10 classic forgotten venues
The classic event venues are back. Choose from our Top 10 of London’s greatest art galleries, museums and grand hotels - guaranteed wow-factor included.
When I started organising events about fifteen years ago it was easy. It was easy because, even then, the market was far less sophisticated. In fact, most venues and suppliers didn't even have their own website back then and, if they did, dial-up connections meant it was quicker to jump on the tube for a look round than try to upload the images on your PC.
Those days were instrumental in the formation of londonlaunch.com because every time we needed to organise an event, a product launch, a premiere, a fashion show, whatever; all we did was email each other for advice. What's more, all the advice we ever got was to use one of the same three venues and the same caterer. In fairness, that caterer was phenomenal and, especially at the time, groundbreakingly innovative. The Admirable Crichton are worth a mention at this juncture because they continue to be market leaders and most of their competitors have worked for the now iconic Johnny Roxburgh at some stage or other in their illustrious careers.
So, back in the early naughties budgets may have been bountiful but creativity was something to be coveted - a rarity because of the far more conventional infrastructure of the market. Basically, you were going to stage your event in a museum or a hotel. If you were really radical you may stray into Clubland or, brace yourself, an art gallery.
A warehouse was somewhere you'd park the catering van. A restaurant was somewhere you sat down for a meal. Well, not any more...
Every warehouse, outhouse, dog house, private house, haunted house, Home House (you get the picture) is up for grabs. In fact, you can hire almost anywhere for your event these days, even if you need a temporary events licence. Recent research tells us that one key consideration for the modern day event planner is to choose a venue that their delegates or guests haven't experienced before. Now, in London there are in excess of three thousand substantial venues (with a capacity of over 100) and with the mobile sophistication of catering and production teams across the capital, you'd be surprised what can be achieved in the most unlikely of places. From dungeons to abandoned tube stations, skyscraper viewing platforms to roof gardens, the sky is no longer the limit!
The good news for the classic venues though is that they were classic for a reason and they are therefore still classic.
Furthermore, the very things that made them so popular (size, scope, scale, drama, service, location, iconography) are enjoying a resurgence in the marketplace. Whereas hotels became universally 'boring' by default they have now upped their game, successfully combining lavish surroundings with impeccable (actually, unbeatable) levels of service. The museums are not only dramatic, but they're also brimming with fascinating artefacts and with the current thirst for learning, they're ripe for rediscovery too. Galleries are the 'warehouses' of yesteryear but tend to be more calming and less 'in your face' which is sometimes a good thing as well.
So, classic is back. The very venues which we thought we'd grown weary of are now back at the forefront for the new generation of event organisers to enjoy and experiment with. In fact, many of these forgotten venues have revamped themselves in the meantime, resulting in a 'best of both worlds' scenario. Putting it bluntly, according to Generation Y, old has become new from both the organisers' and the corporates' perspectives.
Here are a selection of our favourite classic forgotten venues to kick start the rediscovery:
1. The Science Museum
Having recently experienced an event here, we can categorically sum it up in one word. WOW! Combining a seemingly endless array of intriguing artefacts and exhibits from prosthetic limbs to space capsuals, there is simply so much awe-inspiring stuff to discover with your fellow guests, it really is a great place to enjoy a memorable evening out. Where else can you see (and touch - although I'm not sure if that's technically allowed) the world's first ever powered vehicle (Stephenson's Rocket)? The actual one. What's more, they have the most sensational auditorium in all of London - the 400 seat IMAX theatre complete with HD capabilities and delightfully ear-splitting surround sound! I delivered a keynote here a few weeks ago and it really was the most dramatic, yet effortless experience. A joy.
2. The Natural History Museum
The only venue with a Dinosaur. And a dramatic sweeping central staircase which can be used for speeches, grand entrances or even fashion shows (as I once did in the Ketchum days for a design duo called Clements Ribeiro). With an abundance of galleries to choose from, this venue is the perfect setting to enhance the evolution of your brand or product and it never fails to impress. This venue is often (rather unfairly) used as an example of 'how things used to be' but that's only due to the sheer scale of the place. The big sit-down gala dinners of the past are not extinct but they're certainly less popular than the slightly smaller, more intimate events which are rife on the circuit at the moment. With an abundance of smaller spaces to choose from as well as the huge atrium for the big stuff, you could say that this venue is the perfect partner for the ever evolving events world...
3. The Grosvenor House Hotel
As the biggest hotel ballroom in central London, the Grosvenor House Hotel was once the automatic go-to destination for any event that involved a sit down meal for more than six hundred guests. It's actually a great space too because it's designed in such a way that there are no restricted views towards the stage area and it's stylish (and charmingly antiquated grandeur) always conjures a sense of occasion.
I've experienced a diverse array of events here - from awards ceremonies and charity dinners to a huge City bank's 150th anniversary which we organised (themed as a quintessentially British day at the seaside complete with a beach and a simulated thunderstorm!) and I've even done the Conga with the cast of Eastenders at some random party or other. Indeed, this classic Park Lane event space remains hugely popular and is always booked solid for many months to come.
Perhaps the most interesting 'secret' that this venue conceals is that there's a gigantic ice rink hidden beneath the Great Room floor. Back in the 1930's the Grosvenor House ice rink was a major highlight on the London social scene. The antiquated water-freezing mechanism beneath the floor is a series of mechanical looking pipes and valves, set within what looks like a shallow swimming pool. I've often wondered why they don't revive it, especially as ice rinks at the NHM and Somerset House have become so popular in recent years. But there's a reason and it's all down to popularity. It takes two days to freeze the ice rink and it takes a further two to defrost! There simply aren't four days free at any one time to justify it, so the ice rink continues to slumber beneath the floorboards as it has done for decades...
4. The Dorchester
Owned by the Sultan of Brunei, this classic Park Lane establishment has been largely ostracised by the fashion and film industries due to Brunei's draconian stance against homosexuality. From an events perspective that's not a great move as there's been a marked decline in event revenues in both London and Beverley Hills. Having said that, the levels of service at the Dorchester are beyond world class, as are the salubrious surroundings. I attended an Advertising and PR agency 'owner's club' (the Solus Club, which meets in the Orchid Room ten times a year) earlier this year where Harry Redknapp was the hugely entertaining keynote speaker. It really was sensational but the well respected 'Chatham House Rules' means that I can't reveal any of the...er.....revelations! The venue and the food were both sensational, as you'd expect. Oh, and I was pulled over for speeding through Woodstock in my DJ at 2am afterwards. Not clever.
5. The Lanesborough
Reloaded. It's kind of cool that this benchmark Hyde Park Corner Hotel used to be St.George's Hospital when it first opened its doors in 1773. This magnificent establishment is nearing the final stages of a complete renovation by the revered Alberto Pinto (who unfortunately died on the job last year!) and is set to take the London events scene by storm later this year. Following in the footsteps of of the Savoy in the risky but worthwhile strategy of almost complete reinvention, the Lanesborough is sure to justify their coveted position as purveyors of the multi-award-winning and most expensive afternoon tea in the galaxy. Think of this place as a sort of guest house for World Statesmen as they visit the Queen, next door...
6. The Imperial War Museum
Having recently re-opened with a stunning re-configured central atrium, the IWM has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in corporate event terms. The imposing classical portico which greets your guests sets the scene, instantly demanding respect and attention. What's more, the new event spaces inside can now house well over 300, reflecting the dramatic facade. War is clearly a contentious issue but the history of war is crucial, poignant and the reason we enjoy our freedom today. The IWM is therefore a fascinating, dramatic and awe inspiring location for corporate events of all types (except, perhaps, the Greenpeace AGM!) There's a great story about a party guest shinning up the barrel of an enormous gun barrel (pre refurb) only to become stranded and in need of rescue, conjuring the kind of image you'd only ever expect to see on an 80's album cover!
7. The Banqueting House
The last remaining part of the palace of Whitehall, the Banqueting House is perhaps more architecturally important than most people know. In fact, it was the first neo-classical building in England. Orders, columns, pilasters, freizes, pediments, porticos, Serlianas, the piano nobile, chiriecati (oh my Art History comes flooding back!) are all displayed on this building for the very first time outside Greece and Italy. And it's all down to one man with a passion for Palladio and a really cool name, Inigo Jones. The Banqueting House is a magnificent venue and such an important building that it simply can't ever go out of fashion (as long as you ensue that your guests know the history!)
8. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Another classic on Exhibition Road, the V & A matches it's 'sister' property, the Royal Albert Hall (Queen Victoria oversaw some pretty special erections during her reign) for style and grandeur. In fact, a few years ago, in 2007, when the beautiful central courtyard was re-launched, we staged an event for the Sunday Times Style, which was their first event following the refurb. There were two special things about this event. Firstly, it was the first time interactive projection mapping was used on a floor (a giant black and white Style Magazine cover acted as a digital pond with rippling water and following fish as guests stepped on it as they arrived). This technology is old fashioned now but in its day it was a huge wow factor. Secondly and most significantly, the event was staged on 7/7. The day of the bombings. In an act of glorious defiance (and on my advice) the Sunday Times went ahead with the event and it was a great success! Risky business.
9. Lord's Cricket Ground
Originally located in Dorset Square, Lord's relocated to St.John's Wood in 1809 and, after a second move a few hundred yards (to make way for the Regent's canal) across the Eyre Estate, the 'home of cricket' has thrived ever since. There's something special about Lord's and it's undoubtedly related to the quintessential Britishness of the tradition, the groundsmanship, the grandeur of the architecture and, of course, the ridiculous game of cricket. I can call it ridiculous because I love it and I play it. But it's still gloriously ridiculous! The classical splendour of the Long Room which is steeped in sporting history, will inspire your guests, as will their other classical reception rooms, meeting rooms and private dining rooms. They even have a museum and screening room. What's more, Lord's offers the best of both worlds as they also boast a large, modern venue space - the Nursery Pavilion. I've attended several luncheons in this semi-permanent structure and it's a great, flexible, wide-span, open plan space without any viewing restrictions. Last time I was there I met Radio One's Greg James (got a selfie of course!) who's an avid Lord's Taverner, as well as lead guitarist Dave Hill, the crazy looking dude from Slade. Who used to be my mum's boyfriend in the 1960's! Oh, and for the best views of the iconic (slightly sloping) ground they also have the J.P. Morgan media centre - the futuristic tripod-like construction that overlooks the pitch, designed for press on match days...
10. The National Portrait Gallery
This venue is one of those places that is often confined to tourists' bucket lists, like the Louvre or Guggenheim and, whereas the venue was once a regular on the corporate events scene, it's now more unusual to be invited to such a traditional location. There are no grey areas here. This is one of the world's most famous art galleries and there's no need (or point) in doing anything clever or creative. If your event or brand is synonymous with world famous works of art, then you can't go higher-end than the national Portrait gallery. From the magnificent Tudor Galleries, depicting Henry VIII in the closest thing to photographs from the time to the Balcony Gallery, depicting more current modern day celebrities from the 1960's to the 1990's, the National Portrait Gallery is a fascinating place. There's also a fantastic theatre too, with 150 seats, which is perfect for presentations and product launches in the most classical of stylish spaces.
Of course, many of these fabulous, world-class venues may have previously inadvertently consigned themselves to the realms of forgotten classicism by promoting themselves via the same traditional channels that existed all those years ago - the publications and guides which are mainly used by those who have always used them (many of whom have already died of old age).
However, the next generation of event planners rely on instant, endorsed, peer-led information via features, reviews, blogs and comment (londonlaunch.com!) and perhaps now that these classic venues are increasingly seen alongside the new wave of rather more unconventional venues, they're beginning to enjoy a resurgence to prominence through a totally different pool of planners who, until now, may have (wrongly) felt that they need to go rather more radical. But then, ironically, radical might just have become the new boring...
Will Broome CEO