South East England and the Home Counties

Ranging from the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford to the white cliffs of Dover, the region has something for everyone. This article focuses on four of the key conference destinations in the region: Guildford, Kent, Milton Keynes and Oxford & Oxfordshire, and provides an update on the attractions and new developments in each.

Guildford
Guildford is located at the hub of a fast network of motorway and rail links. Easily accessible from London and from both air and sea ports, the city and its hinterland provide a diverse range of venues to suit all tastes and needs. Partner programmes and post-conference activities are easy to arrange: river trips, tours of the historic centre of Guildford, evenings at the theatre, visits to delightful gardens and National Trust properties, golf and other sporting activities are all available.
    
Guildford’s conference and hospitality offering seems to go from strength to strength. 2007 has seen two new venues added to the destination product, enabling the Guildford Conference Desk to market a truly varied and exciting range of venues.
    
Denbies Wine Estate is England’s largest vineyard. It offers modern and versatile conference facilities set within 265 acres of vineyard. There are three meeting rooms with the largest room accommodating up to 175 delegates. The Estate also has seven guest bedrooms. Conference packages can include vineyard tours and wine tasting. Gatton Manor is an 18th century manor house set in 200 acres of landscaped grounds that include a lake and a championship golf course. The Manor boasts three meeting rooms and 18 bedrooms.
    
These two venues are both members of Guildford’s Conference and Hospitality Group. Other members of the group include venues that can accommodate large-scale conferences such as Mandolay (formerly the Carlton Hotel), which can seat 400 people theatre-style, or the University of Surrey, which has no fewer than 80 meeting rooms. Smaller, more intimate venues include the County Club nestling in the heart of Guildford’s town centre or the 17th Century Tithe Barn at Loseley Park.

Kent
The county of Kent has breathtaking countryside dotted with orchards, vineyards, hop gardens, castles and, more famously, the White Cliffs of Dover. Within Kent there is a tremendous selection of backdrops against which to choreograph events. When such backdrops are combined with a great range of venues for meetings, conferences or training purposes, there is something to suit every event.

Modern meeting facilities complement the charm of castles and country houses, while the county’s larger hotels offer a stylish alternative. Kent offer several flagship chain hotels such as the Hilton, Holiday Inn and Marriott, and there have been recent additions in the boutique hotel sector.
    
Getting to Kent, the southeast corner of England, is easy using the M20 or M2 motorways, which are connected to the M25 and the national network. London is just half an hour away and France is a short hop across the Channel. Rail connections will be further enhanced in November 2007 with the opening of the new Ebbsfleet International Station.

Among Kent’s unique venues are:
The Pines Calyx - the sustainable, award-winning Pines CalyxTM Conference, Training and Events Centre is located within the tranquil six-acre Pines Garden near Dover on the White Cliffs. This stunning, contemporary venue features a grass roof, exclusive terrace and magnificent views. Circular in design, the Pines Calyx has three meeting rooms that each offer great versatility for a wide range of events from conferencing, learning and creative collaboration to dining and celebration, with a capacity of up to 250 delegates.
    
Leeds Castle - set in 500 acres of stunning parkland, Leeds Castle is ideal for residential and day conferences, meetings, formal and informal dinners, and corporate activity days. The castle offers an unparalleled setting, security and privacy for meetings and conferences of all levels - from the grand board room suitable for high-level meetings to beautifully appointed rooms for smaller meetings. With 22 magnificent bedrooms within the castle, and a further 15 available in the Culpeper Garden Suite, Leeds Castle is also able to accommodate residential conferences.
    
Ashford International Hotel - the Ashford International Hotel in Kent has just completed a major investment of £10 million under its new owners, QHotels. All of the 179 guest bedrooms have been refurbished, while the reception and newly named Quench Bar have been completely redesigned and include two large plasma screens showing high profile sports events. With 12 conference and meeting rooms, Ashford International is the largest functions facility in Kent and a large proportion of the investment has been on its conference and event facilities. All of the conference and meeting rooms have been refurbished and modernised, air conditioning has been installed throughout and all the rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art conference facilities and WiFi technology.

Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes is the fastest-growing city in Europe and, unlike its popular misconception, is not just roundabouts and concrete cows. In September it was named ‘best large city’ and was presented with a Silver Gilt award by the Royal Horticultural Society.
    
If its growth continues as projected, by 2031 it will be the tenth largest city in the UK. This is a remarkable achievement when it is remembered that, only 40 years ago, Milton Keynes was just a quiet, sleepy village nestling in the Buckinghamshire countryside.  

In order to meet the growth objective, one largely untapped opportunity for Milton Keynes is its business and leisure tourism potential. It already has much more to offer than many other cities in the UK in terms of leisure offerings. Where else can people water ski and snow ski (in the UK’s first ‘real snow’ indoor ski slope at Xscape) in one day, and just two miles apart? Or cycle and horse ride along 80 miles of redways weaving through the city? These leisure attractions will soon be matched by the city’s conference facilities.
    
To market what the area has to offer, Destination Milton Keynes was established in 2006. A not-for-profit organisation, it was conceived and set up by people working in the tourism industry who realised that, without it, Milton Keynes would never have a viable tourism economy. Still very much in its infancy, Destination Milton Keynes has achieved a staggering amount in its first year of operation including launching a conference bureau and web site, securing group membership of Tourism South East, and providing an accommodation booking and telephone answering services.
    
Among the new venues and facilities coming on stream, Jurys Inn Milton Keynes opened in August 2006. The hotel’s main function suite, Midsummer Hall, has a capacity of 400 people theatre-style and is one of 13 state-of-the-art dedicated meeting rooms. Ideally located in the heart of the city, Jurys has 279 spacious bedrooms.

Milton Keynes will soon be in a position to compete on the international tourism stage with the massive opportunities that the new stadium:mk will bring. And Center Parcs has just announced planning approval for a new site near Woburn, with all the usual Center Parc facilities including conference space.
    
The Waterside Restaurant is one of the first eco-friendly restaurants and meetings spaces in Milton Keynes. This contemporary, stylish and relaxed restaurant is set to alter the local restaurant industry as well as transform the way people eat out. Built using sustainable materials, it has stunning views of the Eco-Park Lake and its light and airy meeting room has views (capacity 120) over the beautiful plaza area as well as over the park itself.

Oxford & Oxfordshire
Stunning architecture, prestigious attractions and a prime location put Oxford in the top league as a leisure or business destination. Destination Oxford, Oxford and Oxfordshire’s one-stop-shop for sourcing meeting rooms and venues for all occasions, is fortunate in having the very best of the city and the county at its fingertips.
    
The best combines the sheer beauty of Oxford’s ancient colleges (the city boasts an impressive 1,500 listed buildings) with a vibrant, contemporary buzz that is causing a stir well beyond the dreaming spires.
    
This distinguished flagship of academic achievement recently won two major awards for cutting-edge excellence. For the second year running, Oxford was named the top city in the UK for culture by the 2007 Condé Nast Readers’ Traveller Travel Awards, reflecting a quality of choice that is second to none. University museums are leading the way: that glorious granny’s attic of Victorian artefacts, the Pitt Rivers, has just completed a major extension and work is well underway to give the Ashmolean exciting new galleries worthy of some of the finest museum collections in the world.  

The International Real Estate and Leisure Conference, held in recently in Cannes, also voted Oxford Castle and Hotel Leisure Project the very best of its kind. The international accolade pays a well-deserved tribute to the popularity of Malmaison, nine restaurants, an Art Gallery and Oxford Unlocked Interpretive Centre, all of which have been created from the former Oxford Prison and Castle site. Malmaison’s bold prison conversion has itself won many awards and with its wandering minstrels, canapés in the crypt, ghosts talks and tours of the Norman tower, Oxford Unlocked has wasted no time in winning an enthusiastic following of its own.    
    
Destination Oxford owes its success to its ability to source venues and accommodation for business meetings on every scale and to tailor complete packages that include memorable moments in some unusual settings. Dinner in an Oxford college; a team-building treasure hunt amongst the dreaming spires; a guided tour of historic landmarks; an exclusive viewing of an exhibition – activities such as these are all readily available through the one-stop shop.  
    
Hotels and conference venues throughout the county are adding to their attractions too. A brand new visitor experience "Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story" opened at Blenheim Palace in May, to reveal the hidden history of the palace. The Spa at The Randolph in Oxford (now awarded its fifth star) has become a ‘must’ for corporate and conference guests while an extensive upgrade at the 154-room Oxford Belfry has provided the hotel with a superb spa and leisure club with heated indoor pool, sauna, seven treatment rooms, exercise studio and gymnasium.
    
Clients favouring independent hotels in a more rural setting, such as The Westwood Country Hotel or Fallowfields at Kingston Bagpuize, now enjoy an additional choice in Destination Oxford’s newest member, The Holt Hotel near Steeple Aston. The picturesque 15th-century inn offers 86 individually styled rooms and an AA Rosette restaurant named after highwayman Claude Du Vall – said to be the hotel’s resident ghost!  

Each of these destinations is a member of the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD), a trade body established in 1969.

For more information
Guildford: www.visitguildford.com
Kent: www.conferencekent.co.uk
Milton Keynes: www.destinationmiltonkeynes.co.uk
Oxford and Oxfordshire: www.destination-oxford.com

BACD: www.bacd.biz and www.morethanavenue.co.uk for free and impartial assistance in locating venues and support services across the region and nationwide.

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