Destination guide: Bournemouth
Martin Fullard takes a whistle-stop tour of Bournemouth
Who doesn’t like a trip to the coast? Britain isn’t short of coastal destinations; in fact it has 209 of them. Some are big cities, some are regular towns, and some are quaint villages. So why should you go to Bournemouth? Well, of the 209, only a handful (I didn’t count) can cope with large-scale events, and the ones that can must each find a hook beyond ‘just being by the sea’.
Sometimes all it takes is geography, but add to that a common goal between stakeholders, and a destination just, sort of, works.
To see for myself, I went on a whistle-stop tour of the town. Where better to start than the centre of it all: Bournemouth International Centre (BIC).
Bournemouth International Centre
BIC is run by BH Live, a social enterprise that takes care of every aspect of event management, from running the venue itself to ticketing, catering, security, staffing and just about every other aspect you could imagine. The security arm is even Home Office approved.
Considering the venue was built in the 1980s, it is surprisingly light and, owing to its location on the coastal path, offers stunning views of the Jurassic Coastline. There are four main event spaces (plus several smaller meeting and breakout spaces) that can be used independently. Two events can easily run simultaneously and never the twain shall meet. The first (or last) thing I noticed was how many bars and break-out rooms there were – clearly guests won't be going thirsty.
Back to the topic of sea views, the Solent Hall is one such example. The former swimming pool can hold up to 2,000 for a concert, and is also commonly used as exhibition space. There aren’t many venues in the UK that offer such a combination.
The Windsor Hall is the largest events space, and comfortably seats 4,100 or 6,200 standing. The room is arguably the venue’s flagship space, and has played host to the likes of Kylie Minogue, Gary Barlow, James Blunt, Fall Out Boy and just about every other singer or band you have ever heard on Radio 1. Oh, and the Liberal Democrats.
The room also boasts the largest tensile grid in Europe. A mesh comprising 30 miles of steel wire hangs some 40 metres above the room and is capable of bearing the weight of 90 tonnes. For height/fear reasons, my tour didn’t take me up there.
The Purbeck Hall is visually the most stunning (if sea views aren’t your thing). The dome structure can hold up to 2,000 people and has its own direct access from the coast path – offering a glimpse of that sea view. A bar sits on one side, and in the winter is transformed into an ice-skating rink.
The Tregonwell Hall is a tidy conference-style room with stage and is capable of holding up to 1,000 delegates (and you will never see a neater example of chair arrangement).
Bournemouth blends old and new seamlessly. My next stop was the Hilton Bournemouth, a mere 100 metres from BIC. The hotel interior design was heavily influenced by Ted Baker (real name Ray Kelvin), as the designer has invested some £80m in the town owing to his fondness of it. You can argue that chain hotels sometimes look a bit ‘samey’, but not here. The Art Deco reception area features a wall full of check-in bells (which work), and a rather curious collection of hanging objects that I mistook for spinal columns, but in fact turned out to be windmills.
Together with the adjoining Hampton Hotel, there are 300 rooms and the suites have to be seen to be believed.
On the meetings front, the signature space is the Foxtrot room, which at capacity can hold 260 cabaret-style and can even be split in two.
The meetings rooms have spared no expense, with a raft of quirky appendages adorning the walls, from desk lamps to typewriters. One chandelier is also made of bowler hats.
As you would expect, there is a full spa and swimming pool, together with restaurant and business lounge. The crowning jewel, of course, is the sky bar.
The next hotel on the tour was the Marriott Highcliff. Located right on the coast path at the top of the west cliff and looking down out over the beach, the classic building boasts all the hallmarks of a luxury seaside hotel.
The hotel, which includes 142 rooms and 18 cottages, underwent a massive refurbishment in 2017, which includes improvements to the event spaces. The décor is sympathetic to the hotel’s original architecture.
To get the full flavour, I had lunch out on the terrace in the sun, before exploring the meetings spaces properly. There are four good-sized meeting rooms in the main hotel, but the signature space is found in the Dorchester Wing. The Dorchester Suite can accommodate up to 300 in theatre style and 220-banquet layout. The room includes a stage, dance floor (for your more ostentatious keynote speaker) and colour-changing lighting. The neighbouring Shaftesbury makes for an ideal training and workshop room.
Take a step outside into the hotel’s back garden and you’ll find 18 cottages, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, tennis court, and a small decked area suitable for weddings or smaller conferences looking to make use of the fresh sea air.
The last hotel on my tour was the 4-star Hermitage, which sits literally opposite the BIC. The boutique hotel has, like its neighbours, benefitted from healthy investment. A key feature is the four bespoke suites, which sit in their own private wing of the hotel. The remaining 72 rooms are appointed equally, too.
From the hotel you can gain direct access to the beach and waterfront area, or should you wish to stay-put, then don’t miss out on Neo. The 360 degrees panoramic restaurant and bar is a new addition to the hotel, and I am assured cocktails are very much their speciality.
As you would expect, there is a handsome collection of differing-size event spaces, with the Hardy Suite able to comfortably sit 180 delegates. The smaller meeting rooms are well appointed and come with all the amenities one would expect.
Testament to the hotel’s popularity, who should we see in the car park over coffee but Eddie Howe, manager at Premier League football team AFC Bournemouth – a man you can credit with putting the town on the international map.
If you’re looking for something different for your delegates then the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum has you covered. Built in 1901, the building is known locally to be the last Victorian house before King Edward VII slapped his name on the architecture style of the early 20th Century. The collection contained within, as well as the architecture itself, is simply stunning. While there are regulations about what can and can’t be consumed in the older part of the building, 120 guests can still enjoy a standing reception, or up to 80 can sit for dinner.
The views from the upstairs balcony look out over the sea from the east cliff, ideal should fireworks be on the evening’s agenda.
One thing to look out for in the gallery is an actual dining table belonging to Napoleon.
The last fly-by saw me walk past the Bournemouth Pavilion. The 1930s Art Deco building offers a pleasant view when your back is turned to the sea. The Grade II listed theatre is adorned with red curtains, sculpted stone, and upper circle and is capable of holding over 1,400. The Pavilion also features a stunning ballroom.
Bournemouth is just a two-hour drive from London, and while there is ample parking, the compact nature of the town makes it a suitable destination to get to by train. South Western Railway runs multiple services between London Waterloo and Bournemouth daily.