The conference market in Oxfordshire is holding its own and seeing an increase in demand for unique experiences and venues with a heritage feel, according to Jo Butler, Head of Tourism and Marketing at Meet Oxfordshire, the conference bureau for Oxford and Oxfordshire.
Butler says Oxfordshire’s proximity to London is a key factor for corporates and agents when considering the county for events, as is the range of venues on offer, which cover a variety of budgets. “We have non-residential, purpose-built conference facilities such as the Williams F1 Conference Centre, the World Heritage site of Blenheim Palace, as well as locations for residential conferences ranging from ensuite luxury hotels to student-study bedrooms in ancient college quadrangles,” she says.
Independent hotel group Four Pillars is well represented in Oxford and the surrounding area with four hotels available for meetings.
The Group’s Oxford Thames Four Pillars Hotel is set in 30 acres of parkland on the River Thames and recently invested £2m on a multi-functional Conservatory, as well as new and upgraded bedrooms. Opened in May 2013, the Conservatory adds 135sqm of space to the hotel’s nine meeting rooms and has increased its bedroom capacity to 84 rooms.
The 174-room Oxford Spires is a short walk from the city centre and offers 19 meeting rooms; the Oxford Witney has 87 rooms and can cater for up to 150 delegates; and the Oxford Abingdon, which is six miles south of Oxford in the heart of the Thames Valley, has capacity for 140 delegates.
Chris Green, Four Pillars Hotels Group Marketing Manager, says there was an upturn in business in 2013 not only from local and regional business, but from clients further afield who recognise the benefits of holding events in Oxford.
“Oxford has much to offer – a multi-cultural atmosphere, nearby Cotswold landscapes and historic houses,” he says. “Oxford also has the advantage of being easily accessible via the main motorways, by rail from London and just over an hour from Heathrow and Birmingham airports.
“Our Oxfordshire hotels attract a range of clients from sectors including financial, car and pharmaceutical companies and we are optimistic for this new year as the economic climate continues to improve. We expect the trend of shorter booking lead times to continue and for the use of social media in events to increase,” he adds.
Set in 400 acres of Oxfordshire countryside, Heythrop Park Resort boasts two individual hotels: Heythrop Park Hotel and the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The Resort also offers conference facilities, an 18-hole golf course, health club and spa.
Heythrop Park Hotel has recently undergone a major refurbishment of its Archer Bedroom Wing and the Shrewsbury Meeting Wing. The hotel can host up to 250 delegates theatre-style, while the Crowne Plaza can accommodate 400 delegates theatre-style in its Ballroom.
With Oxford’s well-known academic history, The University of Oxford Saïd Business School is a popular option for conferences and events. The University’s two sites, Park End Street in the city centre and Egrove Park two miles outside of Oxford, offer lecture theatres with capacity for 300 and 112 delegates respectively. Park End’s new West Wing opened in February last year following a £28m investment in its conference facilities, while Egrove Park offers 63 en-suite bedrooms.
Located in the heart of the city, Oxford Town Hall has 14 function rooms, including the Main Hall with capacity for 700 delegates and the Court Room, which offers direct access to the old cells.
Commercial Manager at Oxford Town Hall, Richard Clements says business is up 20 per cent year-on-year with a notable increase in corporate conferences. This year will see investment in the PA and lighting systems in the Main Hall, so a broader range of events can be supported in-house without the need to bring in external companies or equipment.
Tucked away in a historic corner of the Cotswolds, but just 20 minutes from Oxford, The Old Swan and Minster Mill can host events including board meetings, week-long training programmes or awards dinners. The Old Swan and Minster Mill also offers 60 bedrooms for residential delegates, as well as 60 acres of outdoor space, ideal for teambuilding activities.
Butler notes that clients are increasingly looking for unique venues to host drinks receptions and smaller meetings, something that Oxfordshire is able to facilitate. Unique venues include Blenheim Palace, Ashmolean Museum, a former prison – now Malmaison, as well as railway carriages at Didcot Railway. Exclusive use of the River Cruisers with Oxford River Cruises can also be arranged.
Corporate activities in Oxfordshire
Butler considers social programmes and activities after conference hours to be key to venues securing a conference or meeting. “As a result we promote the destination alongside the venues to potential clients to highlight the corporate activities on offer here,” she says.
Corporate activities in Oxfordshire include animal encounters at Cotswold Wildlife Park, Gin tasting at The Feathers, walking tours of Oxford, Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School and Falconry at Fallowfields.
For those delegates looking to get their shopping fix during a meeting, Bicester’s Chic Outlet Shopping village is home to 130 boutiques offering savings of up to 60 per cent on recommended retail prices. Chic Outlet Shopping’s Bicester Village can be used as part of a conference programme or for one-off events on a sole-hire basis.
“Oxfordshire is centrally located, has good rail and road links, as well as a range of venues for conferences and events,” says Nigel Green, Client Services Director at TMB Events and Entertainment. “The city centre offers history and heritage and is easy for delegates to get around on foot.”
In terms of cost, Green says Oxfordshire is “premium, but not expensive”. “It is not as cheap as Birmingham, but not as expensive as London.”
Green does note, however, that Oxfordshire is often bypassed for large conferences, and would benefit from a bigger range of hotels. “More modern hotels with larger facilities would benefit Oxfordshire,” he says. “If Celtic Manor was placed here, for example, it would be the most successful venue overnight due to Oxfordshire’s location, the countryside, the city on its doorstep, its transport links and the history and heritage it offers.”
This was first published in the January issue of CN. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org