Whittlebury Park: the bigger the better
Editorial director Martin Fullard visits Whittlebury Park to find out about the venue's future plans.
In March I was fortunate enough to be invited to Whittlebury Park, the residential conference centre in Northampton.
Actually, to call it a ‘residential conference centre’ is perhaps unfair, it is a lot more than that. In fact, while I could point out that it shares a fence with Silverstone – home of the British Grand Prix – that could imply it needs a famous neighbour to hook in your attention. I’ve written it now, but be assured, it doesn’t need anyone else’s coat tails.
How would one describe Whittlebury Park? Perhaps it is better for you to come to your own conclusion: it can be used for conferences and meetings, training, corporate and private dining, weddings, away days, as a hotel, a golf course and driving range, activity centre, time share accommodation, hovercrafts, walking, and even a 10,000-strong festival. If you’re a motorsport aficionado, you have no shortage of memorabilia to enjoy as well. Dear me, there’s a spa, pool, and health club too, I nearly forgot.
Resort, that’s the word.
Corporate Organisers Day
The reason for my visit was to experience the resort’s Corporate Organisers Day, which took place on 29 March.
The day began with breakfast and, at first, a little beyond my usual comfort zone, a relaxing ‘breathing workshop’, before the competition got into full swing and guests split into teams to take on GoTo Event’s Tablet Treasure Hunt. Guests searched the four-star resort for ‘hotspots’ that allowed them to win points by answering questions and solving puzzles. To become Tablet Treasure Hunt champions, guests also had to take part in an escape room, a Bear Grylls-style challenge complete with edible creepy crawlies, and a task based upon the nail-biting TV game show The Cube. Guests then took on the hugely popular Crystal Amazed to compete for crystals in challenges that tested logic, coordination, balance and teamwork skills.
After an action-packed morning, guests enjoyed lunch in the hotel’s Atrium Bistro which boasts stunning views over the resort’s championship golf course. Elite Magician, David Penn, a British Magic Champion and former Britain’s Got Talent contestant, kept us entertained (he really was rather good, I must say). Guests then had the opportunity to experience either Whittlebury Spa or nine holes of golf on the resort’s STRI and USGA accredited greens.
Whittlebury Park is one of the largest independent hotels in the UK, which offers more than 100 experiences and can host up to 3,000 people, often across multiple events. It holds an AIM GOLD accreditation, the meetings industry’s highest recognised mark of excellence, from the Meetings Industry Association.
In conversation with...
To understand more about the venue’s evolution and plans, I sat down with two of the senior leadership team: Emma Bines and Marc Webster. Here is what they had to say:
Emma Bines, head of event sales and business development at Whittlebury Park
MF: Can you describe the last couple of years for you personally?
EB: It’s been a rollercoaster, but it’s also been rewarding at the same time as incredibly challenging. I think as individuals, we have developed skills we never knew we actually had, developed relationships with clients that are even more personable than before.
MF: What products did you launch during the pandemic to tide yourselves over; and has that changed the course of the business as you've come out of this now?
EB: Something we did launch was an outdoor meetings and event offering. It was launched in line with the government guidelines on indoor gatherings. It included a stretch tent, erected on our helipad, with catering delivered outside.
We did look at the hybrid offering as well to support our clients who still needed to deliver events. It was a case of what can we do to ensure that the client is happy, that they're confident, and that they felt safe with us.
MF: Are lead times still reasonably short?
EB: Yes, absolutely. We are taking bookings on plenty of organiser, from as short as a couple of weeks out, and it's not small numbers, either. Our problem is availability, despite being such a big venue, we are always busy, so it’s a nice problem to have. I'm expecting that to change shortly as the industry’s confidence returns and there is greater strategic planning for events.
MF: What's the percentage of inquiries that turn out to be signed contracts?
EB: Around 65% at the moment. We are finding agent inquiries are up. Our repeat business is always at a high level around 70-80%, however conversion takes slightly longer at the moment. They [organisers] have got the appetite to do it, it's just getting it signed off, which is where we're a little bit taking slightly longer than normal.
MF: Have corporate clients got different requests now compared to pre-pandemic times; have their demands change?
EB: If you asked me six months ago, I would have said people were asking mostly about terms and conditions; no one even asked about that anymore. Everyone knows that they're going to be covered for Covid with what we offer.
There’s very much an outdoor-indoor feel coming through. People want the flexibility to be able to be outdoors as much as they can. We benefit here from 700 acres, with several of our spaces leading directly to an outside space. We no longer receive requests for social distancing.
MF: Has anyone inquired about your sustainability credentials as part of their own requirements?
EB: We do have a sustainability policy. If I look back through the inquiries, I say it's still only about 20% actually asking for details about the policy. We are aware that as an industry, we need to tackle it together.
We have plans coming in the future, which include solar panels on one of our venues, and we’re part of the Green Meetings initiative. While it is only a small percentage that request it, we are expecting that to rise considerably over the next 12 to 18 months, therefore, we're going to be ready.
MF: What's happening today?
EB: Today we have our Corporate Organisers Day, it's the first one that we've held since the pandemic. We’ve got event organisers, new and existing agents.
The overall message is to be a delegate for the day; there’s nothing like experiencing a venue first-hand.
Everyone who has come along today enjoyed a breathing workshop, followed by an outdoor treasure hunt, which showcases 700 acres of our event space, and also our meeting spaces.
They have finished off with a Crystal Maze challenge before lunch and entertainment. What they have experienced at lunch is the same as which delegates receive in our meetings.
Marc Webster, commercial director, Whittlebury Park and Whittlebury Hall & Spa
MF: What exciting innovations are you looking forward to introducing to your corporate clients for the next 12 months?
MW: One of the initiatives we’re about to roll out in the conference event segment, is our Guestbook for groups. It means corporate organisers of a larger events don’t have to send through endless spreadsheets to the team, which cuts out the back and forth and queries. It can be done online in real time.
We've introduced contactless express check-in and a concierge service on the website, which means people can amend their booking as the event evolves.
We are working on rolling out a contactless room access solution for our meeting spaces across the estate. This will enable the training manager, the conference manager and/or the leader of the meeting, to be able to give access to all of the delegates rather than have to wait for them to congregate in a corridor for the person who's got the master key.
Additionally, we are working on improving navigation tools. We have a 700-acre site, 62 meeting rooms, two floors of 254 bedrooms and more, so some of the delegates can get lost or misdirected. The proximity-based app can help them find out where they are, where they need to get to, and it plots the room. The idea is trying to make that that customer journey better from conception where they get introduced to the website, and then making the booking, through to through to their arrival.
MF: What challenges are you facing now; and what do you think we need in terms of government recognition to be able to overcome those challenges?
MW: I think the key word in our industry is still going to be ‘resource’. For me, it's a thorough and competent understanding of what our industry is about at all levels within the government. I've been in the hospitality industry since the late 80s. I moved into the hotel world in the mid 90s working for the Metropole Hotel Group. Even as long ago as then, I was looking at Standardised Industrial Classification (SIC) codes to go into industries to look for new business, and we [events] weren't recognised.
I think we need to be able to position who we are, what we are, accurately and consistently, before we go out to government. Once we actually know what the totality is, is collective worth, we then push that through to government in terms of what we genuinely contribute to the economy.
This will allow us to articulate correctly and get support around resource. It needs to be about bringing talent through. It’s the idea of taking somebody who wants to go into hospitality and starting at grassroots investing in them, making sure they're aware of the various departments and roles within the hotel industry.
It’s not just about going into hotel catering. Originally you went in to become a graduate who worked in front of house, you worked in F&B, you worked in housekeeping. It’s also about bringing marketing, commercial, and financial specialists into the hospitality industry, rather than appointing them from another industry.
The idea is showing the future talent that, actually, you can become a marketer. You can become a sales professional, commercial professional, a finance professional, you don't have to just join hospitality for traditional catering and operational roles such as chef, F&B, or in housekeeping.
Our industry encompasses so many different potential vocations and that's what needs to happen. It needs to be from grassroots up now with a commitment for learning, development and investment to help with retention.