Steeped in history, vibrant London always manages to reinvent itself and stay on the leading edge of pop culture, fashion, art, cuisine and economics. By Allan Lynch, May/June 2008
“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent,” wrote Henry James.
The magnificence of London is its constant ability to reinvent itself. Generation after generation, people trek to London because it is always exciting. Beyond deliciously ancient streetscapes and iconic images like Beefeaters, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, is a modern city which constantly evolves and maintains its place on the cutting edge of pop culture, whether that pop culture was in the Middle Ages, the Swinging Sixties or now.
As the city gears up to host the 2012 Olympic Games, London is awash in new developments. St. Pancras Train Station has just reopened after an £800-million makeover. While Heathrow’s new £4.3-billion Terminal 5 had an inglorious opening, it will eventually cater to upwards of 35-million passengers a year and ease travel through one of the world’s busiest airports. Other infrastructure improvements include major investments in new hotels – which will add another 12,000 bedrooms to the city’s 100,000 rooms – and renovations of existing properties.
London’s infrastructure is so all-encompassing that it can provide a specialized setting targeted to virtually every interest group. It can give you the gore of the London Dungeon and the grandeur of the Crown Jewels; the elegance of the Guildhall and the edginess of the Design Museum. There is the London Eye – a massive, slow-moving, 443-ft.-high Ferris wheel with fully-enclosed glass pods capable of holding 35 adults – and the hidden charm of the Gerkin, a distinctive, Faberge Egg-shaped glass building.
There is the diverse technology offered by underground Cabinet War Rooms and the state-of-the-art BFI Imax theatre. There is a plethora of palaces – Hampton Court, Kensington, Kew and Fulham – for hire. Groups can meet under the Rubens-painted ceiling of Banqueting House, dance on the deck of a battleship or gather in the specialized facilities of Westminster Abbey, Southwark and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Then there are quirky ideas that can be harnessed for group programmes, from using a go-cart race course near Canary Wharf or organizing a bike tour to more traditional elements like champagne with the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London or dinner cruises on the Thames with a dance band. You can do a Jack The Ripper walking tour or utilize a new upscale service, Urban Gentry, which pairs specialists in food, fashion and music for bespoke insider tours of trendy destinations.
London-based DMC Spectra has organized a number of events for Canadian clients, ranging from a 007: License to Thrill theme to a city-wide Monopoly game, as well as evening cocktail parties in the fountain courtyard of Sommerset House, complete with opera singers on the balcony. Other nights, the sounds of the Urban Soul Orchestra, comprised of musicians who have performed with the who’s who of British pop, have echoed through the galleries of the massive Victorian-era Natural History Museum.
In a city used to welcoming pop stars, prime ministers, princes and presidents, and where there is a reigning monarch in residence, they know how to roll out the red carpet. And they know how to be creative. But for many planners, the creativity lies in managing the budget. The good news for Canadian planners is the recent strength of the dollar. The dollar-to-pound exchange rate, in fact, has been the best in 30 years, but that only removes part of the bite.
Jacqueline Acomb, meetings and events programme manager at Toronto-based Carlson Wagonlit, took an 82-person President’s Club incentive on a four-night trip to London in May, 2007. She didn’t have the boost from the stronger Canadian dollar, so mostly relied on claiming back the 17.5 per cent value-added tax to balance her budget.
Shelley Milne, account executive with Mississauga-based Reward Worldwide, took a group just shy of 20 travellers – a first-time incentive for a Canadian manufacturer – to London in March, 2008. “We worked with Moira Hearn and DMC Spectra to put the programme together,” she says.
“We had a snug budget. We worked heavily with our partners in London –between our hotel, Spectra and venues – to give the client the best value and, you know, surprisingly you can. We felt we were given great value, if not more, for everything we did. The quality of service we experienced, from the hotel to the restaurants to the activities, was really worth the dollars that were put into it, although it’s initially a shock. When we first presented our budget to the client, it was a little frightening, but when they recognize what London has to offer, the uniqueness and the fact London is a first-class city – it doesn’t get much better. Once you’ve been there, you understand this. This client will go back, because they recognize there really is value there.”
Where Reward really saved money, says Milne, was “We really utilized the resources London has to offer – and they have quite a bit. We took advantage of VisitBritain and Visit London, both of those organizations are fantastic. We used them for our pre-launch materials, we used podcasts, images, facts, trivia, general information, because we did a full-blown teaser campaign and London has the resources that can really help a planner. London, as a destination, was fantastic because they have so many resources at their fingertips, so we didn’t have to bog down our DMC. That is something that stands out. It was a huge benefit and it saved us a considerable amount of money just on research and imagery. Not a lot of incentives have been leaving our house for London, but when you can add value the way London has, it’s such a benefit.”
The five-night programme began with a bespoke guided London tour, followed by a champagne flight on the London Eye. “We also visited Jamie Oliver’s concept restaurant Fifteen, which is an excellent property in a developing and slightly scary neighbourhood. The group had an amazing time. Another night, we visited a Cuban club and hired a mojitos master. He put on a display and performance to educate the group on mojitos and then everyone competed in how to make them.”
For a team-building component, she split the group into three squads and sent them out on a type of pumped-up scavenger hunt equipped with digital cameras to prove they completed their tasks. “We ended up creating a fantastic PowerPoint presentation that evening with all the photos. The teams took so much video and photos, that we took the PowerPoint and added in all the video and the candid shots that Reward Worldwide took and put it all together on a DVD/CD compilation.”
Milne says, “It’s a 2,000-year-old city, they have everything and can tie into everything, so you can really streamline what you want to show your group. And based on the demographics, London is a great city, because you pick and choose. If they’re young, maybe it’s not all the classics you’re looking at, so it’s the Tate Modern and the new restaurants and club scene, and not Buckingham Palace.”
Emily Stephen, account executive at Toronto’s Event Spectrum Inc., also had a small working group in London. Her three-day, 21-person executive team stayed in Mayfair in February, 2008. “This was the group’s first time to Europe. Crossing the ocean
as a priority for them, so London, which is English speaking, and easy to get to, was attractive.”
Her group also did a champagne flight on the London Eye, dined in a gastro-pub and hung out at a celebrity nightspot in Mayfair. “It happened that there was a launch party at the restaurant we chose and the paparazzi were stationed outside. It was very entertaining for our group.” One of the more unusual activities her group did was play polo. “They wanted an activity that was different, that people wouldn’t ever have a chance to try, and that was one of the highlights of our trip. They rode horses, played a match and absolutely loved it! It was the perfect day at Ascot Park Polo Club.” The club provided players with photos of their day in the English countryside.
Stephen stretched her budget by discreetly working backwards, downscaling her hotel and restaurant choices. “Originally, we were going to stay at higher-end hotels, and when we costed out top-notch in London, it was unbelievable what you could pay, so we scaled back and everything was still fantastic.” She achieved further savings by picking restaurants within walking distance of their hotel, eliminating the need for transportation. “And we flew over on charter flights to Gatwick. That helped with air costs.”
Acomb’s programme ranged from a James Bond Treasure Hunt, Thames River Cruise, pub crawls and theatre, as well as plenty of free time, which in London, saves the budget without looking like you’re skimping. She says many of her participants used London as a jumping-off point for extended stays in Europe, which further added value to the experience.
Magnificence comes with certain costs, but the experiences of planners who have worked with London show that those costs are mitigated by return on investment.
– Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.