Meetings H2O

The wide, picturesque expanse of the seaside lends itself to various powerful corporate metaphors, such as looking to new horizons and weathering stormy economic conditions, says MD of event management agency Top Banana, Nick Terry. He argues there’s no point holding an event by the coast unless you’re going to use the full opportunity; very often delegates will have travelled a fair distance to the venue.

“We believe it is important for delegates to feel inspired not only by the event, but also by the venue and its location,” says Sharon Olver, Business Development and Commercial Manager for the conference division of Sunderland University, UniSpace Sunderland. “A number of our venues sit on the banks of the River Wear, with the National Glass Centre offering views across the mouth of the river and out
to sea.

Olver says the coastal location provides the events division with an array of local produce; there is a fish quay opposite the venue. The beach is a five-minute walk away from its riverside venues, which can provide an open air break-out or time-out space for delegates. “We work with our sports team here and can deliver just about any sporting activity on the seafront, beach or riverside; everything from baseball to Tai Chi,” she adds.

The University also has a marina and water sports centre next to its riverside campus where UniSpace Sunderland is able to offer group experiences. The location has also led the events division to work with a number of travel agencies and cruise operators who use the space to showcase their B2C products.
On brand, on the sea shore

 Any good seaside venue choice needs to be empathetic with what your brand is trying to achieve, says Terry, “and we’ve run fantastic leadership events in towns including Bournemouth and Brighton”.
He says some seaside resorts, however, can struggle to cater for conferences, so venue choice can be limited and expertise is needed. “If you buy at a quiet time you may get more flexibility on price, but you have to balance that with the UK’s seasonal weather conditions and how this might impact on the brand message,” he warns. 

Top Banana has held events at De Vere’s The Grand, Brighton, including one for a major leisure company with property nearby. “The event extended the beach atmosphere into the venue and we had fun with Victorian beach bathing imagery and the old fashioned notion of what a beach resort is,” adds Terry.
“While nothing can match the atmosphere of being beside the seaside, the simple truth is that many event organisers need to keep conferences inside the M25,” says venues and events bookings agency, ITA’s Nicola Stoddart. “We have two venues that let London-based organisers add a nautical theme without leaving the capital.”

These include the Little Ship Club at the Yacht Club of the City of London. It enjoys a riverside location next to Southwark Bridge.

The club has a quirky blend of sailing history and tradition, combined with five conference spaces for up to 250 guests.

Other capital venues by the water include The Museum of London Docklands, located in a former warehouse built in 1802 to store rum, molasses, coffee and cotton from the West Indies. It is the only Grade I listed building in Canary Wharf and offers six separate conference spaces.

Set in 42 acres bordering the River Thames in Fulham, The Hurlingham Club is not only a private members’ club and home to events such as Polo in the Park and the BNP Paribas Tennis Classic, but also a venue for hire for up to 1,200-delegates.

“Delegates can relax in our outdoor spaces enjoying tea or a glass of something sparkling for social events overlooking the the river,” says the Sales Manager for the Club, Sabina Kelman. “We organised a Summer Party for a financial firm based in the City, whose guests arrived at the Club by boat.”

For longer meetings, London conference space The Mermaid has found that delegates appreciate its refurbished river rooms which feature panoramic views along The Thames. “These types of spaces act as breakout rooms and become a talking point among delegates,” says the GM of The Mermaid, Alicia Duncan.

Taking advantage of the river views, global petrochemical company Shell held its AGM for 300 delegates recently at The Mermaid. The main conference was held in the auditorium, with catering being provided in the lower river room and mezzanine.

“Water elements can be implemented effectively through lighting and colour choices, as well as the catering,” says Duncan. At the recent grand opening of the river rooms, Duncan had a seafood bar with fresh crabs being cracked in front of guests; prawns and oyster boxes dressed with seaweed.

The River Room at Glaziers Hall also offers a view of the River Thames, as well as the iconic London Bridge. Other theming is rarely needed. “We have LED lights that shine onto the river in a range of different colours,” says its MD Samantha Enstone. “This provides a great opportunity for clients to have their company colours projected onto the river and look spectacular when intertwined with the city lights in the background.”

Getting active on the beach

South Coast agency, Vivid Event Group, has employees occasionally kayaking to work
in Hove and are advocates of meeting by the sea.

“When bringing clients to the coast, especially those based in London, all of them comment on how liberating the experience is,” says Vivid’s MD Charlie Hepburn. “Minds tend to be freed, creative thoughts appear to be unrestricted, delegate engagement is easier and energy levels are often higher,”
he adds.

Hepburn says there are many ways to enjoy being on/near the water such as paddle-boarding, beach volleyball, surfing and kayaking. “One such event we created was a sailing regatta with a pirate theme. The guests, all in fancy dress were met by their captains. After an hour of mastering the skills of being a boat crew, the skulduggery began. Walking the plank, broadsiding your opponents with water bombs and water pistols, plus capturing the treasure chest were just a few of the activities,” he adds.

“Many of the city’s venues are either on the seafront or just a stone’s throw away,” says Julia Gallagher, Brighton & Hove City Council’s Head of Sales, Tourism and Venues. “With the majority of delegates coming from urban areas, the lure of a conference by the sea is irresistible and organisers report a 15 per cent increase in numbers when they visit Brighton.

“At the last Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband was spotted on the beach practising his final keynote speech.”

Last June, Tangent Links UK held its Search and Rescue Conference at Brighton’s Grand Hotel on the seafront. Together with HM Coastguard AW139 they put on a search and rescue demonstration complete with RNLI life boat which delegates were able to watch in comfort from the hotel’s sixth floor.

One incentive group took a fleet of fishing boats and had a cookery masterclass hosted by a chef who helped them produce gourmet style suppers with the catch, while thrill seekers arranged a power boat racing day.

If the brief fits, meetings by the sea provide a superb alternative to the humdrum, says Merlin Events’ Sales and Marketing Events Manager, Emma Greenfield. “Offering delegates a sense of escapism and something different from a conference centre or boardroom creates a vibrant atmosphere.”

Merlin Events’ attraction-based event spaces include the Sea Life London Aquarium, in County Hall on the South Bank, which has over 500 species under one roof including sharks, rays, shoaling fish and turtles.
The aquarium is fully themed; the majority of organisers like to hire it as it is. Specially designed packages include the opportunity for guests to communicate with divers submerged in the shark tanks. The divers
can even be branded with company logos.

The aquarium can also provide a Facebook photographer to capture the event highlights.

North Yorkshire conference venue Scarborough Spa’s Sales Development Manager, Jo Ager, says: “The trend with a lot of new clients is that they are looking for more than just a venue; they want their delegates to have an experience. Clients often comment that coastal events are more popular than city-based meetings as delegates say they are getting more than just a conference.” Scarborough was the first established seaside town in England and to reflect this the Spa often gets requests to tie in the history. So, anything from Victorian amusement arcades, donkey parades and sandcastle competitions can be included and caterers can include mini fish and chips and candy floss on the menu. And Whitby, where Bram Stoker first found the name ‘Dracula’ and based part of his famous narrative on the town, is just next door.

The Art Party Conference, a 12-hour event for 1,000-delegates, pushed the boundaries for the Spa when its organiser built a 20-ft summit in the centre of the grand hall and started the conference with a beach parade.

On Scotland’s west coast sits the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) campus, the Clyde Auditorium and SSE Hydro: all symbols of regeneration along the river Clyde, and are also now famous landmark views on the Glasgow skyline.

“The river has, and continues to be, central to events,” says the SECC’s Head of Association Sales, Kathleen Warden (pictured left). “This year, we have the host of the local organising committee of one of our major European conferences keen to sail his yacht down the West Coast to moor at our pontoon where he will host a private reception for some of the attending delegates.

“Delegates can have the unique experience of stepping out of the venue and within minutes be on route to the Scottish islands via seaplane. The river is an aspect of the SECC campus that helps make it unique.”
Removing socks and shoes and making that first step into the sand can transport a delegate to another world, free from the many constraints of a four-walled conference room. As an island nation, the UK offers organisers a variety of sea- and river-side options that can provide a breath of fresh meetings air.

This was first published in the February issue of CN. Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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