Country pursuits

When choosing a conference venue, country house hotels have a distinct advantage. Not only do their grandiose settings impress important clients but, as Francesca Newland reports, on a practical level they have the space and seclusion to focus

Whether a company seeks to reward personnel, motivate a salesforce, build relationships with clients, or simply get together for some fun, a themed conference at a country house hotel can accommodate most needs.

Country house hotels provide a good environment for a themed conference. The architecture and ambience of a hotel such as Coombe Abbey, a converted Cistercian monastery dating from 1150, can make delegates less likely to forget a conference once it is over, lend authenticity to the theme itself and impress important clients.

Richard Eveleigh, divisional sales manager of Contron Instruments, took his delegates to Down Hall Country House Hotel, a converted Victorian mansion. He says: “An attractive venue is an advantage when there are important people to impress.”

Country house venues are also valuable on a practical level when they have extensive grounds for outdoor events such as falconry or off-road rally driving. And a rural venue provides the seclusion that can help delegates focus all their attention on the conference, as well as the peace and quiet in which delegates can relax.

Graeme Bateman, general manager of Ashdown Park Hotel, comments: “When using a country house hotel a company benefits from ease of car parking and the kind of privacy and peace which enables conference delegates to relax, concentrate and enjoy each others company. The variety of facilities on offer including restaurants, conference theatres, technical facilities as well as a selection of leisure amenities – all on site, is another big advantage.”

There are several different types of themed event available to conference buyers and the degree to which the theme is incorporated into the actual conference is an important variant.

Class Act & Associates organises Sales Trek, a set format group sales training session built around self assessment. This uses a flying saucer and characters in Star Trek costumes as props to achieve the goals of a sales conference. Jeff Staines, managing director of Class Acts, says: “Imagine the audience’s reaction when proceedings are suddenly hijacked with a space craft landing before their eyes and a close encounter with aliens interrupts their conference.”

Coombe Abbey will supply conference delegates with costumed cameos, Gregorian chants and actors to make a conference more memorable. The conference rooms are piped with lemon and woodland aromas “to create a fresh early morning motivational feel”.

MotivAction specialises in outdoor activity events, in which an entire conference can be built around a variety of team building events such as “Fun Sumo wrestling” or “Bouncy boxing”. The events can also be entertainment oriented with activities such as tank driving, horse riding and pole jousting.

“Crazy knockout olympics” calls for “total participation” and “spectacular action”, with events centred around a giant inflatable castle and gunge tubes, foam and water. Tim Waygood, managing director of MotivAction, says his company sees “40,000 delegates annually, all smiling whether driving tanks, quad bikes or seeing their managing director get soaked in a bungey splash”.

If the conference buyer wishes to keep the conference and the entertainment entirely separate, many country house venues have extensive facilities for after-hours amusement. This can range from costumed or “Murder mystery” dinners to mini-golf and treasure hunts. Stapleford Park, “a sporting estate” set in 500 acres of park land, has facilities for a variety of leisure-time activities, from paint ball war games to clay pigeon shooting.

There are obvious benefits to holding a themed conference. Concentration levels flag in a straightforward event which drills information into its delegates. A light-hearted interjection of costumed actors will restore attention and as Staines comments: “help the audience experience the message and not just listen to it”.

As You Like It Productions director Amanda Bradley researches a company’s background and personalises their presentation with company gossip. She says that “delegates find it more interesting to have the meeting written around them”.

Many themed events are designed to promote team spirit and can be presented as incentives to create company loyalty. As You Like It offers “Make a movie!” where a film director plays several team building games with delegates using role play and improvisation techniques.

The teams are given three hours to write, produce, direct and star in their own movies which aims to “build team confidence and stimulate imagination and creativity”.

Tim Waygood, managing director of MotivAction, says: “Team-building weekends are growing fast as companies of all sizes recognise the difference between a team which pulls together and a company which simply provides employment to a group of disparate individuals.” He emphasises that the weekends “break down barriers in the workplace”.

A themed event can be valuable when a company is entertaining important clients. A weekend away in a stately home

where the conference is illustrated by a costumed or game-type event is much less likely to be forgotten than a straightforward meeting.

However, a common criticism levelled against themed conferences is that learning levels can be diminished, with too much focus on fun and not enough emphasis on the serious intent of the conference.

Ashridge Management College conference manager Carol Johnson says that themed events are “not quite our scene as they interfere with the learning process”.

But Cal Controls managing director Alan Bates, who enrolled his sales team on Sales Trek, says: “Everyone who attended enjoyed it, whether or not they learned anything is a different matter.”

The degree to which country house hotels market their capacity to host themed events varies. In many cases it is the domain of conference organisers to suggest a themed event to potential clients.

However, Katharine Stanley, PR manager of Down Hall Country House Hotel, believes that the venue’s ability to host themed events is “more and more of a selling point”. It advertises in corporate hospitality magazines and promotes Sales Trek in its annual newsletter which is sent to its 600 placement agents.

Coombe Abbey centres its promotion around its Medieval theming. Its brochure is laden with promises of Medieval authenticity. The telephone holding music is Gregorian Chant, the staff are in period costume, and there is a ceremony to commemorate the murder of Abbot Martin involving monks, chants and candles every night. “The hotel now presents the complete choice – a traditional conference, or a more colourful get-together for the ‘meetings maverick’ who wants to replace formality with flair and flamboyance.”

The use of themed events in the conference sector is growing in importance as the meetings industry expands and will no doubt become an integral part of the marketing mix.