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Destination guide: Oxford

Dreaming spires it may have, but Oxford’s business events venue scene is wide awake and providing a full offer to meeting planners, ranging from the beautiful surroundings of 38 Oxford University Colleges to luxury country house hotels and city centre locations.

Destination marketing organisation Experience Oxfordshire offers a free service and boasts 18 partners to in helping and advise how and where to make an event run smoothly.

Oxford is a big draw for delegates, of course, with the city home to 1,500 listed buildings and a firm favourite of filmmakers from all over the world as well as of thousands of visitors and their cameras.

Oxford and its colleges; the Bodleian Library, museums, and castle can all be explored on foot, while delegates keen to branch out can explore some of the large green spaces like Christ Church Meadows.

Film and TV buffs can trace the steps of  Morse and Harry Potter (Christ Church inspired Hogwarts Great Hall) and, back to the more mundane business of meetings, the city prides itself on being close to London and Birmingham.

Hothouse HIVE for meetings

One, or rather two-in-one venues that make up Conference@OxfordSaïd, the events arm of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, provide quality event spaces and entertainment facilities, all with the latest AV facilities and dedicated team.  

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The purpose-built centre at Egrove Park offers both a secluded setting for board strategy meetings, as well as residential conference facilities to suit larger events.

The Thatcher Business Education Centre (TBEC) opened in 2012 and offers a variety of meeting facilities, as well as some stunning architecture. Highlights include three oak-panelled Harvard-style lecture theatres, each seating 76 delegates, three large classrooms, and 18 boardroom style seminar rooms. 

The venue also lays claim to the UK’s first virtual meeting space. Named the Oxford Hub for International Virtual Education (HIVE), the space has cutting-edge technology and is centered around a high-definition video wall.

This virtual classroom enables class leaders to engage with up to 84 people at one time in the same way they do in physical lecture rooms, with participants raising hands and asking questions. The participants’ video feeds displayed on the wall allow the speaker to calibrate their delivery to the attentiveness and levels of engagement based on the visual cues from their audience. 

The HIVE’s robotics, facial recognition and real-time video communication tools also create an immersive learning experience.

Conference business development coordinator at Conference@OxfordSaïd, Verity Donovan, says a recent motor industry event on hydrogen power, displayed two cars on the forecourt of The School. “The launch of the Oxfordshire Hydrogen Hub could lead to the city having the UK’s first zero-emission zone in 2020. It is another example of meetings bringing knowledge and innovation to the surrounding community."

Brand city

Oxford can be seen as a brand destination city due to its association with the world-class University and stunning architecture. 

However, growing a recognised conference business in an academic venue does bring with it challenges, particularly in understanding the needs of the wider School such as teaching, with event requirements. 

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The academic nature of many of Oxford’s venues undoubtedly, however, can add value and kudos to any conference held there.

An example given by Donovan is the annual gathering of 1,000 of the world's most influential social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and strategic partners at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School.

“Our sustained business growth over the last three years has been 50% with 11% growth achieved in 2016-17.” She adds that occupancy rates at the Park End Street venue reach up to 90% in most rooms.

Donovan notes her venue received 2,471 enquiries in 2017 of which 50% were converted. “We are up 10% in enquires and conversion for 2017 vs 2016,” she says and claims a high customer retention rate as well as consistently attracting new clients from the corporate sector, medical (NHS & Private); pharma and other academic institutions.

One successful marketing initiative has involved hiring out the small seminar rooms by the hour.  

“We have seen an increase in agent enquires – typically for larger events as well as agents taking over the management of conference and events from key corporate clients in Oxfordshire,” Donovan says. In terms of broader trends, the majority of her venue’s business is UK based so Donovan says there has been no immediate impact from Brexit.

The King’s Centre

Over at The King’s Centre, which claims to be the largest conference space in Oxford, one recent national event was Render Conf, a gathering of 350 front-end web developers.

The venue’s general manager Michelle Fernandez says all annual profits from meetings and events are invested into maintaining the building, or given to Oxfordshire Community Churches and their associated charitable activities across the county.

Local MPs get out their welcome

Oxfordshire MPs recently got out and about to welcome visitors to the county as part of VisitEngland’s national English Tourism Week.

Organised by Experience Oxfordshire, MPs visited businesses including Oxford Bus Company, GWR, Broughton Castle and Stonor Park, where they saw examples of the investment being made to improve the visitor welcome.

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In north Oxfordshire, Victoria Prentis, MP for the area, welcomed 120 Chinese visitors to Broughton Castle with refreshments and copies of a Mandarin version of Experience Oxfordshire’s Visitor Guide.

The MP said: “I’m delighted to welcome visitors from China to Broughton Castle, a beautiful example of the attractions on offer to visitors to north Oxfordshire”. 

Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, went to welcome visitors arriving at the station on GWR’s new trains, while Phil Southall, MD of Oxford Bus Company, noted £4.5m had been invested in the company’s park and ride fleet. And in South Oxfordshire, John Howell, MP for Henley (pictured above with William Stonor), welcomed visitors to Stonor Park. 

Oxfordshire welcomes 27.6m visitors every year with the sector employing 1 in 10 jobs in the county, where tourism is valued at £2.04bn a year.