The meetings momentum has for a few years now been with the big city destinations, the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and, of course, London. And, as we wave goodbye to the autumn political conference season, it is clear these are still the first choice destinations of our political elite, as the seaside resorts – at least those where investment is hard to come by – have slipped down the heavyweight political pecking order.
But one of the new wave of convention destinations rising on the conference horizon (a shortlist which must include Hull and Newport – home to the Celtic Manor) is Telford.
As distinct from Newcastle, Cardiff, Newport or Hull (to date), however, Telford already has a convention centre, a family owned centre able to host large national and international conferences and exhibitions.
For all the Telford International Centre (TIC) successes to date, and it is a flexibile venue, the town has suffered for its perceived isolation.
Now, after a Phase I investment scheme, the TIC sits in an emerging Convention Quarter, part of a £250m remodelling of Telford town centre.
The dots have been joined, with a sweeping avenue linking the TIC with a new café society of branded restaurants and bars, as well as a digital library, ice rink, shopping centre and park, complete with QEII Arena and £200k aerial ropes course in the heart of Telford Town Park.
Teambuilding specialists Closer to the Edge have developed a challenging physical climbing test a stone’s throw from TIC and the Arena.
The transport dots have been joined to the capital courtesy of Virgin Trains, which will begin operating services direct to and from London twice a day from 14 December. This is a great move for meetings delegates and news envied, no doubt, by the likes of Harrogate and other fine conference towns still without that magic direct connectivity to the capital. It is reward also for business and tourism leaders in the area, in partnership with Telford & Wrekin and Shropshire Councils, and backed by a lengthy petition signed by the local community, which had campaigned for years to get a direct service embedded in the timetable.
Business Tourism Manager for Meet Telford & Shropshire, Sarah Bird, describes the Virgin direct link as “fantastic news for the region” and a demonstration of the power of collaborative working between the public and private sectors.
“This final link will ensure that our region really can compete with the best of the UK’s convention cities. It is hugely positive news that the importance of direct rail service has been recognised and the campaigning highlights our continued commitment to creating a leading convention destination,” Bird adds.
From December, the rail link will complement the town’s central location and motorway access. There will be a whole new-look on offer also from the 60 partner organisations of the conference bureau via a new brochure.
Bird, who is also actively promoting the new-look Ambassador Programme, expects the bureau’s collaboration with Virgin Trains to result in packages specially tailored for the events market.
Aside from the TIC, Telford can offer conferencing in hotels, including the Park Inn by Radisson Telford (which is ploughing in £170k to refurbish its four main meeting rooms), Holiday Inn, an 85-bedroom Premier Inn and QHotels Telford Golf & Spa Hotel.
Already open for viewing in the Convention Quarter is the Cineworld IMAX Telford, which was last month, with the paint barely dry, host venue for the Cineworld Management Convention 2014. Over 200 managers from across the UK attended a two-day conference at the new facility – in the town which manufactures much of the IMAX projection equipment.
Phil Jones, GM at the 11-screen cinema says: “Bringing the IMAX Cinema to Telford is a real achievement and a real coup for us to be chosen from over 80 cinemas in the Cineworld estate across the UK to host the annual management conference. Winning this event for Telford really recognises the venue as a major player in the meeting and conferencing arena.”
Meanwhile, Harper Adams University has an extensive 700-acre campus and meetings spaces with accommodation out of term time.
Telford’s event pulling power is further reinforced by nearby World Heritage site Ironbridge which has 10 museums that not only show off the history of the cradle of the industrial revolution but can host a range of events, receptions and meetings, with a large dollop of history and heritage as backdrop standard.
The Valley Hotel in Ironbridge has two AA rosettes for its Chez Maw restaurant and is also the first hotel in Shropshire to be awarded the Green Tourism Business Scheme Gold award.
The Woodbridge Inn has undergone a £2m transformation and is another option for foodie delegates to explore.
For a really unique drinks reception, why not step back in time at the 52-acre Blist’s Hill Victorian Town. You might want to create your own features, say a lesson in how to produce a horse shoe at the smithy or bake some bread Victorian style.
Other Shropshire towns can be part of any big conference itinerary, such as Ludlow and Shrewsbury, where the Severn River can be cruised post-event. The Museum and Art Gallery is another attraction for both leisure and for hosting an event.
Another famous Shropshire sporting name is the Lilleshall National Sports and Conference Centre. Former HQ for the Football Association, Lilleshall is now a centre of sporting excellence and home for UK Gymnastics and national archery training. The campus is also targetting the conference sector following a £7m expansion.
Lilleshall has 11 conference and meeting suites, a historic house and 300 acres of heritage grounds to offer organisers, and is also home to the Carnegie Great Outdoors leadership school.
Telford & Shropshire, cradle of the industrial revolution, now appears firmly fired to enter a new, revolutionary period for conferencing.
This was first published in the November issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston