LONDON - CONFERENCE VENUES: Agency ratings

CIT takes a look at eight of the capital's biggest venues and asks buyers how they rate them for capacity, accessibility, value for money, service, staff and catering.

BARBICAN CENTRE

Situated in the heart of London's financial district, the Barbican prides itself on being a combined arts and conference centre. While the arts scene may be lamenting the departure of the Royal Shakespeare Company in May, it has been at the conference market's gain. The theatre has now been fully integrated into the centre's venue offer following a major refurbishment programme. This adds an extra space with a capacity of 900 for conferences alongside the existing portfolio of meeting rooms. Capacities range from 50 in the centre's eight meeting suites to 1,989 theatre-style in the Barbican Hall. Receptions and banquets for 350 are easily accommodated in the Garden Room, or in the Conservatory with its terrace.

The centre has recently installed remote-controlled digital cameras, linked to an in-house broadcast-quality recording studio available for use to conference clients. This enables events in one location to be transmitted to another within the complex.

While there were some disparaging remarks from the agencies over how easy it is to get lost walking to the centre from the Barbican tube station, its varied conference capacity was praised, as was its value for money.

Both the staff and catering service were also rated as excellent.

BUSINESS DESIGN CENTRE

There is space for 500 delegates in the Business Design Centre's (BDC) largest auditorium. This is complemented by a further nine meeting rooms, one of which, the mezzanine, can hold 2,000 for cocktails. The 5,595 sq m of exhibition space presents the opportunity for clients to run exhibitions alongside conferences.

Recent additions include the Club Lounge, which features a range of high-tech audiovisual equipment for meetings, and a change of caterers to The Good Eating Company.

Agencies were mostly positive about the BDC's services. Its location in Islington, 20 minutes drive from the West End, makes it accessible by public transport, although the lack of free parking makes life difficult for drivers. Capacity was rated highly, thanks to the range of meeting and breakout rooms, which are regarded to be sufficiently self-contained from events in the main hall.

The staff were universally commended, especially as the venue appoints a central contact for each event.

Opinions differed on cost-effectiveness, with some saying prices were not easily negotiated. However, the BDC was described as "very good value", due to groups being granted the flexibility to book various packages to suit them. Catering was the only area that did not attract fulsome praise.

CHURCH HOUSE CONFERENCE CENTRE

Built in the 1930s, this listed building affords panoramic views of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Hall. The conference centre as it now stands was opened in 1990. Several of its 13 meeting rooms are currently undergoing a programme of refurbishment, including the Harvey Goodwin suite, which has a theatre-style capacity of 200.

The function areas range in size from the debating chamber Assembly Hall, which seats 670, to the Bishop Partridge Hall, where 180 delegates can mingle over a cocktail reception while overlooking Westminster Abbey.

Agencies agreed overall that the Church House Conference Centre worked well for smaller meetings, although one buyer commented that the main auditorium is limited by its circular design.

However, its accessibility and location was commended, particularly for clients who do not wish to hold a conference in the City of London or the West End.

Value for money was considered excellent compared to similar sized venues in the capital, and the catering was regarded as very good. Staff were deemed informative and helpful on both the operational and research side.

EARLS COURT & OLYMPIA

Thanks to the combination of exhibition and conference facilities at both Earls Court and Olympia (the former is located at Earls Court and the latter is situated in Kensington) the venues work very well for conference-led exhibitions and product launches.

But smaller conferences can also be accommodated at either of the venues.

The Olympia Conference Centre holds between 250 and 449 delegates in its auditorium, as well as offering two breakout rooms, five seminar rooms and 988 sq m of exhibition space. Alternatively, Earls Court's conference facilities seat up to 250.

Agency opinions differed on the two venues. Some describe the large exhibition hall at Earls Court as an adaptable and versatile space that works well for major conferences of up to 5,000. However, it requires a considerable budget to create a branded environment from the shell of the space.

Accessibility by London Underground was rated as good for both centres, and car parking was regarded as more than adequate for the Earls Court facility, although the there is a bit of a challenge in moving large volumes of coaches.

However, the agencies noted the venues do not offer day-delegate rates or packages because clients hire the space as opposed to the venue's facilities.

In other words, organisers have to hire in all necessary structures, staging, and staffing.

Nevertheless, agencies described the venue's staff as professional, well informed and helpful. In regards to the catering, while organisers are tied into using the venue's preferred supplier, there is a degree of flexibility and both the venues work closely with the organiser.

EXCEL

Still one of the most recent additions to London's conference venue offer, Docklands-based Excel, located just one mile from London City airport, has some of the largest space available in the capital. Despite its vast space for exhibitions, Excel also offers a dedicated conference centre for up to 1,000. Delegates who wish to stay close to the venue can be accommodated at the 104-suite Sunborn Yacht Hotel, the 142-room Four Seasons Canary Wharf, the newly opened boutique hotel Threadneedles, or budget property Etap.

The largest auditorium capacity at the venue is 48,000, and this is supported by 66 meeting rooms.

Again, opinions varied on Excel's accessibility. Some regard the venue as too far from central London compared to other venues, while others enthuse about the road, rail and air access, and the parking, which includes plenty of room for coaches.

The venue is regarded as ideal for events with exhibitions, and the fact there was a wide variety of rooms that can be split or enlarged was welcomed.

There was, however, the feeling that the venue works best for large conferences, as small events may feel dwarfed by their surroundings.

Again, the staff came in for praise for their knowledge, keeping in constant contact with clients, and assigning one contact to assist throughout an event. Furthermore, the agencies cited the venue as negotiable on rates and considered it to be good value for money compared to venues nearer the centre.

HILTON METROPOLE

The four-star hotel, located ten minutes walk from Oxford Street, was designed as a convention hotel, capable of hosting events for up to 3,000 delegates. Offering 1,058 rooms, the hotel can provide room blocks for up to 800 delegates for an event and claims up to 30 conference sessions can run simultaneously.

As it is centrally located, the thorny issue of parking was raised again, although public transport links are excellent.

The variation in capacities across function rooms for both conferences and dinners was a key selling point for the agencies. But there was a feeling the venue was quite bullish on rates, although agencies felt this was understandable, as the Metropole is one of the few UK venues where groups can sleep, meet and eat. The staff were rated highly, as was the catering - the panel commended the venue's expertise in handling all manner of dietary requirements.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II CONFERENCE CENTRE

A recent winner of the London Tourism Awards for the Innovation in Business Tourism, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre is situated in the heart of London's Westminster. A major refurbishment of the fifth and sixth floor's Mountbatten and Elizabeth Windsor rooms saw the introduction of a state-of-the-art webcasting service for delegates, wireless technology, and a new banqueting area. Catering for up to 1,000 delegates is available and conference needs are dealt with over seven main conference rooms plus 20 smaller meeting rooms. Theatre-style capacities range between 300 and 730.

Feedback from agencies showed that while London still requires a hi-tech, purpose-built conference centre, the QEII is currently the closest the capital offers.

Accessibility was one of the major selling points for this venue, as it has excellent public transport links. It is ten minutes from Victoria and Waterloo stations, providing it with good international connections.

However, it was felt that, on occasion, the centre could be less flexible than other conference venues, due to its commitment to government meetings.

However, staff were said to be very helpful.

WEMBLEY CONFERENCE & EXHIBITION CENTRE

Large-scale conferences of up to 11,000 can be held at Wembley Arena, while the Conference Centre capacities range from 30 to 2,636 across 20 meeting rooms and its auditorium. Exhibitions tied in with conferences are accommodated in the 17,000 sq m of floorspace.

The complex was recently bought by Quintain Estates, which is yet to announce its plans. The existing renovation programme includes a £150,000 investment for upgrading the exhibition hall and arena's disabled facilities.

Additionally, a 165-room Quality Hotel opened two months ago, just a couple of minutes walk from the complex.

Accessibility in terms of both public transport and road routes were rated highly, the parking earning a particular mention. The centre is only 13 miles from Heathrow. The versatility of the venue's space was commended and, for London, Wembley was considered to offer good value for money.

Agencies were also happy with staff service levels, and commented that the catering was of a high standard at reasonable prices. The fact that the venue is willing to work closely with the organiser on their chosen menu was also well received.

AGENCY PANEL
The conference organisers commenting on the venues' services were:
Elizabeth Barton, director, Key Locations
Morag Crichton
account director, events, Skybridge
Paul Hussey managing director, The Olive Partnership
Elaine Richardson
client services director, TFI Group
Faye Sharpe sales and marketing director, IBR
Paul Welling, director, Well Placed Events
Abi Weston-Edwards, assistant conference manager, HotelBrokers
Josephine Yaxley, director of sales, IBR

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