Oxford has always had a wide geographic catchment area, ranging from the Midlands to the south east. However, rail links to the area have not always matched the demand from event organisers.
A new £320m rail link to London now connects Marylebone to Oxford Parkway and Bicester Village. The first year since the line opened in October 2015 saw 1.5m passengers use it. The link is part of the new East West line to be built between Oxford and Cambridge.
Oxford is home to the oldest University in the English-speaking world and event organisers can tap into the city’s academic prestige via Conference Oxford, the official conference and event marketing office for the University colleges.
The office represents 63 venues, including museums and libraries and offers a free venue search service.
Examples of the world-famous buildings available for event hire include the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe; the Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683; the Sheldonian Theatre, a Grade 1 listed venue designed by Sir Christopher Wren; the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum and Christ Church Great Hall (familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films).
Facilities for non-residential conferences, dinners and receptions are available throughout the year and residential conferences may be booked during vacations, although some bedrooms are available all year round.
Mike Naworynsky OBE, chair of Conference Oxford comments: “Conference Oxford represents spectacular college venues perfectly placed to meet the growing demand for conferences, dinners and events of all types and sizes”.
Marie O’Connor, manager of Conference Oxford, adds that around 60% of enquiries come from Oxfordshire, 15% from London and 25% from overseas. “Of the overseas enquiries, a third are from the US, mainly University study programmes. With emerging markets, particularly China, the enquiries tend to come from companies in the UK acting on Chinese companies’ behalf,” she says.
O’Connor reveals that from March 2016 – February 2017 Conference Oxford handled 2,518 enquiries, of which 43% were Day Events; 30% Dinners; 24% Residential Conferences and 3% Weddings. In terms of market segments, the enquiries were: Academic (49%), Corporate (23%), Individual (8%), Charity (5%), Association (5%), Agency (5%), Government (2%), Summer School (2%) and Group Travel (1%).
Experience Oxfordshire Conferencing, meanwhile, lists over 18 top venues in the county, and offers ideas for delegates to consider after hours, including booking walking tours; hiring a punt; having a drink at the Morse Bar in the Randolph Hotel; or enjoying dinner at the Quod or a visit to nearby Blenheim Palace. And, if your delegates are after branded clothing, try Bicester Village. For golfers, a round at Heythrop Park, a popular conference venue, could fit the bill.
School of meeting science
Conference@OxfordSaïd offers two unique venues run by the Business School. Egrove Park offers a secluded setting for board discussions and residential conference facilities for larger events.
The West Wing, meanwhile, opened in 2012, has three oak-panelled lecture theatres each seating 76, three large classrooms, and 18 boardroom style seminar rooms which can be hired by the hour. Catering ranges from buffets to full gala dinners.
“Oxford is a brand destination city because of the association with the University and stunning architecture. The proximity to London, with strong transport links to other areas in the UK makes it an ideal destination,” says Conference@OxfordSaïd conference business coordinator Verity Donovan.
The Business School’s core conference clientele is mostly corporate clients with occasional association bookings, Donovan adds.
Shorter lead times are more apparent compared to two years ago and an increase in smaller meetings, with clients reporting a lack of meeting space in–house, are two trends Donovan picks out. “Event organisers are now typically letting delegates book their own accommodation rather than centralising the process,” she adds.
Nevertheless, the business school reports a 50% increase in events business in just two years.
Saïd Business School has also invested heavily in sustainable conferencing and flushing and garden irrigating water can be ‘harvested’ from the West Wing roof, where there are also solar-thermal panels. The balance of the flat roof is sedum planted to aid biodiversity.
All food waste at the Business School is recycled for composting and the venue holds the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark.
There is probably still not quite enough accommodation to meet business events demand in Oxford, so organisers may need to look outside the city limits. A Hilton Garden Inn is set to open in Abingdon in 2018 following a multi-million-pound redevelopment, which will transform the old Oxford Abingdon Hotel, adding a four-story extension.
One last jewel in the Oxfordshire conference crown is Eynsham Hall. Set in 3,000 acres of parkland, the hotel offers stately charm and 40 meeting rooms for up to 170 delegates and corporate days available for up to 500 guests. Eynsham Hall Hotel plans to launch a new healthy food offering, Brain food. It’s academic, after all.