Meeting in the Midlands

Author: Casey Gale       

I managed to grab only two hours of sleep on the red-eye from JFK Airport to Heathrow, but there was no allowing for sleep deprivation on my packed U.K. fam trip itinerary.

Part one of the fam was a three-day tour of England’s Midlands region, hosted by Shakespeare’s England — the destination management organization that, despite its name, not only represents William Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, but also the surrounding areas of Warwick, Kenilworth, Royal Leamington Spa, and other local villages. The second half of my visit, hosted by VisitBritain, was organized around the first-ever MeetGB event, a conference held April 19-20 in London to connect British suppliers with international buyers.

Chapter 1, Day 1

We visited the Bard’s hometown first: Stratford-upon-Avon, a picturesque town also known for its large swan population. Our first night’s accommodation was at The Stratford Hotel, and after dropping off my luggage there, I joined my fam trip colleagues on a traditional red double-decker bus. First stop: The Other Place, a rehearsal area, 200-seat studio theater, café, and massive costume storage space operated by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which also offers in-house catering, technical support, and dedicated event managers for dramatic business events for up to 200 attendees.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s primary venue — home to the 1,018-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre and 426-seat Swan Theatre, both of which are available for meetings when Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet aren’t hogging the spotlight — is just steps away. Intimate meeting areas are tucked into every corner, including its Art Deco bar overlooking the River Avon. An even more striking river view can be found on the platform at the venue’s The Tower @ RSC.

[pullquote]Bed beckoned but so did Shakespeare.[/pullquote]

A refresher course in Shakespeare stirred up more than our literary appetites. We returned to The Stratford for a cocktail and meal — steaks and roasted root vegetables, finished off with decadent chocolate brownies and a glass of Ruby Port. Bed beckoned but so did Shakespeare, so we headed back to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, where we had third-row floor seats for “The Duchess of Malfi,” a particularly gory tragedy by Shakespeare contemporary John Webster that was engrossing enough to stave off jet lag.

We returned to the Stratford Hotel to find a delightful surprise waiting for us: a small reception in the lobby, with foods and alcoholic beverages from our home countries, including bitterballan and Grolsch lager from the Netherlands and, of course, burgers and beer from the U.S.

Day 2

A restored Victorian-era garden at Hill Close.

The next morning, we hopped on a tour bus — or coach, as they say in England — to visit Hill Close Gardens, a set of 16 hedged Victorian gardens in Warwick, restored to their former glory and maintained by amateur and professional gardeners. A visitor center that can hold up to 60 attendees overlooks this serene setting.

Warwick Racecourse — one of the oldest horse-racing facilities in the country, with its first stand built in 1809 — was our next visit. The racecourse, known for its regular jumps meetings in which horses clear hurdles, also accommodates meetings of other kinds with ample flexible spaces, including 11 small meeting rooms (called “syndicate rooms” in Great Britain) and breakout rooms. We stopped in The Coronation Club, an on-site space typically exclusive to the racecourse’s premium members, for a hearty lunch that included chorizo-stuffed chicken and treacle tart, an ultra-sugary traditional British dessert.

With our stomachs full, we were ready to take on the towering, 1,103-year-old Warwick Castle. We toured the castle’s diverse mix of medieval and Georgian décor (due to its extensive change of hands over the years), and learned about its many event space options for banquets, medieval-themed dining, conferences, and team-building — the “Knight School” sword-fighting package is especially popular, and we participated in a brief demo.

Pops of green bring the outside in at Scarman.

Our fourth and final venue of the day was of a more scholarly nature: Warwick Conferences, housed on the Warwick University campus, offers five meeting venues. We visited one of the five, Scarman Training and Conference Centre, which features a 130-seat lecture theater, 204 en-suite bedrooms for attendees, and a restaurant capacity of 225, was a hit among the event organizers in my group, who appreciated its creative spaces with beanbag chairs, a ping-pong table, vibrant green artificial turf, and 55 unique meeting areas flooded with natural light.

[pullquote]Ghosts are rumored to roam the hotel’s dark-wood interior. I slept soundly just the same.[/pullquote]

By the time we arrived at our hotel for the evening, the stately Billesley Manor Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, we estimated we had walked more than 10,000 steps. We were happy to tuck in to a meal — a salmon mousse appetizer followed by duck — on property. William Shakespeare is said to have been married at the hotel’s on-site chapel, and ghosts are rumored to roam the hotel’s dark-wood interior. I slept soundly just the same.

Day 3

The new, yet quaint Millstone Hare in Southam.

After eating breakfast at our leisure, we got back on the coach with our driver and local guide Jon, for a ride to Dallas Burston Polo Club. The sleek 600-acre property offers four facilities for meetings and events, and we enjoyed tea and scones in its newest building, The Millstone Hare. The quirky, old English-style bar and function venue — complete with a charming thatched roof — provides breathtaking views of six polo fields and holds 70 in the pub and 150 guests in the upstairs function space.

From there it was on to Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, a sprawling, peaceful destination that is a popular spot for weddings — not to mention a great many sheep. We took a quick tour of the wide range of art on display, including the British Folk Art Collection (think old pub signs) before settling in at one of the gallery’s private rooms for light sandwiches and tea.

The last destination of the day was Ettington Park Hotel, a neo-gothic 48-room mansion hotel, complete with turrets and arched windows, and six diverse spaces to gather guests. On this particularly beautiful day, we relaxed in the hotel’s courtyard area, soaking up some sun and sipping tea (we might have drunk our weight in tea that day) before heading off to the train for London. It was time to say goodbye to the tranquil English countryside of the Midlands and get down to business in bustling London.

Chapter 2, MeetGB

RoboThespian by Engineered Arts greeted attendees.

MeetGB was hosted by VisitBritain at the Hilton London Bankside, just a short walk to breathtaking views of the River Thames. The event connected 80 suppliers from Great Britain with 120 buyers from Europe and North America over two days of appointments and sessions — including “Trends and Innovations in Technology for Meetings and Events” and “The Fascinating Psychology Powering Exceptional People Skills.”

At the conclusion of the first day, attendees were invited to a magical evening reception at Church House Westminster, located beside the site of Will and Kate’s wedding venue, Westminster Abbey, where we were entertained by musical acts, magicians, and contortionist stunts between meal courses. After a second full day of appointments and sessions, it was time to head home. It was a week packed with travel as well as seeing and learning how events are hosted throughout Great Britain, and I had no trouble sleeping — perchance to dream — on my flight home.