COUNTRY RETREATS: Splendid isolation - UK properties are answering the call for small, high-end meeting venues, by offering seclusion from distractions, exclusivity, personal service, and even grandeur. And, as Belinda Gannaway finds out, this need not come at a price

CASTLE ASHBY

Set in a 4,000-hectare estate, this 16th century Northants country house has 26 rooms. The Great Hall seats 120 theatre-style, and the boardroom 40. 01604 696696

DANESFIELD HOUSE HOTEL AND SPA

This 87-room, country-house hotel set in 26 hectares of grounds near Marlow-on-Thames has a spa and conference suite which holds 100 theatre-style. 01628 891010

DUNCHURCH PARK

This 87-room William and Mary-style mansion near Rugby has nine rooms in the main house that seat 10 to 30 classroom-style. The Garden Rooms Suite holds 200 theatre-style. 01788 810656

GLENARM CASTLE

Built in 1636 and set in a 533 hectares estate in County Antrim, the property has 11 rooms for meetings of 20. 028 2884 1203

POOL HOUSE

A unique property in Rossshire with four suites and one single, it has a loch-side meeting room. 01445 781272

STAPLEFORD PARK

This country house has 51 rooms while the Grand Hall holds 30-300 delegates. 01572 787522

WESTON PARK

This 17th century Shropshire house has 28 rooms. Dining capacity is 120 in the Orangery and a variety of meeting rooms are newly available this year. 01952 852100

The capacity figures give an idea of maximum meeting space not the full range of facilities on offer.

The countryside in general may still be suffering the fallout of foot and mouth, but the UK's luxury retreats are winning new and loyal custom. Group stays may be shorter, and the focus more business than leisure, but hard pressed executives are finding the space they need to think, plan and recharge their batteries at these hideaways. And while times may be hard across some commercial sectors, these are not considerations organisations can easily forego.

Meanwhile, the incentive planner looking for ideas close to home is similarly drawn by the appeal some of the most unique properties the UK countryside have to offer. When it comes to rewarding or incentivising key personnel or contacts, exclusive use of a prestigious venue in extensive grounds offers unparalleled cachet. In short, lording it up country estate-style is very popular.

But the UK's castles and stately homes are not the only properties tapping into this growing market. Country house hotels are increasingly pushing their exclusive hire business as well. As Colin Sweeney, chief executive of the Weston Park Hotel in Shropshire - famed for hosting the G8 Summit in 1998 and the Northern Ireland Peace Talks last July - notes: "More hotels are trying to capitalise on the exclusive-use end of the market.

Selling the idea that the venue is yours to use and you won't be disturbed by anyone else is a big pull for today's high-end meetings."

However, for clients there are a few critical factors that elevate a country property into a retreat - and exclusivity is not the only issue.

"Clients need to feel away from it all,' explains Expotel travel and events manager Veena Lidbetter. "They want to see rolling countryside, mountains, or a lake at the least. An unusual property, such as a castle, manor or farmhouse will add to the unique feel of the experience. Saying that you're staying in a castle sounds far more exciting. And the personal service these venues offer can create a relaxing, calm atmosphere you don't always find in a more stressful town or city hotel environment."

Banks Sadler director of sales Penny Thomas suggests the opportunity for delegates "to let their hair down in private

is a big draw for small, high-level groups whether for an incentive or a meeting. The challenge, she says, is to find a property that meets the "middle-of-nowhere" requirement, but is also easily accessible.

However, for Weston Park's Sweeney a genuine retreat has something more besides. "What we offer is a 'real' experience. No matter how good a hotel is, it is going to be contrived. This is a real home and contains everything the Bridgeman family collected over the centuries. This is an authentic part of Weston's history and creates a different experience for guests.

We are only available for exclusive use and so Weston is perfect for groups looking for a tangible, tranquil and welcoming homely environment."

At Weston Park, along with some other retreat properties, that homely feel means no check-in desk, bar or restaurant. Instead a butler service helps to create the house party atmosphere. Not only that, there are not even any TVs in the rooms - they simply would not fit with the feel of the bedrooms.

It is precisely this sort of attention to detail, combined with personal and discreet service, that makes The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands a winner with the meetings and incentive market, says marketing director Adrienne Eastwood. "There are no bars, reception areas or other traditional barriers found in hotels. This makes for a more friendly, open style of service with very little back- or front-of-house feel,

she says. "Delegates on exclusive bookings feel they are taking over their own family estate with everything run around them. That can be very important for clients looking for absolute privacy."

If confidentiality and seclusion are the order of the day, then it is hard to fit the bill better than with a castle. Skibo is set in 3,300 hectares, while Amberley Castle in West Sussex boasts 20 metre high, 800 year-old walls and a portcullis. Surrounded by downs and woodland, "you may as well be in the middle of the Sahara for all the interruptions you will get,

says Amberley proprietor Martin Cummings.

Over in Kent, Leeds Castle's business development manager Wendy Rooke believes just turning into the grounds and following the long driveway through the park helps to create a change of pace more conducive to effective meetings.

However, in terms of cost, this level of seclusion does come at a price.

However, it is not be a wholly unreasonable one. Rack rates at Weston Park start at £195 per person for 24 hours, while Leeds Castle's Culpepper Suite has a 24-hour rate from £165. And Expotel's Lidbetter believes there are deals to be had for those prepared to hunt around. "I've recently been looking for a small conference venue for 20 people and these individual properties often come in at the same rate as the usual conference hotels, but they offer so much more in terms of character and atmosphere,

she says. "The trick is to work on short lead-in times and speak to properties with vacancies to fill. The value often comes not in the rate but in the add-ons."

Foot and mouth may have had a very immediate impact on country venues, but that has been consigned to history, and while most properties suffered to some degree following 11 September, the majority of UK retreat-style venues say the groups market has been buoyant over the past few months.

Last year saw Weston Park's conference and banqueting business grow 11 per cent on the previous year, while the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle says conference and incentive business began to grow in the latter part of 2001, and that trend is continuing this year.

As a result, discounts are scarcer than they might be, but there are still some good deals to be had. Danesfield House Hotel and Spa in Marlow-on-Thames, for instance, offers partners-stay-free packages, but only for corporate rate clients that use the property on a certain number of occasions.

Likewise, Amberley Castle will negotiate on rates and packages, but only on a case-by-case basis. "We don't get too involved in discounting as the castle is booked out 52 weekends a year and we have no problems filling it mid-week in the summer,

says Cummings. "The only time we might negotiate figures is mid-week during the winter. If a client dangles a fish and it fits our waters, we will go with it."

Neither does Amberley offer the same sort of commission Cummings suggests agencies might expect. "Because we offer a completely different experience to conference hotels, clients tend to recommend us to their agencies rather than the other way around,

he says. "What we do is so totally out of step with agencies' usual business."

Skibo's Eastwood paints a similar picture. "Rather than offering special packages to gain more business, we have increased our events team in both sales, co-ordination and event management. This has greatly enhanced our ability to respond to enquiries, develop new ideas for special events and give 24-hour event management. Each event is personally tailored hand in hand with the event organiser,

she says.

With demand growing for this type of property, there is little sign of a price war in the future. Neither, as Banks Sadlers' Thomas notes, will oversupply dampen prices. "There aren't the vast number of venues stuffed into the British countryside as is sometimes supposed,

she says.

However, with demand increasing and clients continually looking for unique properties with high-end appeal, new venues are coming on the market and existing ones are extending their operations. This can only be a good thing for the organiser looking for a new or more prestigious experience.

New to this market this year, for example, is the diminutive Pool House - which has just the four suites - on the shores of Loch Ewe in Rossshire, and which scooped the AA's Small Hotel of the Year award. Meanwhile, Somerford Hall in Staffordshire has been completely renovated for the groups market and Skibo Castle has opened what it claims is the most challenging off-road course in the world and a new state-of-the-art support room for its boardroom. Weston Park too has converted some of its outbuildings and the stable block to make additional meeting space, while Leeds Castle now offers visitors hot-air balloon trips over the estate at £120 per head. The 36-room Baillifscourt Hotel in Sussex - available for exclusive use and which can accommodate conferences of up to 40 delegates from £8,500 per day - has opened a new private barbecue dining gazebo that can be hired for up to 22 people in its beachfront grounds.

Looking ahead, as long as achievers need rewarding and executives need a place to think, the UK's unique, luxury properties look set to continue winning business from the groups market. However, there is no room for complacency and as the events of 2001 demonstrated vividly, the offer needs to be as compelling as possible, while retaining the traditional charms that make these properties such a success in the first place if they are to succeed in the rough times as well as the smooth.

Barclays incentive manager Bob French, wanted to find a country property with a high perceived value to create a rewarding experience. "This is an annual event to reward and recognise top achievers' sales performance, and it's important to use a venue with a prestigious feel. We tend to choose smaller country venues with extensive grounds, and taking the property over exclusively really helped to create a very special experience,

he says.

"Experience over the past five years shows that country properties with a stately home feel have the greatest cachet and create the highest value from the event,

he adds. In addition, the personal service is of a level not usually found in standard city locations.

Danesfield House was recommended by YT&T director Andy Tullet, who says it was the perfect size for the group's exclusive use. The extensive new spa facility was also a key draw. "For this mixed group we needed a venue where business could be combined with leisure, and one with extensive facilities and grounds,

he says.

Tullet says the staff also helped to create an appropriate, relaxed atmosphere. "They went out of their way to make things work and created an excellent country house feel.

Everything was easy and done for you. You didn't have to think for yourself,

he says.

Participants' feedback showed the event more than met its objectives and visitors were impressed with the property and activities that included a choice of spa treatments and country pursuits. A business forum was also held which included a Q&A session with directors.

FACT FILE

Whatever the event, there are properties available from incentivising castle stays to small, remote meeting venues:

ACKERGILL TOWER

This 15th century castle near Wick has 25 rooms. It can host receptions for 110 or 80 theatre-style. 01955 603556

AMBERLEY CASTLE

The 12th century castle in West Sussex has 14 rooms and six suites. The Great Room can hold 50, while the King Charles Room holds 12 boardroom-style. 01798 831992

THE CARNEGIE CLUB

There are 20 rooms in Skibo Castle and 12 lodges with between one and four rooms. Theatre-style capacity is 70. 01862 894600

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