Venues outside of London offer impressive event spaces - from castles to forts, vineyards to theme parks and islands to aircraft hangars.
London is such a massive place and, even though the transport links are, despite our daily moaning, just about the best in the world, it mysteriously takes about an hour to get to wherever you're going, whenever you're going there! This is down to two major factors. Firstly, it's a busy place and secondly, the tube will always take you close to where you're going, but it won't necessarily drop you off at the door (unless its the Hippodrome Casino or the equally gloriously situated new 'The Bull & The Hide' which is a hop, skip and a jump from London's biggest City Hub - Liverpool St).
So, an out of town event 'destination' is not what it used to be. It used to be decidedly less convenient than an inner City venue but you'd be surprised at where you can get to within an hour (or maybe two) of central London these days - by car, bus, train or, if you're really going for it, helicopter or even executive jet! They're all more accessible and affordable than you might think... For inspiration, don't forget to check out our feature on fabulous event transport.
In fact, some would argue (especially the out of town venue contingency!) that getting out of town is easier than urban-herding your guests where there are too many distractions to ensure they don't veer off to something else before reaching your event or, even worse, stay in the office because they've 'simply got to hit this deadline'.
Get out of town and you've got a captive audience as well as an opportunity to excite, surprise and engage your guests or delegates in a unique, somewhat alien setting. In a good way.
You can also herd your guests far more effectively too because an out of town venue creates anticipation, buzz and even a sense of camaraderie within your guests. Putting it simply, it's exciting to be going somewhere! Even better, what if you give your guests somewhere to meet (remember to ensure they have their passports with them if you're Eurostar-ing it) without disclosing your final destination - you'd be surprised at how effective this can be, especially in the age of social media.
I was once asked for breakfast (with my passport) at Farnborough airport, only to be taken to lunch as well. In Monaco! Indeed, you could even incorporate some 'gamification' by drip-feeding clues to your guests via the social networks, inviting your delegates to guess where they're going.
Statistically, an out of town venue with a common means of transporting them there means two things:
- More of those who confirm their attendance will attend. Much more. This is because there is an added value to your event as well as a sense of privilege and responsibility. Guests are much less likely to make a last-minute decision not to turn up because they're 'busy' or 'it's raining'.
- There's a major sense of anticipation and the travel aspect becomes part of the experience. Your event starts at the station.
In the past few years, I've personally organized two extreme versions of such events at Disneyland Paris and both ticked all the aforementioned boxes with spectacular results. And it's amazing what you can achieve for a little over £500 a head. The first of these events was when I was President of ISES UK, in the days where I was determined to bring back the 'REC' or 'Regional Educational Conference'.
This was something we used to do every year at ISES in years gone by and was in danger of dying out. I was not going to let that happen on my watch so, as President, I fought hard for this one. And won. This is something I feel has been forgotten and it's a great shame because I think a REC would really help ISES differentiate it as a leading industry association. We had our own carriage on Eurostar (admittedly I ensured Eurostar was a sponsor, but there was still a reduced cost involved) and we set up a 'quiz' to engage and prepare our delegates for what they were in for. Upon arrival (conveniently, there's a Eurostar station on the Disney campus) on a Thursday evening, we were shown to our rooms and then had an hour to settle in before a casual themed dinner in the magnificent Newport Bay Club conference hotel.
The next morning, after a typical Disney breakfast, the 'edutainment' began! With keynote speakers ranging from the park Directors (marketing, events, hospitality, guest relations - even the Michelin starred executive chef!) to the ultimate keynote speaker from the world renowned 'Disney Institute' who spoke about looking after your customers the Disney way, this was a truly unforgettable anecdote-riddled experience. And the 'Disney Way', Ladies and Gentlemen, is the best way in the world. Without any doubt whatsoever. Having flown him in from Florida (Business Class was somewhat contentious but, I guess, fair issue!) this guy was a sensational highlight at the centre of the two day out of town extravaganza! I won't go into specifics here but, needless to say, his stories, sort of true fairytales, were something else.
But it was the 'Behind the scenes' tours which really enabled me to sell 104 tickets to event industry professionals. Our group of delegates got to go 'backstage' and see how Disney put on events - from weddings to conferences, catering to logistics. And it was amazing to experience. Admittedly, I'd been backstage at Walt Disney World on a number of occasions due to my family's theme park heritage (and that's a whole different world of American flair and sensational hospitality) but it was a fascinating insight into the intricate management of the world's biggest entertainment brand, from an events perspective. Something for us all to aspire to.
And then came the really fun part. Our own private dinner in Frontierland, with the Indiana Jones roller-coaster running exclusively for our party! Imagine that - a private Wild West dinner in an amazing themed Wild West saloon complete with Stetsons for everybody(!) followed by a flaming torchlit evening with an entire 'land' in Disneyland to ourselves! Many of us rode that damn mine train ride at least ten times. After an intense and somewhat high-octane day, the next morning was a gentle catering demonstration from their head chef followed by a few hours in the parks (with complimentary passes, of course) before all climbing aboard the same Eurostar train back to London where we all shared the unique experience with stories (and incriminating photos) before arriving back at St.Pancras late on Saturday afternoon. This trip will never be forgotten. By anyone. And nobody thought we could pull it off...
So, we've established that 'out of town' can translate as 'out of this world' when done well, but what's out there, within a few hours of central London, that's really worth considering?
Well, the simple answer is, a lot!
Here are eleven suggestions to get your wanderlust flowing...
1. Osea Island
Somewhere deep in the decidedly un-glamourous sounding Blackwater Estuary is a Caribbean-esque 400 acre secret island with four miles of glorious sandy beaches. Who knew?
This utterly stunning island boasts a handful of beach cottages and grand coastal houses, accommodating up to 130 guests at any one time. For the more adventurous there's even a pop-up hotel for 'glamping' - the ultimate team-building idea? What's more, there are two state of the art recording facilities on the island where artists such as McFly and Tinie Tempah have recorded! In fact, The Woman in Black was filmed here too.
The island is surprisingly close to Central London and recent guests have included Sienna Miller and Cara Delevigne. How come we've never heard of this place, we all cry?! A secret island indeed...
2. The RizonJet Hangar
Perfect for spectacular summer do's (and winter don't as it happens, because it can be freezing) the RizonJet aircraft hangar at Biggin Hill airport is a dramatic backdrop for any event.
But not only is the space dramatic, but it's also filled with Gulfstreams, Learjets, Hawkers and Citations, not to mention the odd Lambo Aventador to really set the scene.
A cavernous space, filled with beautiful multi-million dollar flying machines with a floor so clear and shiny you barely need a plate to eat your dinner off! Particularly amazing for car launches
3. Braxted Park
Braxted Park is one of those gems that ticks many, if not all the boxes and all within 1 hour's travel from central London (shorter than most commutes). When you're looking at venues outside of London, probably the most important thing you want to tick off is having outside space. Well, Braxted has it in 500 acres. It's probably easier to ask the question, "what DOESN'T Braxted have?" but that's more about framing than answering specific questions. So, here's the list - and it's a long one.
Outside lawn/gardens | Golf | Cookery School | Segways tours | Clay Pigeon Shooting | Conference/Event Rooms | Expert catering| Late license | Team Building activities | Dance floor | On-site accommodation | Banqueting halls/Fine dining | Bars & Restaurants | Historic building/setting
Is that enough for you?
And what's more, if you would like to 'try before you buy', we're hosting a truly spectacular open day for our wonderful Londonlaunch event planners. SEE HERE FOR MORE DETAIL
4. Spitbank Fort, Solent Fortress
Possibly the most intriguing venue you could ever visit, this circular fortress with quintessential stripy lighthouse, games room, wine cellar and rooftop hot tub is a private hideaway like no other! Why go for a corporate short break when you can go for a corporate 'fort break' in these sensational, secluded surroundings?!
It's only accessible by boat (as you'd imagine) so the whole experience is a genuine adventure and the recently restored luxury facilities, including nine bedrooms, the Officer's mess restaurant and Laurent Perrier Victory Bar, will ensure you have the most exciting, unique and exclusive experience this side of Alcatraz!
Brutal yet somehow beautiful!
5. Old Trafford - the Theatre of Dreams
OK, so I'm a Man Utd fan but nobody can argue (not even a Liverpool fan - Anfield is historic in many ways, including its infrastructure) or a City fan (The Etihad is massive, modern and soulless with a silly corporate name) that the Theatre of Dreams isn't the most iconic and inspirational sports ground in the UK, steeped in history and bolstered by the recently departed but iconic Sir Alex Ferguson.
Over the years I've taken many guests up to Old Trafford and its always a unique experience which goes down really well with football fans and non-football fans alike. Plus, we rarely lost in those days! I once took my Bank Manager (and his fifteen-year-old daughter) to a game and Paul Scholes paid us a visit in the hospitality suite after the game. They didn't necessarily know who he was but it did the trick nevertheless!
We also worked closely with Man United Soccer Schools (run in partnership with Nike) and we nearly brought United to London and staged a corporate football tournament in the moat of the Tower of London. We also pioneered a corporate experience whereby a corporate group would come to Manchester, stay at the Radisson (a lovely Manchester hotel situated quite close to OT) and after their conference, receive a good talking to from Sir Alex himself, who would equate managing a business to managing the greatest Club team in the world... for the small consideration of £30k. As it happens, it didn't really catch on amidst the deepest recession in living memory (although I would argue 'til I was blue the face that that's an even greater reason to incorporate a hairdryer into your boardroom). Indeed, this is exactly what Sir Alex is now doing at Harvard University so I'd like to think they owe me one! Perhaps its time for a more affordable version with Ole Gunnar Solskjær...?
6. Harrow School
Harrow School is one of the most famous and revered institutions in the world on account of its educational qualities, architecture, the classics and former world-leading pupils and is now available for inspirational events. This iconic stable of greatness, with 'Giants Of Old' including Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Byron (you can see their signatures engraved on the walls of the famous Fourth Form classroom), is situated just outside central London, exactly 10 miles from Centrepoint, offering magnificent views of the City with Wembley stadium in the foreground.
They are a number of classically beautiful event spaces for hire and, in line with their meticulous nature, Harrow works with only the very best caterers and production agencies to ensure that your event encapsulates the essence of this world-class brand, which, in turn, will reflect directly on your brand to great effect.
7. Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle is undoubtedly the finest medieval castle in all of England.
What's more, it's owned and operated by Merlin Entertainments (the same people as Alton Towers, Legoland, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures) so you could say they know how to put on a world class day out! There are 'haunted' dungeons, awe-inspiring hallways, complete with Suits of Armour and copious menacing torturous weapons - there's even a gigantic trebuchet which fires actual flaming balls in the grounds!
With such authentic and sympathetic attention to detail, not to mention a whopping great castle(!), this place is not only a stunningly beautiful destination in the heart of England but it's also a fascinating destination from another era. Warwick Castle has excellent catering facilities and phenomenally inspiring event spaces which are all steeped in history, not forgetting fun and games, medieval style!
8. Alton Towers
I'm not being flash (to coin a phrase from Harry Redknapp where he preceded this statement with the fact that he 'lost eleven grand at Newmarket on Saturday and barely noticed it!' at a recent dinner I attended) but my mother's parents owned this place when it was a ruined castle and one of England's most beautiful gardens.
My grandfather restored the gardens to their former glory (there's a plaque in the gardens stating 'He made the desert smile again' where his ashes were scattered). Then my dad came along and turned it into Europe's biggest theme park. There are so many incredible stories about those days - from roller-coasters to record breakers, Kylie Minogue to the Royal Family and even ghosts, but that's for another time (and I will write about it one day).
Until five years ago my grandmother still lived there (you can see her house from the top of Oblivion). Needless to say, I grew up here. Every birthday, school trip, party, holiday and weekend. I even spent every Christmas day here, with a traditional after lunch walk around the grounds and gardens with my grandmother's giant dog, Solomon.
Chairman of the Disney corporation, the revered (and feared) Mike Eisner, became a personal family friend as did Ted Crowell, the late Disney Director who started his career as Walt Disney's personal chauffeur - slightly reminiscent of Branson's change of fortunes in Downton Abbey (although Ted didn't marry Walt, of course!).
Alton Towers was then and remains to this day a magical destination. Certainly the best theme park in the UK. By a million miles. I remember Mike Eisner saying 'We spend millions trying to create the Magic Kingdom' but you already have it right here - the real deal'. They obviously have excellent conference and accommodation facilities these days (and a water park), making Alton Towers the finest themed destination slap bang in the centre of the UK - the ultimate fantastical domestic corporate destination? Perhaps...
9. Disneyland Paris
Disneyland Paris is a magical place, no doubt about that. As per my opening gambit, I've experienced this place first hand in the context of a corporate event/conference and it was, to coin an old phrase from my family's Alton Towers days, 'Out of this World'.
A proper out of body experience which can't help but inspire even the most hardened stiff upper lip Brit! In many ways, Paris has a distinct advantage over Florida or California (and, no, I'm not claiming the climate's better although I did go there once in the snow and it was pure magic!) because it's several decades newer.
Disney Parks stand the test of time brilliantly (even the distinctly 1980's Epcot Centre somehow manages to seem current) but Paris is how the original Disneyland in Anaheim would be if it was built 50 years later. There were teething problems at first though, with many cultural differences between the welcoming and enthusiastic American style which Disney is famous for and the altogether more austere Parisians (not serving wine in the restaurants was a massive 'no, no' for starters!) and, from a corporate perspective too, this is very apparent.
It's an American product without an American attitude which, for some Europeans is not a bad thing. I love the American way through and my most recent visit to Walt Disney World for a convention culminated with five senior Directors waving us off in the Disney themed coach. With giant Mickey Mouse gloves on their hands. You simply can't buy that.
10. Hush Heath Vineyards
Nestled deep in the heart of the glorious Kent Countryside, the Hush Heath Vineyards, orchards and ancient woodlands are a magical setting for corporate excursions of the sparkling kind! With sparkling wines produced using traditional Champagne methods, they (quite literally) rival any from the Champagne Region (I've tasted them and its true!) Hush Heath is a remarkable experience for anyone interested in the artisan craft of fine wine-making or cider pressing. Guests can stroll around the 400-acre estate and guided tours of the winery can be booked for corporate groups - where you'll experience a four-ton Magnum Champagne Tank Press (whatever that is!) and stainless steel cylinders holding 120,000 litres of Britain's finest sparkling wine, amongst many other fascinating things!
11. Aynhoe Park
I can't work out whether this place is magical or mental. In fact, who am I kidding, it's both. On one hand Aynhoe is a beautiful classical stately home conveniently situated just off the M40, about an hour and a quarter from Central London and five minutes from Bicester Village (so a nice corporate goody bag or at least a voucher is a given!) and on the other its like you're dressed in a rabbit costume and standing, somewhat bemused, in Wonderland.
There is a spectacular variety of inspiring event spaces here, from the sensationally beautiful orangery complete with stuffed 19th Century giraffe floating away by balloon (not as tasteless as it sounds, strangely!) to the drawing room, filled with a magical array of weird and wonderful artefacts collected over the years.
Aynhoe really is an eclectic mix of old and new - a truly modern take on the collections acquired on the Grand Tours of a bygone era. I've attended a number of events here and they've all been wonderfully bonkers. The grounds lend themselves perfectly to all sorts of things from rifle shooting to ferret racing (both of which I've experienced here!) too, so it's the perfect backdrop for stimulating out of office, out of town, even out of body experiences!
Find out more
Whilst we're on the subject, if Stately Homes are more your style then check out our recent article on the best Stately Homes to hire or our 'Outside London' venues section where you'll find some amazing options ranging from the high calibre E.J Churchill Shooting Ground to Epsom Downs Racecourse and lots in between!
So, what are you waiting for? Get outta town!