AWAY GAME

A hospitality weekend needs to be carefully planned, and targeted to both delegates – and their partners. James Luckhurst reports

Short breaks have become big business in the past few years: – most airlines and tour operators worth their salt offer tempting two-nighters to a vast number of destinations across Europe and beyond. You choose, you pay, you enjoy – it’s as simple as that.

But is it as tempting when someone else is doing the organising for you? After all, weekend time is precious and you don’t want to waste days stuck somewhere that might suit the others but leaves you yearning for home. You legitimately expect to be thoroughly spoiled, whether you’re summoned to the city centre or deep into the country. The wherewithal’s definitely there – it’s simply a case of matching the venue and the activities with the needs of the group.

Identifying the right combination of ingredients to satisfy organisers, delegates and partners should be the number one priority when planning a weekend of corporate hospitality or incentive travel.

The Belfry in North Warwickshire, for example, draws on much more than its reputation as the British home of the Ryder Cup, according to its sales controller Amanda Macchi. “Our leisure facilities, which include a health club, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, offer extensive possibilities before customised programmes are taken into account.

“But that’s just the start, as we can arrange a wide variety of alternative activities for incentive weekends which include quad biking, shooting and Land Rover driving. It is important to offer delegates something they are familiar with, or have heard about, as well as some of the wacky pursuits. After all, not everyone wants to play ‘Crystal Maze’ type games all day.”

It’s also important to bear in mind that unusual or alternative events do not have to be bizarre, according to Macchi. “Incentive and corporate hospitality weekends at the Belfry have included skiing at the nearby Snowdrome in Tamworth, which is one of only three man-made real snow ski slopes in the World. Trips to Christie’s private home to view the antiques are popular, as are mornings of sweet indulgence at Cadbury World.”

But there’s nothing wrong in looking for wacky pursuits if that’s what you want and, for sheer choice, it’s hard to beat the activities offered on or off-site by the Old Course Hotel, St Andrews Golf Resort and Spa.

“Just 35 minutes from the hotel it is possible to take part in haggis hurling, sheep dog trials, falconry, tractor and trailer manoeuvring and quad bikes,” says managing director Jonathan Thornton.

“Additionally, we can incorporate sea fishing, white water rafting on the River Tay or a leisurely look at the Glenturret Distillery, the oldest in Scotland.”

So how does a company go about finding a good theme that’s certain to encourage delegates and their partners to attend? Christine Chapman is director of the motivation division at Spectrum Communications, and her experience has led her to formulate two golden rules. Firstly, position events to target both the individuals who are expected to attend and their partners. Secondly, pay close attention to the actual needs of those partners and put a programme together that will be guaranteed to inspire.

“Mailing partners separately with their own itinerary some time before the event is an excellent starting point as it makes them feel part of the whole thing rather than simply coming along for the ride.”

But beware, says Chapman, as the hugely successful, but largely predictable option of free beauty treatments and beauty analyst sessions on site should not be the only inducement. Imagination is called for – it is simply not acceptable to cobble together something along the lines of a shopping excursion for the wives. Any hint that this might be the sole extent of a weekend partner programme is likely to go down like a lead balloon, with partners and delegates alike.

After all, there’s little worse than meeting up for a gala Saturday dinner if one group has had a very productive and successful day while the others are po-faced after a dull afternoon in a provincial department store.

The Runnymede Hotel welcomes corporate groups most weekends of the year. Experience has led sales manager Louise Martin to set out a weekend programme that can be enjoyed either by corporate guests and their partners, or simply as a partner programme to run alongside a weekend conference.

She explains: “A relaxed arrival time on Friday evening is followed by dinner in a small private room with a riverside view. In summer, the terrace doors can be open; in winter, the view is equally good as the riverside is brightly lit.

“For partners, it’s Saturday morning at leisure, where there’s time to use the spa, walk by the river or relax. Brunch in summer is served on a small riverboat, with embarkation from the hotel’s private mooring. The afternoon can include riding in Windsor Great Park, guided tours of Windsor Castle or watching for celebrities and royalty at Smiths Lawn.

“An early dinner is followed by a trip to the theatre in Woking or Windsor – both less than ten miles away – with dessert and coffee served in the hotel’s conservatory late in the evening,” says Martin.

“After a not-too-early start on the Sunday, Hampton Court Palace is an ideal destination for a morning trip, although other activities such as archery and clay-pigeon shooting can also be arranged, if desired.”

Chapman suggests partners should have the option of individual pursuits or group activities, which can be daunting for some partners, particularly if they are unfamiliar with other attendees. “It’s important not to create activities that put the emphasis on individual participation. Equally, programmes should be designed to appeal to both sexes and different ages.”

With only a weekend in which to entertain guests, some companies prefer to ensure a constantly captive audience by keeping everyone together on board a ship or train. “A short cruise on a 37,000 tonne ferry-cruise ship from Portsmouth to Bilbao in Spain can include gourmet dining, a casino, swimming pool and big-name entertainers who would not disgrace the West End,” suggests cruising correspondent David Stokes.

If a weekend railway journey has greater appeal, there’s the Royal Scotsman, one of the world’s most luxurious trains. “It has accommodation for 32 passengers and boardroom meeting facilities for 16,” says marketing executive Bridget Barton. “In other words, it’s a stylish venue for small corporate functions and is especially suited to incentive trips and events where partners are included.”

Opting for smaller venues adds the all-important aspect of exclusivity, which you’ll rarely find in a large hotel – and certainly not on a massive ferry.

The luxury Bedfordshire hotel, Flitwick Manor, caters for corporate weekend groups of ten or 12 couples and closes its doors to everyone else during such an event.

“A Friday night treasure hunt, a Saturday gourmet dinner in our three-rosette restaurant and even an expedition to find our famous ghost are all essential elements of a successful weekend,” says general manager Sonia Banks, who points out that on the back of exclusive occupancy for the weekend comes huge flexibility.

Couples like their own space and time to relax, according to Chapman. That’s why in the midst of all those activities, there should be a period of free time so that couples can enjoy tennis or fly-fishing lessons, or make use of leisure facilities generally. Equally, it’s just as well not to keep two groups apart for too much of the time.

She says: “Whatever divisions are organised during a weekend, it’s important to bring the two groups together as a collective from time to time, particularly in the evening, where traditionally companies stage a dining experience followed by lively entertainment, sometimes with star personalities.

“Successful incentive weekends are remembered fondly. And it’s a sign of success when partners start putting on pressure to attend the next one.”

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