Meet in the Midlands

Birmingham takes centre stage
Birmingham City Council has been at the centre of some big stories of late and events and conferencing have been at the forefront of that news.

First the council announced the sale of the NEC Group in a £307m deal. This was followed up in March with the news that the council is to raise more money to pay off its debts by putting the new Grand Central shopping centre at New Street on the market a full six months before it is set to open to the public. This announcement was made at the international development exhibition and conference MIPIM in Cannes, a graphic indication of the power of events to act as marketplaces for the biggest deals.

The tranformation of New Street Station at Grand Central highlights the new kind of welcome awaiting those arriving in the second city by rail.

Delegates will next year start forgetting the old station design steeped in the ‘60s DNA of British Rail and step into the 21st Century. England’s second busiest station will, at last, make a proper first impression on business tourists arriving to attend events in the city and wider region.

Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore described the development at New Street as signalling “an incredibly exciting year for Birmingham, with Grand Central just one of a number of redevelopment projects coming to fruition, which in turn will create more job opportunities and attract greater investment to our city”.

Birmingham’s destination marketing organisation and conference bureau have experienced difficult times struggling to retain staff and funding. A leaner organisation is now focusing hard on attracting conferences and major events and using the ‘More Birmingham’ campaign.

Connectivity continues to be a big card in the city and the region, and not just because of the new station improvement. Birmingham Airport services 143 direct routes from key business destinations. And the city sits at the hub of the country’s national motorway network.

Key sectors being targeted for conferences include professional and financial services, engineering, life sciences, creative and digital industries (in line with Business Birmingham/inward investment objectives).

Quality businesses and universities mean there is often a high concentration of potential delegates already in the city and surrounding region when it comes to both association and corporate meetings.

Anniversaries are good for marketing, and some Birmingham institutions and locations celebrating landmark birthdays include:

  • Cadbury World – 25th
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet – 25th
  • Rotunda – 50th
  • The ICC – 25th
  • Brindleyplace – 20th
  • Lunar Society – 250th
  • Birmingham Cathedral – 300th

In a big year for sport, Birmingham will play a key role in the delivery of the Rugby World Cup 2015, while Edgbaston cricket ground has been awarded some of the biggest fixtures in world cricket including an Ashes test.

Other projects stretching into 2016 include work on the Paradise Forum site, a new Metro line for Birmingham city centre and a Shakespeare celebration to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death. Work is also to begin on HS2.

With 18 qualifying conferences, Birmingham improved its global standing in the latest International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) city rankings by 32 places to 136th. The gap of 16 meetings between Birmingham and Manchester has remained unchanged. However the city has overtaken Liverpool and Cambridge to become the sixth most popular UK destination for international association conferences/meetings.

The city claims to have overtaken Manchester to become the most popular destination for domestic business tourists outside London.

Venue updates
The ICC Birmingham’s Vox Conference Centre is set to open soon as part of the UK’s first integrated destination leisure complex at the NEC site. While Resorts World will include a 178-room, four-star hotel, an 11-screen cinema, restaurants and bars, an outlet shopping centre and a spa and casino.

Resorts World, now owned and operated by Genting UK, is a £150m fully integrated leisure and entertainment complex the first of its type to be built in Europe. It includes the Genting Arena.
The £26m Barclaycard Arena (formerly the National Indoor Arena) development, in the city centre, meanwhile, was launched under its new colours by Michael Bublé.

National ticketing agency, The Ticket Factory, is another part of the NEC Group’s business. Add to that hospitality brand, Amplify and caterer Amadeus. The NEC Group also has three new business launches that signal its aim to take its expertise further afield: NEC Group International, MemoryHaus and Eight Feet Tall (the latter a specialist agency for the live events industry). A head of steam is bubbling up and that is only likely to power the motor more forcefully under the new private owners of the Group, LDC.

Symphony Hall has a new events space. Its ‘Next Stage’ is a ‘floating’ stage floor which covers the stalls’ seating and offers a new capacity for up to 620 delegates.

The Golden Square is a new £1.6m, 4,000sqm public realm space in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter. The scheme is part of the Big City Plan and will provide a flexible space to host events and encourage more footfall into the area.

Birmingham was recently listed in the Rough Guides’ Top 10 places to visit in 2015 thanks in part to its ‘first-rate restaurant scene’. A host of new eateries open this year – many with events spaces.

A £50m redevelopment of luxury retail and leisure destination, The Mailbox, will see Harvey Nichols double its size.

In the local hotels, the Hyatt Regency’s £6m refurbishment has seen all of its 319 luxury bedrooms, ballroom, suites, and eight conference rooms undergo a revamp.

Thirty Club rooms at Malmaison in the city centre were renovated earlier this year.
Marco Pierre White’s steak restaurant and the Hotel Indigo are set for a £200,000 transformation as both venues begin their fourth year of trading at The Cube.

Near to the reconstruction around New Street Station sits thestudio, a venue spread over four floors and able to cater for 250 people, with breakout zones complete with bean bags and retro games.

A roof terrace, with a BBQ menu, is available over the summer months.

Recent clients have included the MIND charity, which held its conference at thestudio, and Goodyear which brought its annual sales conference to the venue.

The neighbouring construction projects have not made for an easy environment to make events business as usual, and management says it has been a challenge, not least with the tram route work on top of the New Street station redesign. “We’ve worked hard with all parties concerned to make sure our clients weren’t inconvenienced and have also taken the opportunity to refurbish some of our own areas simultaneously,” says thestudio’s commercial director Julian Kettleborough.

It has, nevertheless, been the venue’s busiest year to date, Kettleborough notes, with 60% of bookings coming via agencies.

Kettleborough hopes to add another creative space and open a new venue in another UK city, in addition to the existing Birmingham and Manchester sites.

Gluten-free? Try Heritage Motor Centre
In the UK 1 in 100 people suffers with coeliac disease. The Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon recently became the first Museum and Conference Centre to gain ‘Coeliac UK GF (Gluten Free) accreditation’. The centre offers gluten-free options in both its Café and for delegates.

Operations manager Tom O’Reilly says: “We wanted our customers to know that we take special dietary requirements seriously.”

The centre has a separate gluten-free kitchen to ensure there is no risk of cross contamination and all staff have been trained in the safe production and provision of gluten-free food.


Over in Solihull, Nick Hartland, director of the National Motorcycle Museum (NMM), is reporting good business from the likes of Sainsbury’s, Pfizer and Xerox and says a unique museum attraction, allied to high quality venues and services, including plenty of parking and easy motorway access, offers an easy events ride for any organiser’s money.

Hartland picks out the consolidation of agents as the biggest challenge in developing the business. “As the larger agencies we work with tend to be more systems-based, nurturing this relationship is a challenge. As a result we developed a larger, more proactive sales team to work closely with them.”

Recent investments made at NMM include a £150,000 refurbishment of the flagship Imperial Suite.
Hartland says competition has increased and day delegate rates being squeezed. “We have attracted a more diverse portfolio of clients during the past year, resulting in an increase in events,” he says, “but at a lower cost per-head. Over the last two years we have managed to increase turnover and gross profit.” He reports that 60% of the events business is national with agencies providing 50% of bookings and 50% coming direct.

Football hotbed for events
The Midlands has always been a hotbed for football clubs and those best prepared to navigate the ups and downs of success on the pitch, are ones with steady income streams from events.

As Aston Villa FC fights for Premier league survival, the stadium’s events business has been in better form, winning awards for catering, hospitality and sustainability. The club’s VMF project is a training restaurant for apprentices to prepare food and is backed up with produce from an allotment nearby. It is run by the Roots and Renewal Foundation, which gives opportunities to young adults to work and tend the allotment.

Non-match day business has seen growth over the past two years and the events team is holding its own in a very competitive local market venue league.

Forty miles north and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Molineux events team has been building its commercial relationship with Jaguar Land Rover, which has an engine manufacturing plant nearby.
The stadium has hosted a number of recruitment events for the automotive group.

The Molineux team reports “huge uptake” in agency business, following the first phase of a £50m investment in the stadium facilities. The £20m Stan Cullis Stand offers match-day hospitality for 550 guests and three new areas called WV1 allow corporate customers more options for meetings, not just on match days.

Despite challenging budget parameters, the Molineux team now detects a general optimism and an increase in not only the number of events but also that customers are prepared again to invest more, to ensure the events success.

“The newer facilities mean that the stadium is now open to the larger Asian functions,” adds conference and banqueting Manager Julian Britton.

Worcester Warriors appointments
Briefly changing codes: as Worcester Warriors aim for promotion back to the Aviva Premiership, the hospitality team at the Sixways Stadium reports three additions to its Corporate, Conference and Events sales team, with Richard Cawton, formerly business development manager with
etc.venues in Birmingham, joining to focus on non-matchday business development.

Lincoln: discover a new value proposition
Lincoln, not a well-known player in the conference league, is preparing to permanently re-house the Magna Carta in a vault at Lincoln Castle in the 800th anniversary year of the document.
The display will be the jewel in the crown of a 10-year £22m refurbishment programme at the Castle, where a visit can be part of any after-conference group tour.

Washingborough Hall Hotel has undergone its first major refurbishment in 150 years, adding ‘The Winston Room’, an orangery-style extension for events for up to 120 delegates. The Lincoln Hotel has also been refurbished.

There is value to be had in Lincoln with DDR rates starting from £29pp.

There are over 1,000 bedspaces in the city and a direct train service connects to London daily. DoubleTree by Hilton on the Waterfront has a main conference facility that can host 200 delegates and 60% of business is local. 70% of business comes direct, with the rest coming through agents, the hotel says.

Lincolnshire Showground reports a busy international calendar of events including the Harley Davidson Rally in May.

Two universities and several colleges boast high-tech conferencing experiences.

Destination Management Organisation – the Visit Lincoln Partnership – recently created the Meet Lincoln project around a growing group of venues and accommodation providers and acknowledges the challenge is making the destination more well known for corporate meetings and events.

Warwick remains dedicated
Warwick Conferences, set in the University of Warwick campus on the edge of Coventry, continues to specialise in purpose-built training and conferences delivered at three veneus: Scarman, Radcliffe and Arden.

Head of sales and marketing Rachael Bartlett says the venue’s commissioned research shows more than half (56%) of event bookers acknowledge that a dedicated venue leads to increased levels of satisfaction.

Bartlett says the biggest challenge over the past year has been maintaining rates in the face of the economic downturn.

“We needed to justify our higher cost to clients – especially to those who weren’t as familiar with our ‘no hidden costs’ approach.

“Despite challenging client budgets, it’s clear that the lure of the low-cost still can’t compete with valuable interactions with people,” she notes.

The strong business presence in the area, particular the automotive sector, Bartlett adds, allows Warwick Conferences to meet the specific meeting needs of local industries.

Delegates can discover many after-conference treasures in Warwickshire, with a variety of medieval and Georgian market towns, two famous castles at Kenilworth and Warwick, and five Shakespeare Houses at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Sundial provides the time and space
Dedicated conference venue supplier Sundial Group has two Midlands venues, Woodside in Kenilworth and Highgate House in Northamptonshire.

Jaguar Land Rover is a client at Woodside and a new permanent bridge building simulation facility at Highgate House is the latest attraction for teambuilders there.

The group’s biggest client is the Judicial College, responsible for the training of England and Wales Judges. The College has been using Highgate House for more than 20 years.

Sundial MD Tim Chudley offers this advice  to organisers: “Not enough organisers consider how to measure the ROI from their events. We would love to work with them to improve this.

“Too many are pushing to shorten their events rather than improve their results by allowing time and space.”

Leicestershire’s inbound welcome
Over in the East Midlands, head of Leicester Shire Promotions Simon Gribbons says the Athena centre in Leicester is thriving for gala dinners with its Art Deco style appeal.

Mercure – Kings Hall also in Leicester city centre, meanwhile, welcomed the UKinbound Annual Convention (11-13 Feb). Two hundred delegates from the UK’s tourism industry attended the event, which spread over the National Space Centre, Athena, Ramada Encore and Holiday Inn Leicester City.

Deirdre Wells, OBE, chief executive of UKinbound, described the convention as one of their most successful to date.

The biggest challenge for Gribbon remains getting the area on the radar of the clients and their PCOs. In terms of regional strengths he lists the central location, competitive DDR rates and the ‘conference hub’ concept of a separate conference venue and accommodation outside of it.

Pro-activity clearly makes a difference and a successful PCO fam in October 2014 led to several leads for business, says Gribbon.

Reinforcing the dedicated venue message is imago which recently gained Investors in People Gold standard.

Emma Boynton, head of sales and marketing, points out that East Midlands Airport and Birmingham International Airport are both handy, while London St Pancras serves Leicestershire in a little over an hour.

Aside from the accessibility, Boynton says delegates visiting the Loughborough site can get away from “the hustle and bustle of the city centre and immerse themselves in the event and take away more knowledge”.

The last 12 months have seen continued growth for all three of imago’s venues, Boynton reports, and her team is now working to a strategic plan, seeking business from sectors which matches the profile of Loughborough University, including events in the association, not-for-profit and charity sector, as well as those associated with sporting and disability organisations.

Imago’s eight-year rolling plan of improvements saw £245,000 spent at Burleigh Court in the last year.

Tanking it at Belvoir Castle

Belvoir Castle, set in 16,000 acres of woodland, can offer delegates views across Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. It has recently moved into corporate away days and offers clay pigeon shooting, falconry and tank driving. Medieval banquets can be organised for the hungry delegate and, last year, the Association of Taxation Technicians chose the Castle for its 25th Anniversary Lecture and Dinner.

Stephen Foulkes, treasurer of the Chartered Institute of Taxation & Association of Taxation Technicians (East Midlands branch), says the venue “added kudos to our anniversary event, which demanded a real wow-factor”.

Swinging to events in Kettering
Also looking to the corporate market is Kettering’s Wicksteed Park, founded by Charles Wicksteed, the inventor of the modern slide and swing. The park has a refurbished Edwardian pavilion for meetings and can cater for  1,000 delegates. On site events are run by the Unlimited Potential charity.

Spotlight on Nottinghamshire
Nottingham has built up critical venue mass and boasts two universities, the East Midlands Conference Centre (EMCC) and Orchard Hotel both on the University of Nottingham campus.

There is also the Capital FM Arena and the Galleries of Justice in the Lace Market.

It is no secret the old conference bureau was starved of funding, but organisers are now able to turn to a new Nottingham Event Team, part of Experience Nottinghamshire. Support services include hotel booking and organising special offers and discounts for delegates.

Recent conference business has included the GMB and the England Athletics Association. The Royal College of Nursing will host its International Nursing Research Conference at the EMCC in April. It follows an influx of events from medical associations.

The city is within reach of northern cities via rail and road and only 99 minutes from London by train. You can travel by tram in the city.

Nottingham University Hospital Trust is one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe and the city has 55,000 people working in Life Sciences, a sector with big potential for events. BioCity, one of the largest life sciences business incubators in Europe, and MediLink – a business network for Life Sciences – are other important jewels in the city crown.

The Nottingham Conference Centre is to host international spinal experts for the NSpine international conference in 2015.

Drayton Manor
And, if it’s fun you’re after with your main event in the Midlands, Drayton Manor Park  can combine activities with conferencing. The Tamworth theme park’s Tower Suite can  host 500 delegates and the Hamilton Suite which can accommodate 220. There is also a 152-seat 4D cinema and a four-star hotel on site.

Case Study

Michelin at Alton Towers
Where: Alton Towers Resort
Client: Michelin (one of the top three tyre manufacturers in the world and renowned for its roadmaps and the Michelin stars awarded to restaurants).
What: Sales and marketing conference for the Michelin truck tyre product line to launch 2015. The event was to plan the product launch and hosted 111 Michelin employees.
When: 5-7 January 2015.
Content: Michelin provided an overview of performance in 2014 and delivered information regarding targets and plans for 2015 within the overall theme of ‘Good to Great’.
An external speaker was brought in and an evening of entertainment incorporated into the awards ceremony. The event also included exclusive hire of Air Ride for an hour.
Client comment: “The conference was deemed the best to date. This result was achieved through attentive staff of Alton Towers and excellent conference facilities and recommendations of external suppliers,” says Kate Walker, truck tyre trade marketing specialist at Michelin.

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

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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