. Tesco wanted a non-traditional venue to stage its Christmas ball for 500 staff and picked Knebworth because its gothic exterior created a 'truly ghoulish atmosphere'.

Only 30 miles from London, the 19th-century Hertfordshire pile seats 60 for gala dinners or 200 for cocktail receptions. For larger dinners, Knebworth Barns Conference and Banqueting Centre - made up of two 400-year-old tithe barns - seats 400 and is within walking distance from the house.

Unique product: London's Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian, is the starting point of each new day. Its latest corporate package lets guests hop across the hemispheres on the Prime Meridian line while enjoying champagne and canapes. This is followed by a tour of the Royal Observatory and a visit to galleries housing the finest collection of scientific and navigational instruments in the world. Dinner parties for 60 or cocktails for 150 can be held in the Octagon Room, inside Sir Christopher Wren's Flamsteed House, followed by stargazing and planet-spotting with telescope viewings in the courtyard.

Unique service: Everyone wants to be a millionaire. Now it's a lot easier at the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? TV studios at Elstree, north London.

Ideally geared to teambuilding, it allows up to 200 to phone a friend or ask the audience between 9am and midnight throughout March, April and May. WWTBAM is managed by The Ultimate Event Company on behalf of Celador International. Sue Martineau, managing director at the agency, says: "Clients can personalise the experience, utilising the set, audience voting buttons, complete production, and even the questions, making the experience completely authentic."


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