Unusual Venues: 10 of the best - Venues with a twist

The UK has a wealth of venues with a historic or curiosity value that can either host meetings or add interest to incentives. Stephanie Siegle uncovers ten venues to get delegates talking.

BALLYWALTER PARK, COUNTY DOWN Contact: Brian Mulholland, 028 4275 8264 Web: www.dunleath-estates.co.uk Number of meeting spaces: 4 Largest space holds: 150

Groups holding events at the stately 150-year-old Ballywalter Park Mansion House will be welcomed on arrival by the sixth Baron of Dunleath. Still very much a family home, up to 80 delegates can use various rooms for events, while smaller groups can take advantage of the 12 bedrooms available.

Furthermore, an ongoing restoration programme will be largely completed by the start of 2007, including the conservatory, often used for drinks receptions. Outside, activities including archery, off-road driving and clay pigeon shooting are also available. The Irish Football Association hosted the AGM of the International Football Association Board at Ballywalter.

"From the moment we arrived we were treated as guests in Lord Dunleath's home rather than anonymous numbers at a dinner," says head of operations William Campbell. Diageo, Fujitsu and Kelloggs UK are among the other corporate clients to have taken groups to the venue.

BRUM BUS, BIRMINGHAM Contact Richard Bennett, 0845 607 6767 Web www.brumbus.co.uk Number of meeting spaces 1 Largest space holds 35

Taking in the sights of a regenerated Birmingham at your meeting is a real possibility thanks to the Brum Bus. Corporate business now accounts for around half of the roving venue's business - Barclays, HSBC, Imperial Tobacco and Hiscock Insurance are among the corporates to find room up top. The bus can transport a maximum of 35 delegates and is fully equipped with plasma screens, surround sound and bar facilities, while the outside of the bus is available for corporate signage and logos. While many groups book for either morning or afternoon meetings, Brum Bus works with other event providers in the city for lunches and social gatherings if a whole day of meetings is required. "Our Brum Bus experience was superb," says HSBC finance planning manager Ian Keyte. "Our customers were delighted with the breakfast meeting on board."

CLINK MUSEUM & HALL OF ARMS, LONDON Contact: David Fairley, 020 7403 9981 Web: www.clink.co.uk Number of meeting spaces: 1 Largest space holds 180 for dinner

Prostitutes, priests and even an old school friend of Shakespeare's once spent time in the original Clink, thought to be one of Britain's oldest prisons, which operated from the 12th century to the close of the 18th.

Now the site of the Clink Museum & Hall of Arms, the venue has hosted groups such as BP, Walter Lilly Construction, the BBC, Valliant and the Lotus Group, enabling them to experience an insight into London's unsavoury past while enjoying a sit-down dinner for up to 180 or 250 for a buffet.

Tours of the museum are available and, to really experience the prison atmosphere, actors portraying beggars or inmates can be hired, as can jesters and magicians.

DISCOVERY POINT AND VERDANT WORKS, DUNDEE Contact: Lorraine Fraser, 01382 201245 Web: www.rrsdiscovery.com Number of meeting spaces: 10 Largest space holds 200

Step aboard for dinner on Captain Scott's famous polar exploration ship RRS Discovery at Discovery Point in Dundee as corporates such as Thorntons, Blackadders and Tayside Police have done. Up to 60 delegates can fit comfortably on the ship's deck for a cocktail party, or a group of 14 can dine at the Captain's Table in the Wardroom. Guests will be piped aboard for pre-dinner drinks and given a tour of the ship before dinner. Alternatively, take advantage of the conference facilities at neighbouring Verdant Works, the industrial heritage museum. Up to 150 can be seated theatre-style in Discovery Point's function rooms, while the Point Cafe, available for 60, has recently been refurbished.

GONDOLA, CONISTON WATER, CUMBRIA Contact: Alice Ogilvy, 01539 435599 Web: www.nationaltrust.org.uk Number of meeting spaces: 1 Largest space holds: 86

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the elegant coal-fired steam yacht Gondola on the Lake District's Coniston Water. Groups can hire the yacht on an exclusive basis for private events giving them a backdrop of both the lake and the Coniston Fells. First launched in 1859, the yacht, a hybrid of a Venetian gondola and Victorian steam technology, is the National Trust's only passenger-carrying steam yacht and sails between April and October.

It has an internal seating capacity of around 50, and can carry a total of 86 passengers. The cruise around the lake takes up to two hours and on-board entertainment such as a jazz or blues band or a string quartet can be arranged.

In the event of bad weather, functions can be transferred to the Waterhead Hotel on the northern shore of Coniston Water or the Bluebird Cafe at Coniston Pier. Delegates who fancy a tipple on board should be warned that the vessel does not have any toilet facilities, and so should pace themselves accordingly.

HIGHPOINT, LEICESTER Contact: Beverley Grindlay, 0116 258 0000 Web: www.highpoint.org.uk Number of meeting spaces: 10 Largest space holds: 130

An investment of £6m saw a disused convent and chapel converted into Highpoint, a dedicated residential conference facility in Leicester that has welcomed clients such as Adams Childrenswear, Alliance & Leicester and Jessops. It retains many original features including the stained glass windows and oak panelling, and offers delegates a 130-seat conference theatre, nine meeting and training rooms, an IT suite, 28 en suite study bedrooms, a restaurant and bar, all just a mile from the city centre.

Furthermore, its 120-seat Orchards Restaurant can also be booked exclusively for private events. Infosystems sales account manager Philip Solo recently organised a four-day training course there. "I've received favourable comments from delegates about the facilities, service and meals, and the staff were efficient, friendly and competent," he says.

KNEBWORTH HOUSE, HERTFORDSHIRE Contact: Niamh Long, 01438 813825 Web: www.knebworthhouse.com Number of meeting spaces: 5 Largest space holds: 125,000

Some of the biggest rock and pop legends may have performed there to crowds of thousands, but Knebworth also welcomes corporate groups, such as Tesco and Red Bull, to its extensive grounds. In addition to the house, which offers the Jacobean banqueting hall, Victorian library and Edwardian dining room for events, there are two restored 16th-century Tithe Barns for up to 200 and a recently refurbished garden terrace barn.

The grounds themselves can hold up to 125,000 for corporate days, but less madding crowds can use the off-road track as well as the estate's fun-day facilities, which include an adventure playground, miniature railway and a dinosaur trail.

"Our Jeep Xtremes event was designed to take the brand back to its off-road roots," says Chrysler and Jeep event manager Roy Baker. "Knebworth has a good technical course and was the perfect location for our event."

MAGIC CIRCLE HEADQUARTERS, LONDON Contact: Krissi Garside, 0845 00 62442 Web: www.magicvenue.co.uk Number of meeting spaces: 3 Largest space holds: 160

Organisers wanting to conjure up some atmosphere for their events should consider hiring the facilities at the newly refurbished Magic Circle Headquarters in London.

Past clients Virgin, Accenture and Microsoft have chosen between its purpose-built theatre, which seats up to 160, the two function rooms, lovingly decorated with memorabilia, and the magic museum housing one of Europe's largest magic collections.

Rebecca Claydon, reward scheme manager for computer firm Origin Group, recently held a Gold Launch Event at the venue. "We chose the Magic Circle because the interior of the building was really interesting and I felt it would be a good talking point for the delegates and encourage networking," she says. "Furthermore, the food at the event was exceptional and the in-house team really exceeded our expectations. They were even able to build our key messages into some of the magic tricks."

RHONDDA HERITAGE PARK, WALES Contact: Nicola Newhams, 01443 682036 Web: www.rhonddaheritagepark.com Number of meeting spaces: 2 Largest space holds: 100

Set within the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery in Trehafod, South Wales, the Rhondda Heritage Park demonstrates the importance of coal mining to Welsh heritage and culture.

Meetings for up to 45 delegates can be held in the park's conference room or larger groups of up to 100 can hire the Gallery. Events can be enhanced by a tour down the pit, accompanied by an ex-miner guide, and this option is also available for company days out. Split into groups of no more than 28, delegates are kitted out with helmets and ride down in the cage to the pit bottom to experience for themselves what life was like at the Lewis Merthyr Colliery of the 1950s.

The extended Visitor Centre includes an indoor village street, artefact exhibition galleries, the temporary exhibition gallery, restaurant and gift shop.

SOUTER LIGHTHOUSE, TYNE & WEAR Contact: Gilly Hunter, 0191 529 3161 Web: www.nationaltrust.org.uk Number of meeting spaces: 3 Largest space holds: 40

The National Art Collection is just one of the clients to have hosted meetings at Souter Lighthouse, set on the cliff top at Whitburn, near Sunderland.

Built in 1869, the world's first electric lighthouse has been retired from service and is now part of the National Trust's portfolio. Groups can explore the living quarters where lighthouse keepers and their families were once billeted.

There is a dedicated meeting room, while groups can use either the Tearoom, the Compass Room - which contains hands-on exhibits about life at sea and on-shore, pirates and smugglers, lighthouse life, lighting the seas and shipwrecks - or a combination of the two.

Q&A STEVE DOBSON

Steve Dobson co-founded Unusual Hotels of the World two years ago and launched its dedicated website www.unusualhotelsoftheworld.com last November.

How does the website work?

Event organisers can peruse an online database of eclectic properties on the website, including hotels that allow guests to stay underground, inside an igloo, up a tree or even underwater. Buyers can access information and book rooms online.

What was the rationale behind the website?

We wanted to create a new way of looking at event solutions in hotels for corporate buyers, as people tend to think of hotels as boxes where they have to bring the decoration, the entertainment and so on for an event. The idea of the website is to challenge that perception.

What advantages does the site offer?

Having such unusual hotels at a buyer's fingertips certainly makes proposals to clients a lot easier. If a hotel is unique then that grabs the client's interest and gets them looking beyond the golf or spa day that every delegate has experienced by now.

Which type of group is best suited to your portfolio of unusual venues?

The challenge with unusual properties is that they are typically smaller than your standard hotels and are more suited to incentive groups.

How many properties do you represent?

There are 140 hotels to choose from and larger groups can of course select more than one.

How does the UK fare in the unusual venue market? The UK has some fantastic unusual properties, such as the Crazy Bear, which currently operates two funky hotels - one in London and one in Oxfordshire - where the emphasis is on art and design. Scotland has the Old Railway Station near St Andrews, where guests stay in an old railway carriage. There's also the Auld Kirk on Deeside, which started out as a restaurant. Now the former church also offers accommodation. However, we would like to see more unusual hotels become available in the UK - these properties keep the event alive long after it has finished, delegates will always remember them."

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