Destination report: Norfolk’s meetings industry

Norfolk is reachable in under two hours from London by train, yet there is rural seclusion with the opportunity to mix business and pleasure in the county.

While Norwich is the main business centre, there is no shortage of coastal scenery on the North Norfolk coast if you want to blow away any business cobwebs and brainstorm under big skies.

Norfolk has a number of thriving industry sectors that have made it a hub for business and helped inoculate the area from the depths of economic recession. These sectors include technology and Norwich is home to a number of firms that offer an extension of both the East London and Cambridge technology hubs.

Three of these technology leaders include Foolproof (19th in the Sunday Times 2013 top 100 companies to work for list), Near Field Communication (NFC) mobile specialist Proxama and Validus (car insurance claim validation technology).

Financial Services is traditionally one of Norwich’s core industries and the city hosts companies such as Aviva, RBS, Virgin Money and Swinton Insurance.

Office space is at a premium in the city and the requirement for off-site meeting options has grown in the last five years.

Norfolk’s proximity to the East coast means it is can be a base for energy companies that operate the oil and gas fields of the North Sea. Norwich International Airport handles many helicopter commuter trips to the oil rigs, and offers a regular daily flight route with Aberdeen.

Being an agricultural county, some large food brands such as Bernard Matthews, Banham Poultry, Kettle Foods and Linda McCartney Foods are significant employers.

“Universal WorldEvents traditionally holds UK-based meetings and events in major hub cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester due to ease of access for the delegates,” says the agency’s Proposal Manager Vicky Pratt. “However, when organising a small group for either a board meeting or incentive, we would consider Norfolk, specifically ‘country house’ style properties where teambuilding can also be offered on the grounds. Good examples of these include Sprowston Manor Hotel near Norwich and the Dales Country House Hotel in Sheringham. The Exhibition Centre at the Forum, in Norwich, is a space capable of catering for groups up to 500 delegates.

 “Norfolk is not traditionally an easy location to get to from throughout the UK, so we would tend to recommend it for London-based groups who can travel by train to Norwich before being transferred to their hotels.”

 Anna-Marie Moody from the Alumni, Conferences and Events department at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says the UEA offers meeting spaces on the campus.

Lecture theatres, a choice of catering options and 1,000 en-suite bedrooms, mean that workshops and training days are often hosted at the venues.

Hotel standard bed and breakfast accommodation is available throughout the year in Broadview Lodge and student accommodation is available during the summer vacation period.

 “Building 57 (it is the 57th building to be built on campus) is being constructed and will include a 280-seat lecture theatre and an 80-seat Harvard style lecture theatre and seminar rooms,” says Moody.

“The University’s meeting and accommodation facilities are available outside of core teaching periods including evenings, weekends and from mid June through to mid September.” 

If you need help finding a venue in the county, the Norfolk Conference Bureau, initially established in 2005, is currently in limbo, as Norfolk Tourism, decides how best to proceed, if at all, in marketing its business tourism product, on the back of some tough budget decisions.

The old bureau’s former venue members include Norwich Cathedral Hostry, King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, St Andrews and Blackfriars Halls Norwich and EcoTech Centre Swaffham.

For a technology conference, organisers may like to consider EPIC Norwich, a working TV studio, and Fusion at The Forum Norwich, the largest digital screen gallery in Europe.

The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association held its annual five-day conference with 300 delegates at OPEN, a relatively new venue for Norwich, converted from a Grade II listed building that was once the Barclays regional headquarters.

The Association of Marine Electronic and Radio Colleges (AMERC) held a two-day AGM at Park Farm in Hethersett, a hotel five miles south of Norwich where conference rooms can accommodate up to 120 delegates.

Eric Lamb from AMERC praised the area as “a suitable location, with ample areas of interest for delegates and partners to explore and enjoy”.

£1.4m worth of work has been undertaken at Norfolk’s largest indoor venue, the Norfolk Showground, owned by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association. John Purling, Chief Executive, says improved acoustics make it an ideal venue for productions and improvements will mean the building is of the required standard to cater for conferences and trade events.

Barnham Broom is a high-end, four-star hotel with a purpose-built conference centre situated in 300 acres of Norfolk countryside, 10 miles west of Norwich.

Peace and quiet is one of the USPs used in marketing many Norfolk venues and this  hotel boasts two Championship golf courses, a restaurant and health facilities and pool.

Barnham Broom’s event team identifies a trend for organisers to book meetings in Norfolk on a Friday or a Monday and make a long weekend of it by staying in the hotel.

And you can’t talk hospitality and catering in Norwich with mentioning Delia.

Delia Smith’s Canary Catering at Norwich City Football Club is responsible for the conference and banqueting facilities which now attract 35,000 non-matchday people to the stadium a year. A further 7,000 have attended a variety of other special events over the past 12 months.

The club is one of the largest venues in Norfolk and, with 15 function rooms.  All menus are taken from Delia’s recipes and all members of the Front of House Team must go through a strict training programme.

Canary Catering is candid about the challenging economic climate which, it admits, has had a significant impact on the business and led to the introduction of the £18 Essential Day Delegate Rate. 

Melanie O’Connor, Business Development Manager, says: “While there are still businesses which have remained relatively untouched by the downturn, there are far more who are now operating on a fraction of the budgets they had before. 

“The new rate has proved popular with new and existing clients alike as it gives them the opportunity to have a meeting off site without paying a premium for extra luxuries, such as conference packs and muffins,” she adds.

Within the banqueting sector, Delia’s Canary Catering has also experienced some changes “in a client-led market”, says O’Connor.

“Venues are being increasingly challenged to tailor packages to suit the clients’ requirements rather than having a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she adds. 

Nevertheless Delia’s Canary Catering at Carrow Road is budgeting for a record-breaking year for conference and banqueting in 2013-14.

This was first published in the April edition of CN. Any comments? Email sarah@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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