10 cool conference centres
Ten of London's most unique and unusual conference and meeting venues. Choose inspiring conference venues to engage and invigorate your delegates.
If there's a phrase which is synonymous with sleep-inducing boredom and its not 'conference centre' it's got to be close! In the age of inspirational spaces and creative thinking, you'd be forgiven if you thought that the old fashioned conference centre has had it's day. But has it? Conferences, seminars, exhibitions, summits, conventions, AGMs, industry get-togethers, whatever you call them, all need a functional home. It's all very well being hell bent on inspiring your target audience but form and function need to follow suit in equal measures or there'll be a discord.
Go too far off piste and you may lose your audience, go too conventional and you're in grave danger of...erm...losing your audience.
In many ways you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.
However, things have changed. The unconventional venues have upped their game considerably whilst, confusingly, so have the conventional ones. Everybody wins!
Whilst conference centres seem to emit a certain (subconscious) 80's quality, theatre-style, raked seating with a big screen is still a safe formula. But these days there are other significant considerations. Does the venue reflect your product or brand? Is there good wi-fi? 'Own device connectivity' is crucial in this day and age for both personal 'out of office' connectivity (your clients don't care if you're at a conference) as well as for social media (your on-site delegates are your best and widest reaching publicists. Or what about the catering? Remember, a great event with sh*t catering will only ever be an event with sh*t catering. On twitter and Facebook. And Twitter and Facebook is the real world, whether you fight it or not!
What's more, the conference experience starts before your delegates arrive at the venue. Long before.
It starts with the invitation, even the hashtag, setting the scene for a fully immersive, some would argue branded, and certainly 'on message' experience. Yes, even the venue will speak volumes about your brand and the day itself, so if you're looking for engagement, creativity, forward thinking, pro-activity and forthright positivity, perhaps a hotel basement isn't the most inspired choice?
And then there's wi-fi. And when I say wi-fi I mean a good, strong, robust, wide band-width, high capacity, every nook and cranny, super-fast broadband connection. Every good venue these days should have it – there’s simply no excuse not to. If it doesn’t then there’s also Etherlive – sort of broadband, to go!
Every delegate should be tweeting, posting pictures and key-note quotes on Facebook, sharing new found knowledge on LinkedIn, bragging about the cool event they're at and generally instagraming, snap-chatting, trip advisdor-ing and What’s app-ing their way through the day - publicising your brand or product. Dedicated apps are becoming more and more popular too and can add a huge new dimension to your event.
Again, a decent connection is crucial here because the best event apps work on day to day devices such as iPad minis or even iPhones and interactivity is key. We recently used a native app, preloaded onto iPads which enabled delegates to ask questions in real time and vote on topics raised by the speakers. What's more, delegates could then 'like' other delegates' ideas and even rate questions in order of personal relevance as well as take electronic notes (which were automatically emailed to them afterwards). As a result our 200 delegates asked a combined 480 questions which we answered personally (and via twitter using the hashtag of course - we're not stupid!) See! It's brilliant. A cool, suitably inspiring and hi-tech conference venue is therefore absolutely crucial and decidedly not optional.
Plus, your delegates need to be inspired to stay awake. All day!
So, here are our top ten cool, inspiring and ‘alternative’ conference venues (and why!) to get you started…
1. The Ham Yard Hotel
The magnificent Firmdale group's latest creation and built specifically for press junkets (and I'm informed of its brilliance by Warner Bros, who let’s face it, would know). The hotel boasts a 188-seat theatre, which is perfect for movie screenings, product launches and, in the context of this article, up-market conferences. As you would expect of the creators of the timeless Charlotte St Hotel and the edgy Soho Hotel, The Ham Yard Hotel is a gloriously stylish uber-cool urban destination, which also boasts a 1950’s style bowling alley and a beautiful Soho roof garden.
2. The Matcham Room at the Hippodrome Casino
This plush, cosy, state-of-the-art theatre is just perfect for conferences and presentations of all shapes and sizes.
From hi-tech conferences to traditional awards ceremonies, the Matcham room is a sensational environment with an abundance of break-out opportunities, all under one roof, from restaurants (Heliot steak restaurant is magnificent) and bars (check out the 'penny bar' where the entire floor is made up of one penny pieces) to private rooms and, of course, the high-roller casino rooms where you can partake in their fun 'learn to play ' sessions. They've just launched an inspiring new area too, called Lola’s.
3. The Hackney Empire
This beautiful grandiose turn-of-the-Century theatre has come into its own now that the surrounding area has gone all up-market on them. In fact, it's better than that because it's trendy and up-market whilst being steeped in tradition, which is a potent combination – if the boards could talk.... Hugely versatile and atmospheric, the Hackney Empire is dripping in history – over the past hundred years the stage has been graced by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Russell Brand, not to mention London’s best-loved and leading pantomime! With excellent overland rail links (the ginger line), this venue is one of the greatest alternative conference venues in town and seats 1,272 (comfortably). So it’s the biggest too.
4. The Mermaid Conference Centre
This offers the best of both worlds.
A large-scale, perfectly located traditional conference venue, which has recently undergone a very impressive re-vamp. There aren't many (any!) other 600-seat auditoriums in the City of London and the Mermaid has many more attributes!
Not least the magnificent river views. Form and function in perfect harmony!
5. The Crystal
Arguably the most hi-tech conference venue in London. Certainly the most sustainable (CSR fans take note) and definitely the coolest looking. With possibly the best views. Quite a lot going for it then.
What’s more, their catering is very cleverly presented. Supplied by a local grocer who also supplies most of London’s top restaurants with (mostly) locally grown produce - it’s hard to grow a pineapple organically in Kent! - their sustainable, organic vegetables are presented in little terracotta plant pots buried in hummous so it’s as if you’re plucking your own fresh food out of the ground!
6. The Cumberland
With it’s beautifully calming lighting system and edgy wave-effect ceiling line, the Ocean Room at the Cumberland is an inspiring space for up to 350 delegates theatre-style.
Just off Oxford Street at Marble Arch, the hotel successfully combines function and form from the cavernous super-modern back-lit lobby to the world-class meeting rooms at the heart of the venue.
7. The Mayfair Hotel
A classic modern Mayfair hotel (the clue’s in the name!) with a sensational 201 seat screening room downstairs.
With leather seats, HD projection, THX sound system and, in your seat pocket, a hand-held audio-response system, the Mayfair screening room is a significant player on the London conference scene due to it’s impressive tech-spec and sheer scale.
There are an impressive array of break-out rooms and private reception areas too, not to mention the world’s most impressive art-deco Baccarat chandelier in the aptly named Crystal Room…
8. The Landmark London
Possibly the most impressive atrium in London, if not the World, the former HQ of MI9 (yes, there were loads of secret ‘MI’ departments – up to 39, I think!) this building is where escaped war heroes such as Airey Neave (who’s Grandson I went to school with!) were cross-examined by British Intelligence after escaping from places like Colditz. What you perhaps don’t know is that skirting the atrium on three sides are a variety of stunning event and conference spaces, the largest suitable for up to 568 delegates, theatre style – all with natural daylight and not a restricted view in sight (not to mention palatial surroundings!).
9. The Ministry of Sound
Perhaps not known for its conference capabilities, this iconic nightclub is, if you think about it, the prefect space for large scale, high energy, different and exciting conferences.
Having led the way for high profile (and big) music events for twenty three years, globally, the Ministry is a super hi-tech, gritty, urban and cool series of venue spaces, highly conducive for staging conferences in a similar way to the equally urban Studio Spaces E1.
Now part of Regus, MBW are mostly associated with the traditional, well-situated and functional conference destinations of old. However, in a similar way to how the hotels reinvented themselves about five years ago, MWB have upped their already high-quality game and now offer inspiring spaces in all the right places. Take their stunning 33rd floor meeting and conference venue in Canary Wharf, accommodating up to 120 delegates with panoramic views of all London’s internationally recognized landmarks, in every direction. Or the stunning 55 Old Broad St, complete with super hi-tech conferencing systems. For meetings, training and small conferences, MWB venues are a revelation and strike just the right balance, every time.
11. CCT Venues
One of the select few venue groups who’s venue spaces lend themselves perfectly to the meetings and conference market as well as the creative events and product launch markets. Putting it simply, their venues are stunning as well as being ultra-functional.
The Vista Conference suite and adjoining Sunset bar offer possibly the best views from a conference centre anywhere in Europe. You might have to close the blinds though as your delegates may be a little too ‘inspired’ by the stunning panoramic views. Covering both the City and Canary Wharf, CCT venues offer a wide variety of world-class amenities from technology to roof terraces and just about anything your conference delegates could ever wish for…
Ashlone Buildings, Putney Embankment
And finally, this week’s discovery is a stunning little boat-house on the Thames in Putney – perfect for meetings, training and small (tiny!) conferences.
It hasn’t ever been advertised anywhere yet (watch this space!) but it’s the Sea Cadet’s HQ and a cool, vaulted-ceiling mini warehouse.
And perfect on Boat Race Day, of course.
So, there you have it. Conferences are officially cool again, so this conference season why not do something slightly different? Or not, as the case may be.
Choose any of the venues in this feature or explore further in our Conference Venues in London section and you’ll be suitably inspired…
Will Broome CEO