The West Country is a somewhat informal geographical definition taking in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Bristol and, for some, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
Most destinations have a pretty good stab at claiming how easily accessible they are, and Plymouth’s game attempt is that London is three and a half hours’ drive. Situated on Devon’s south coast, the city is a blend of town, coast and countryside, lying between Dartmoor National Park, the coastline and the rivers of Plym and Tamar.
The city hosts many events and festivals throughout the year including the Plymouth Festival of Sail and the British Firework Championships, both in summer, and the Ocean City Festival in September.
Sutton Harbour and Barbican, The Plymouth Hoe and the Royal Citadel reflect some of the proud maritime heritage. The city also recently branded itself as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ and, in 2020, it will mark 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower to the New World.
Organisers tempted to dwell on Plymouth being a far-flung destination, should remember some far longer famous journeys were started from the city: Captain Scott, Captain James Cook and Charles Darwin all set sail for global ventures from Plymouth.
The waterfront area is popular, with celebrity chefs Gary Rhodes, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Tanner brothers all opening restaurants on the coast. Plymouth is home to the oldest gin distillery in England, which dates back to 1793.
A large marine conference is booked in at the UK’s largest aquarium, the National Marine Aquarium, in July this year, while Plymouth Pavilions claims to be the biggest entertainment venue in the South West with a capacity of 4,000 people. The Pavilions will host the 100th congress of the GMB trade union for five days in June 2017.
The Duke of Cornwall is Plymouth’s first luxury hotel. Its watch tower offers 360-degree views of the city and seven function rooms, the largest able to accommodate 300 people.
Trips to Dartmoor National Park, can be added to an indoor conference booked in Plymouth.
Over in Cornwall’s most popular resort (which also has an airport), surfer delegates can take to the waves as well as the internet in their spare time.
One of the chief appeals of the West Country is the chance to get away from it all. One retreat for events is Pennard House, a Georgian Manor where weddings are big business.
Also in Somerset, Clevedon Hall is not a typical hotel, in that it focuses fully on events, from small business meetings, to large weddings. GM John McCarthy reports growth trends in the corporate and wedding markets following a £3m refurbishment.
“Initially, we looked at becoming a fully functioning hotel, however following the input from consultants, we decided we could build a better business with an events focused model,” said McCarthy.
A recent survey of property prices put Bath just behind London. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and best navigated on foot, with 29 venues within a 20-minute walk from the train station.
First Great Western hopes to cut to 75 minutes the current 90-minute journey time this summer with full electrification of the line.
First Great Western also offers ‘conference fares’ to organisers.
Along with many of Britain’s tourism gems, Bath is not always an easy place to park and congestion during peak times can be frustrating.
New conference openings for 2015/2016 include the five-star Gainsborough Bath Spa (summer 2015) and the four-star Apex Hotels (Winter 2016). There is also a Center Parcs in the vicinity.
Some ideas for special events in the Roman city include:
- Holding a Champagne reception around the torch-lit Roman Baths
- Hiring Lucknam Park for a special event
- Entertaining clients at a Bath rugby game
- Shepherding teambuilding at Folly Farm.
If Bath doesn’t float your thermal boat, then stay on the train another 15 minutes and get off at Bristol.
Specialist conference centre company EEF offers Engineers’ House, a grade II-listed venue. Manager Martyn Bowen says 2014 was a year of “strong growth and continued investment” at the venue, which hosted a film crew for an ITV drama and a visit by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Engineers’ House offers nine meetings rooms, with maximum capacity for 170 delegates in one. The venue is AIM Gold accredited and was named the UK’s No 1 Specialist Venue and Overall Venue in BDRC Continental’s VenueVerdict Awards 2014.
Bristol is in the top 10 cities in the UK for business growth and YTD bookings at Engineers House are running 15 per cent ahead of last year, says Bowen who detects increased demand for training-related bookings at his venue, reflecting a healthier employment market.
Bristol also marks this year as 2015 European Green Capital.
The PR chief’s view
Cirencester-based events industry PR specialist Adam Baggs, founder of Soaring Worldwide, believes the region is “a fantastic place to be and do business”.
“While many people wrongly think we are out in ‘the sticks’, we are only an hour from central London by train. The West Midlands, Birmingham and the west coast cities of Manchester and Liverpool are also within easy reach as, of course, are Bristol and Cardiff.
“The area is attracting a lot of talent with agencies, journalists and industry leaders all looking to benefit from a rural lifestyle with good access. The local and regional venues are also seeing an increase in not just domestic business but also international events, which often come here on their second or third visit to the UK – once the bigger cities have been checked off.”
The organiser’s view
Bath-based FAB! agency’s Julie Cooper has organised many events in the West Country and urges organisers to think outside the box and look at something different.
“Using a West Country venue can get you away from the hustle and bustle. Delegates can enjoy their conference in fantastic surroundings, breathing fresh country air and generally having time to ‘smell the roses’ along the way.
“Bath has a number of great venues in the middle of town: the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms speak for themselves as stunning Georgian Heritage buildings, worthy of any type of event.
However, parking and costs can sometimes be an issue and Heritage buildings can be costly to hire.
“FAB! has worked at Bailbrook House Hotel, two miles from Bath, producing anything from awards to weddings.
“Moving further west towards Bristol is Kings Weston House, built in 1719 and designed by Sir John Vanbrugh. The house is suitable for conferences, teambuilding, balls and any type of event.
“Further down the M5 is Cossington Park, outside Bridgewater, dating back to Medieval times, which sleeps up to 18 guests.
“Life isn’t all strawberries and cream of course, and there are always challenges. When it snows the snow ploughs don’t always go down the country lanes before your conference and suppliers have to travel that little bit further sometimes, but overall organisers should give some real thought to bringing their clients to the West Country.”
Butlins at Minehead
Many know of the historic Butlin’s brand, but not so many know of the fast emerging events sub-brand. Simon Jones and his team is pushing the 21st century Butlin’s model hard in the events space. At Minehead the whole resort can be hired in the November-March off-season and 5,500 people can be accommodated for one arena event in the Skyline Pavilion. Other large event spaces include the Centre Stage, used for awards and gala dinners and can hold 2,800 delegates, and Reds, able to accommodate up to 1,500 theatre-style. The theatre provides a more intimate setting for 200 and the inflatable M3 Air Dome can accommodate dinners for 120.
A new West Lakes Village being built at Minehead will provide more accommodation.
Down in Torquay, the Riviera International Conference Centre (RICC) has conferences in the pipeline, with recent event wins including:
- 7th UNESCO Global Geoparks Conference – September 2016
- Chartered Institute of Housing – a four-year commitment that started in April 2014
- UKIP Spring Convention 2015
- Association of Retired Police Officers (2016).
RICC has undergone both refurbishment and reorganisation of its management team, with a new board recruited in 2012, as well as a new GM and, more recently, a reshuffle of the sales and marketing team.
The £110m South Devon Link Road project will provide a faster path into Torbay when completed in December 2015.
Torquay’s Pavilion is set to morph into a new hotel and residential development.
Association conferences are the main business RICC shoots for and the hope is for £26m of investment in the town’s plans for further development in this market.
Six conference activities delegates can do in Torquay:
- Water based team activities: Coasteering, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking
- Catch and cook – fish for your dish, return to base to learn how to cook your catch
- Cookery schools – bread making or cider making at Occombe Farm
- Quad biking or go carting, abseiling, or hiking across rugged Dartmoor
- Visit historical houses like Torre Abbey Historical House or lunch in the kitchen at Greenway: Agatha Christies own home
- Party underground in Britain’s oldest stone age home.
There are many other interesting and unique venues located in Devon. From stately homes to botanical gardens, from zoos to museums to Stone Age caves.
Surrounded by 2,000 acres of Grade I listed Capability Brown parkland, Bowood Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort near Chippenham offers an 18-hole championship golf course and features 37 bedrooms and six suites.
Bowood appointed etc.venues’s former head of marketing, David Owen as its new marketing director last August.
“Itineraries can be developed very creatively around business goals,” says Owen. “The conference and meeting space is no less state-of-the-art than in London but the atmosphere is completely different – it’s less frenetic but that does not mean it’s slower or less productive. The range of events at a venue like this is huge because of all the other elements that can be brought in to the mix which involve using the outside as well as the inside space.
“In terms of pure teambuilding you can do almost anything at a venue like this and this is a market that is definitely growing again as we come out of recession.
“We host a lot of big corporates who like the seclusion and privacy of a private estate and the excellent brand association that goes with a quality property.”
Recent highlights include ride-and-drive car launches, teambuilding in a separate event field (four-wheel drive vehicles and clay pigeon shooting), and exclusive-use golf days.
The West Country is not short of greenery and green practice, of course.
The Eden Project in Cornwall is one popular choice for those wishing to combine some Green education into their events. Everything at Eden that can be recycled is and 81 per cent of food and drink is sourced locally.
In terms of venues at Eden, its Rainforest Biome is the largest conservatory in the world, and provides a tropical backdrop for weddings or large drinks receptions.
Other venues include the Mediterranean Biome for parties and weddings and Eden Kitchen, which can host conferences for up to 1,000 delegates.
Case Study at Engineers’ House:
Event: The Industrial IT Roadshow
Date: 30 October 2014
Number of delegates: 80
Challenges/special requests: A robust IT system
Engineers’ House hosted one of the industrial IT national roadshows for SolutionsPT last autumn, with 80 delegates attending to learn best practice guidance when designing industrial IT infrastructures.
Martyn Bowen, venue manager for Engineers’ House, says: “This was a significant booking for us and a tangible endorsement of our on-going investment in this historic venue.”
Mike Lees of SolutionsPT, said: “Our choice of venue was important as it had to be accessible, have the necessary IT infrastructure, facilities and experience to handle the event. We chose some of the most inspiring and unique venues to accommodate our road show, from the historic Engineers’ House to the fascinating exhibition space at Mercedes-Benz World.”
This was first published in the March issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston