Country Retreats: Pastoral pleasures

The internet giant celebrated its anniversary with a trip to Warsaw to inspire its senior staff's creativity.This month, we round up the incentive and conference destination heavyweights in the final part of C&IT's first reader survey, and reveal the lucky winner of the fabulous Maldives prize.Some groups really benefit from getting away from it all. Yasmin Razak visits some of the UK's best rural properties and samples their activities.

IDEAL FOR FOODIES

Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Oxfordshire

Contact Pauline Hobbs, 01844 277 215

Relais and Chateaux's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons is a haven for gastronomes who descend on the property in their droves to sample Raymond Blanc's epicurean delights at his double Michelin-starred restaurant. The luxury bolthole is surrounded by vast gardens, including a peaceful Japanese area, large lavender lawns, orchards and a two-acre vegetable and herb garden, plus a mushroom garden that provides the kitchen with more than 20 types of fungi.

The venue's accommodation comprises 13 suites and 19 bedrooms and each is individually appointed with evocative names including Opium, Snow Queen and the sensual Mon Plaisir. Le Manoir's private events manager Pauline Hobbs cites the financial, telecoms, pharmaceutical and automotive sectors as the prime meetings bookers.

The venue's events space includes the Milton Room, which can cater for up to 50 guests and is enhanced by a private garden and reception room.

Delegates with food on the brain will love the refurbished Cooking School, which reopened in February 2005 and offers a range of short courses for corporate groups throughout the year. Lexus GB organises customer-relationship incentives incorporating cooking courses with Raymond Blanc for its top clients. "The course really suits our clients who are all discerning individuals with a taste for fine dining," says Lexus CRM and database marketing manager Matt Button.

IDEAL FOR GOLFERS

The Vineyard at Stockcross, Berkshire

Contact Tania Wheeldon, 01635 528 770

The Vineyard at Stockcross near Newbury in Berkshire is the creation of Californian wine buff Sir Peter Michael. His well stocked cellar of vintages from family vineyards and the mountainous regions of the US is now complemented by a Portuguese list, reflecting the ancestry of the current sommelier. However, while the attractions of the intimate dining room and its gastronomic cuisine are hard to deny - particularly in light of the Michelin star it has retained over the past six years - groups are now turning to The Vineyard for its golfing potential.

Incentive awaydays can be held at the 18-hole course at neighbouring sister property Donnington Valley. Corporates including Reed Publishing have teed off at the course and enjoyed the Grade II-listed clubhouse, which caters for up to 65 people in the main room upstairs, while the lawns can host barbecues. Late arrivals can enjoy a round of night-time golf with luminous balls. If practising your swing gets too tiring, relax in the Vineyard's spa and try the 'Deconstructing the Grape' massage involving a blend of Californian grape seed and aromatic oils.

Accommodation includes 16 rooms and 33 suites kitted out with contemporary art, much of which is taken from the owner's collection. Meetings space includes syndicate rooms for small meetings or private dining, the Morning Room for 70 people and the gorgeous Music Room, situated craftily next to the California Bar for those essential wine-tasting sessions.

IDEAL FOR SPA LOVERS

Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire

Contact Hayley Ancell/Amy Hennings, 01252 853 000

The long-awaited spa at Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire is located in an 18th century stable block and offers striking views across the rolling landscape. The 15 treatment rooms include a VIP suite with its own changing room, reclining chair, steam shower and bath. Start the experience in the amethyst steam rooms and clear quartz crystal sauna and then venture on to the Zen studio for a meditation, yoga or pilates session. Treatments with E'Spa products include the soothing chamomile and sage massage, and the mint and algae foot ritual, which uses herbs picked locally. Ayurvedic and hot stone treatments are also available for stressed-out delegates.

In addition to the indoor swimming pool within the conservatory, groups can make use of the swim-through channel that leads to the outdoor pool.

The hotel's five function areas cater for a maximum of 260 and general manager Michael Newcombe believes that the prestige of the Four Seasons brand and the hotel's proximity to the capital are key elements in its C&I success. "Since opening in February, we have arranged a variety of high-profile events from corporate board meetings to high-end incentives with an average of 20 events per month," he says. "Clients are drawn from the financial and legal sectors, global luxury brands and entertainment companies that want to use the new spa, cruise along the canal in our custom-built barge or learn to shoot, horse ride or fish."

IDEAL FOR PRIVACY SEEKERS

The Samling, Cumbria

Contact Nigel Parkin, 015394 31922

For those wanting the space to think and freedom from distractions to focus minds, The Samling, a winner at this year's Excellence in England awards, could be just the job. Set high above Lake Windermere within a 67-acre estate, accommodation is located in the main house or the cottages, and the 11 opulent suites can also be used for high-level brainstorming meetings or as break-out spaces to ensure maximum privacy. The old stables house the boardroom and conference centre, which seats up to 14 delegates, while the Dutch Barn Theatre has capacity for up to 60. Norwich Union, Renault and Vauxhall have experienced the hotel's meetings package and the individual tailoring of events means that meals and dining hours are entirely flexible. Those burning the midnight oil can even order a midnight feast, while, during the day, picnics and al fresco dining options can be arranged if they want a change from the fine dining in the Michelin-starred restaurant. Team-building pursuits abound and these include relaxing activities such as guided walks or boating. Procurement officers will delight in the easy pricing structure, which includes suite accommodation, use of the meeting and conference facilities, all meals, alcohol and soft drinks, plus a range of activities. Furthermore, the option to hire the venue on an exclusive basis makes this hideaway a perfect option for top-end meetings.

IDEAL FOR ACTIVE TYPES

Owlpen Manor, Gloucestershire

Contact Jayne Simmons, 01453 860 261

Kraft Foods, Bristol & West and B&Q have all frequented this Cotswolds manor and its quirky period cottages. Set in a remote valley near Dursley in Gloucestershire, the venue is dominated by the Grade I-listed Manor House with its Great Hall. Meetings for up to 16 can take place here and break-out sessions can be held either in the adjoining room or in the 16th-century gardens.

The nine cottages vary in size and style and include the chintzy Woodwells, a sandstone farmhouse. This and the Grist Mill are ideal for meetings.

Small groups can hold brainstorming sessions within the dining rooms before sitting down to a meal with ingredients from the estate's livestock and produce. Up to 40 can eat in the 15th-century Cyder House restaurant.

However, it is the incentive activities that draw most groups to this retreat. Delegates can arrive in style in chauffeur-driven vintage cars and then explore the countryside for themselves on quad bikes or try their hands at archery, shooting, combat games, clay-pigeon shooting and gliding.

Change 2, a leadership development business, took B&Q and Alberto Culver, known for its VO5 and Tresemme haircare ranges, to the property. Development director Jonathan Harris says: "Owlpen Manor really is a venue with a difference because of its location and its unusual rooms. It gets delegates in a different frame of mind."

CASE STUDY - HONDA (UK)

Company: Honda (UK)

Event: Awards ceremony

Agency: Thomas Hannah & Associates

Date: 20-22 May 2005

Venue: Chewton Glen, Hampshire

Group size: 20, plus partners

Budget: Undisclosed

The Honda Customer Satisfaction Index Excellence Awards are designed to reward dealers who go the extra mile in the service stakes, so the automotive company wanted an exceptional venue to reflect their efforts.

Honda turned to Thomas Hannah & Associates, which chose the luxurious Chewton Glen in Hampshire for the two-day event.

The 40-strong group checked in on the Friday afternoon and made use of the property's kites, bicycles, golf course, tennis courts and spa. Cocktails preceded dinner in the library and the following day, the delegates were treated to a group croquet lesson and wine tasting, plus free time to enjoy the hotel's incentive offerings. A black tie dinner and awards ceremony concluded the event.

"Our annual event is all about rewarding our dealers who provide customers with excellent service," says Steve Oliver, head of Honda (UK)'s customer department. "Chewton Glen shares the same ethos and exceeded its brief in every way. With its help, we gave delegates a free rein, and the feedback from all attendees has been superb."

BEST OF THE REST RURAL VENUES

Built in 1666 by the second Duke of Buckingham, Cliveden House is part of the Von Essen group, which comprises a private collection of 17 country-house hotels across the UK. The Mountbatten and Churchill boardrooms seat 40 apiece, while the French Dining Room is a popular choice for private dining. www.clivedenhouse.co.uk

Tone Dale House is an elegant private house set in the heart of Somerset. Estee Lauder and Microsoft have already sampled its halcyon delights. Operated by the Big House Company, which specialises in house parties, the venue can be hired exclusively and accommodates up to 30. www.thebighouseco.com

Mountain getaway Tyddyn Llan is a charming Georgian House featuring period decor and a highly rated restaurant boasting two Egon Ronay stars. Incentive groups can explore Llangollen and the nearby Berwyn Mountains or go sailing, horse riding and hiking through the North Wales countryside. www.tyddynllan.co.uk

Loch Lomond's De Vere Cameron House Hotel has conference and banqueting space for up to 300, while the surrounding 100 acres of woodland offers incentive potential. At the nearby marina, the hotel's Celtic Warrior beckons for groups wishing to cruise the Loch and gawp at the magnificent surrounds. www.devereonline.co.uk.

UK PURPOSE-BUILT VENUES

In what became the closest-run category in the entire poll, the London

Docklands venue went on to take top honours

1 Excel, London

2 International Convention Centre, Birmingham

3 International Conference Centre, Edinburgh

4 National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham

5 QEII Conference Centre, London

Despite nominations for 38 different venues in this category, your top five finished leagues ahead of the competition. Excel has only been open for five years but has clearly won a great deal of industry support, pipping both Birmingham and Edinburgh's ICCs to first spot. Another Midlands venue, the NEC, figured well, while London's QEII Conference Centre was also popular. Mentions should go to Bournemouth International Centre and the Brighton Centre, which were just outside the top five.

OVERSEAS PURPOSE-BUILT VENUES

There were more than 50 nominees in this category, ranging from San

Diego to Maastricht

1 Grimaldi Forum, Monaco

2 Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

3 International Convention Centre, Cape Town

4 RAI, Amsterdam

5 Palau de Congressos, Barcelona

Monaco's Grimaldi Forum is large, close to home and has all sorts of C&I attractions on its doorstep, factors which no doubt figured largely in the centre's runaway win in this category. European venues dominated the poll, but it was two long-haul centres - Hong Kong and Cape Town - that claimed second and third places. The HKCEC first opened its doors more than 15 years ago, but a massive extension in 1997 won it global attention. Cape Town's ICC, meanwhile, has played a big part in the city's climb up the ICCA rankings.

TOP CONFERENCE DESTINATIONS

Stratford-upon-Avon, Buenos Aires and Ibiza all figured in this

category, but a Europe-heavy selection of familiar contenders went on to

make up the eventual top ten

1 London

2 Barcelona

3 Paris

4 Dubai

5= Birmingham

Rome

7 Cannes

8 New York

9 Prague

10 Hong Kong

London's standing as your conference destination of choice isn't altogether surprising, although the perennial meetings charms of Barcelona came close to toppling the capital. Meanwhile, Birmingham and Rome might outwardly be chalk and cheese, but a joint fifth placing shows they both win favour from a conference organiser's viewpoint. The emergence of Prague is further evidence of the rise in popularity of Eastern Europe, while New York and Hong Kong provide the long-haul element.

TOP INCENTIVE DESTINATIONS

Some 61 nominees but no real shocks in the top incentive destinations

category that saw Dubai, an established favourite, rise to the fore

1 Dubai

2 London

3 Cape Town

4 Barcelona

5 New York

6 The Maldives

7 Reykjavik

8 Las Vegas

9 Sydney

10 Rome

The Dubai effect is one of the incentive industry's most notable trends of recent years, and the emirate only faced serious competition for first place from London. Further down the top ten reads like a guide to how varied incentives can be, with the icy wilderness of Reykjavik rubbing shoulders with the beaches of the Maldives, and Rome's classical ruins sharing space with the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Paris, Barbados and Mauritius just missed the top ten.

BEST AGENCY

Due to irregular voting patterns caused by some agencies voting for themselves, we thought that democracy was best served by removing the category from this year's poll

THE WINNER

The winner of a fantastic five-night stay at the brand new One & Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives is Laura Lyndsay, event manager for corporate banking and financial markets at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Congratulations!

Warsaw isn't the first city that would spring to mind as a conference destination for multinational internet giant AOL, but then the company was looking for somewhere that would pique its staff's curiosity. In so doing, it also secured a destination that was lighter on the wallet.

"Having been to Barcelona the previous year, we felt that Warsaw might not be the most glamorous destination in the world, but it was the right one to stimulate minds," says AOL Europe event manager Alexandra Ife.

Top managers from around the UK and Europe were invited to the event, and Worcestershire agency DRP Events had the task of fulfilling the company's brief to focus the three days on the themes of growth and collaboration.

"Our challenge was to really understand AOL and where it's going as a business," explains DRP Events creative director Richard Hingley.

The collaboration theme was put into force even before delegates reached Poland. A few weeks prior to the event, participants were split into teams, many with delegates from other countries, and given an AOL 'buzzword'.

They then had to use this as inspiration for an individually created A3-size art work to be taken to Warsaw in June.

The event was based at the modern Hyatt Regency Warsaw, a 250-room property on the banks of the Vistula River. Delegates were welcomed into a section of the hotel's main function room, which had been cleared of furniture.

A large-screen projection showed inspirational and motivational images of influential figures such as Bill Gates and Neil Armstrong. Then a pyrotechnic light display gave the cue for the curtain to fall, opening up the rest of the space.

The hall had been split into coloured sections in which each pre-arranged team could get together and arrange collages of their art creations.

A briefing talk was then given to outline the key themes of the event.

This year's conference coincided with both the tenth anniversary of AOL Europe and the 20th year of its American parent company, so the mood was celebratory. The hotel's Japanese restaurant was used to host a dinner and was decorated with a 15m light box displaying the AOL timeline from 1985 onwards.

A short awards ceremony rounded off the evening, but any thoughts of sleeping off the revels were dispelled by an 8am call the next day for the 'AOLympics' in a park opposite the hotel. This involved active team-building games, including making the company logo out of ropes and pegs.

"The day was going to be quite heavy, so we tried to get the day off to a light start," says AOL Europe project manager Jane Jones.

The plenary session then took place back in the hotel function room and, throughout the course of the day, senior managers outlined what AOL was hoping to achieve in the future and the importance of working as a team.

A short break for a buffet lunch notwithstanding, the sessions went on until evening, when the group made its way across town to the Belvedere restaurant, a converted stately home situated in a leafy area of the city.

After the gala dinner, prizes and awards were presented for the 'AOLympics'.

Friday was treated as a wrap-up day, with a string of final speeches.

Delegates wrote postcards to themselves outlining three key promises they hoped to fulfil in the year ahead, which DRP staff will send out in a few months.

"Our delegates are a bright bunch so you have to keep one step ahead and properly engage them," says AOL Europe's Ife. "The event was a great success. It was very enjoyable and, importantly, it got key messages across. It was also incredibly good value for money."

FACTFILE

Company: AOL Europe

Event: Annual conference

Agency: DRP Group

Dates: 8-10 June 2005

Venue: Hyatt Regency Warsaw

Group size: 60

Budget: Undisclosed

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