Meet in the Midlands

HS2 and connectivity
Meetings professionals in The Midlands like to trumpet their region’s accessibility. Nick Waight, Managing Director for Group Convention Centres, part of the NEC Group, is one keen to play the geographic card for conferencing convenience. The Midlands, he says, offers “unrivalled connectivity by road, rail and air, with over 98 per cent of the UK consumer and business market within a four-hour travel time”.

But ease of movement within the Midlands is not always as simple as the way the conference crow flies.

Now, at last, the shabby old New Street station in Birmingham is getting the full monty of a £600m makeover and the HS2 high speed rail project is gradually shunting away the bureaucratic hurdles and is set to bring jobs and up to £15bn in investment to the region.

Midland Metro’s £127m extension from its terminus at Birmingham Snow Hill station into the heart of the city is almost complete.

It is not all about road and rail, of course. Louise Goalen, Head of Venue Finding at Midlands-based Ashfield Venues & Events, points out the region is well served by two airports (East Midlands and Birmingham), which means International delegates have good routes into the event action.

Second city status
Nick Hartland, Director at the National Motorcycle Museum (NMM) in Solihull, believes Birmingham’s city profile is becoming less of the ‘poor relation to London’ and more in line with UK second city status. 

The family-owned venue business and museum on ‘the M42 corridor’, says Hartland, has noticed companies relocating from the capital to the periphery of Birmingham. “It is certainly reflected in our enquiry levels”.

Lucy Talbot has overseen a £5.4m investment in expansion at residential venue Conference Aston and says: “The collective aim must be to make Birmingham the first city in as many ways as possible”.

Events also follow investment. There were more foreign investment projects in Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP last year than any other English region, according to the city’s marketing experts.
The region also created the most jobs (4,841), a 98 per cent increase on the previous year. And the British Meetings & Events Industry Survey (BMEIS) 2013/14 named Birmingham as the top UK events destination outside of London for a fifth year in a row.

Vox to prove popular
Over at The NEC, The Vox Conference Centre is set to become a big part of the new £150m integrated leisure complex Resorts World Birmingham when it opens next year.

A £26m refurbishment of the National Indoor Arena is also scheduled for 2015.

Even under council ownership, the NEC posted an increase in revenues in its annual results released 7 August.

Adrian Evans, NEC Account Director for Conference and Live Events, has been collecting feedback from agencies in order to identify what they and their clients did and didn’t want at the venue.

The approach, he says, has led to good results within the retail, automotive and financial sectors.
Whoever, the NEC’s new owner turns out to be – and CN’s guess is that three bidders still in the frame could include Providence, LDC and Genting – there is much to build on: the city’s main convention centre, The ICC, welcomes 300,000 delegates to 400 events a year.

Richard of York to gain meetings in Leicester

Over in the East Midlands, the reburial of the remains of Richard III has been a controversial topic and a new centre bearing his name opened on 26 July for conferences and events.

The centre has risen on the site of the car park where King Richard III’s remains were discovered in 2012. The centre’s King’s Suite can accommodate up to 120 delegates.

The Curve in Leicester’s Conference Hub, meanwhile, opened in 2008, and gives the city a facility able to host 1,500 delegates. The venue signed up the Mortgage Advice Bureau on a three-year contract to hold meetings and events, and the nearby Art Deco Athena is also a popular venue for weddings and meetings.

Other East Midlands venues in the meetings fast lane include Donnington Park and Silverstone; while a slower pace can be found at The Belfy following a £26m refurbishment.

Leicester Tigers’ home at Welford Road can host 1,000 delegates and The National Space Centre is another unusual venue. The county’s hotel stock includes Hinckley Island Hotel close to the M1, M6 and M69. Its largest meetings room can host 650 delegates.

Leicester Conferences at the University of Leicester has been delivering events across two venues: its Oadby Conference Centres, in leafy suburbia, and at City Hub Suites for many years, while on the fringes of the city, its new venue, College Court, can host 160 delegates and has a 123-bedroom hotel.

At Leicester Racecourse, the Kube’s new 700sqm event space opens later this year.

Martin Peters, Chief Executive of Leicester Shire Promotions, says the average day delegate rate is £36 in the county, with new business won including the UKinbound Annual Convention set to bring 250 leading tourism businesses to the city in February 2015.

Marriott Breadsall Priory in Derbyshire has weathered the recession and Director of Sales, Liz Whittaker says having the Marriott name above the door and a four-star rating helped the venue through a tough couple of years. “Larger corporations want the security that comes with established reputations. Planners don’t want to cut corners only to have it backfire and the company ends up with 50 disgruntled delegates on their hands.

“External event budgets were hit hard during the downturn, but we’re seeing increases in both the number of corporate events being held, as well as their average duration. One of our biggest growth segments this year has been driven through the return of corporate training and golf days.”

Area Ambassadors
The Midlands has loyal advocates, including Trinity Conferences’ Director of Operations Jenny Harding, whose agency has increased business booked in the region. “This has been helped by lack of availability and high rates in London during 2012 because of the Olympics, which forced our clients to look elsewhere to maximise their returns,” she says. “Now they have experienced the venues, they re-book.”

Harding’s six favourite local venues are: The Belfry, Warwick Conferences, The Studio Birmingham, Telford International Centre, Heritage Motor Centre and Radisson Blu East Midlands.
Karen Small, Events Team Manager at Nationwide says The Midlands has been a location of choice for many of the building society’s internal employee events. “As a financial institution with a vast UK Branch Network, a central UK venue with excellent transport links is vital when getting our employees together for a conference.

“Each year we faced the same challenges around finding a big enough venue with on-site bedrooms. We return to the Hilton Birmingham Metropole year-on-year.”

She also likes airport venues, citing their “transport links, price, refurbished conference space, accommodation and parking”.

As for Birmingham, Small prefers the outskirts to the city in order to avoid the risk of delegates sitting in traffic jams on the M6.

Kelly Elmore,
Group Communications Co-Ordinator at the Sundial Group, which has two venues in the region: Woodside in Warwickshire and Highgate House in Northamptonshire, has no doubts The Midlands is “the most accessible area of the country, highly convenient for companies who have multiple sites across the UK”. 

The success of the automotive industry, she says, particularly Jaguar Land Rover, has had an impact on venues in the Warwickshire area.

Elmore notes also that Northampton was recently named by Experian as the best city for business in the UK.

 Worcestershire-based Drpgroup MD Dale Parmenter has built a thriving agency in the Midlands and says it has a “massive pull”.

“We hold many events in Birmingham and the surrounding area, with events in the NEC, a great space which can offer large and small spaces as well as the ICC and many of the surrounding hotels, too.”

Conference Care Director Andrew Deakin highlights the diversity of the region’s venue portfolio: “From Coombe Abbey Hotel, originally built as a Cistercian Abbey in the 12th Century, to the ultra-modern Hilton St George’s Park, home of the National Football Centre, the Midlands reserve is rich in choice”.

Director of Sales at Coombe Abbey, June Picken says enquiry levels rose last year from £1.2m per month to over £2m.

Adam Bessant, Conference and Banqueting Manager at Hogarths Hotel & Restaurant in Solihull, puts the case for his venue oasis in a busy West Midlands corridor. “We have an island within our grounds, an ideal location for wedding ceremonies. Refurbishment of the summerhouse has meant a huge increase in teambuilding, BBQs and Caribbean summer parties,” he adds.

Bessant says 20 enquiries were turned away because conference suites were booked this summer and predicts a 28 per cent annual increase in conference business.

Nicky Pratt, Events and Development Director for Kudos, says her company is widening its footprint in the Midlands with new venue and museum contracts. “Each venue must be treated as a unique case, we can’t apply London metrics to a regional venue.” 

“We use local suppliers for food as well as resources for recruitment and find we have a better staff retention.”

Ethnic diversity
The Midlands is known for its ethnic diversity and Ricoh Arena Marketing Director Liz Cooper says that the large Asian market is one her team is exploring, targeting Asian weddings to help fill its 1,000-seater E.ON Lounge.

“It is vital we don’t overlook the local market and we have appointed Jenni Ford as our first business development manager,” says Cooper. Following the successful Bruce Springsteen concert last summer, the Ricoh is talking to major promoters and hosts The Outbreak Festival over Halloween weekend in what promises to be the UK’s largest indoor music festival.

Telford’s rapid change
Over in Telford and Shropshire a huge transformation is underway.

At the centre is the Heart of Telford Southwater development, a new convention quarter. The first phase is scheduled for completion in October and will provide new retail and entertainment experiences, with pedestrian access to The International Centre, Telford, and its 15,000sqm of event space.

Crain Communications initially launched Plastics Design and Moulding Show (PDM) in Telford in 2005 and although the organisers were tempted to London for a few years, the event returned in 2013 and rebooked this June with the launch of the inaugural Plastics Recycling Expo (PRE). Next year Crain will launch the Plastics Packaging Show, affirming the region as the UK’s polymer capital.

Telford was found to be one of the happiest places in the UK according to recent research from estate agency consortium Rightmove.

Coventry and Warwickshire
Coventry and Warwickshire’s shared Midlands transport links now include the first direct flight from China to Birmingham International. In 2012 the Chinese visitor market was worth £62m to the West Midlands economy.

Warwick Conferences welcomes 166,000 delegates and over 7,500 conferences a year.

“We’re proud to be a part of such a vibrant, influential region, and we’re always looking for ways to support our local area,” says Head of Sales and Marketing Rachael Bartlett.

Richard Baker, partner at national accountancy firm Crowe Clark Whitehill, says he was attracted to Warwick Conferences’ facilities because “everything you need is on-hand or already set up for you, which you wouldn’t get at a hotel or non-dedicated meeting venue”.

“It suits the company’s national footprint, making it easy for teams from London, Kent, Cheltenham, Manchester and the Midlands to meet. A central location is essential. It saves time, it saves costs.”

Nottingham Event Team back in business
After a lull out of the UK conference limelight, Notts is back in the middle batting for meetings and events.

Nottingham Event Team was launched in April 2013, thanks to funding from the European Regional Development Fund and local partners and in just over a year £3.1m worth of business has been booked, representing 23,000 bed nights, with an economic impact of £11.8m for the county.

Major future events secured for the city include:

  • Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists – November 2014
  • Royal College of Nursing Education Forum National Conference – March 2015
  • Association of University Administrators – March 2015
  • Royal College of Anaesthetists – June 2015
  • Britspine – April 2016

A new Nottingham Internationals Ambassador programme was launched in 2013 and 60 ambassadors are signed up.

New products in Nottinghamshire include:

  • Medicity -a new innovation hub on the site of the historic Boots site in Nottingham, with meetings facilities
  • St James Hotel, the city’s newest hotel, sits just across the road from Nottingham Castle 
  • St Mary’s Church opened as a venue for events last year, located in the heart of Nottingham’s Lace Market area and said to have once been a hiding place for Robin Hood: 
  • The Orchard Hotel – this eco-friendly hotel opened in 2013 adjacent to the East Midlands Conference Centre on the University of Nottingham campus. 

Five things to do after hours in Brum:

1. Digbeth Dining Club, for locally sourced ‘street food’ in the city’s artistic hub
2. Alfie Bird’s Gourmet Eats & Beats, a new food and music venue, based at the Custard Factory in the city’s creative and digital district
3. The Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK
4. Birmingham Festivals – Over 50 festivals a year, including film festival Flatpack (March), Birmingham Pride (May), the Birmingham International Jazz Festival (July), Moseley Folk Festival (August), Birmingham Independent Food Fair (September), Birmingham Comedy Festival and Fierce Festival (both October)
5. The Belfry – The Belfry has undergone a £26m investment project, which has seen the refurbishment of the stylish nightspot Bel Air Club & Lounge and the brand new Ryder Grill restaurant and Brabazon Bar.

With many more venue properties and meetings services and activity centres across Staffordshire and other areas of the Midlands not fully explored in this brief run through, as the economic cycle turns, it is a region at the fulcrum of meetings momentum.

This was first published in the September issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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