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Run by the clan that inspired Summer Holiday, the Sundial Group blends family values with functional space in its conference hotels. Mark Sansom checks in
A double-decker Route Master – ‘The Chudbus’ Mark II – peeks out of an old stable block at Highgate House in Northamptonshire. Its predecessor went down in history as the inspiration for Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, but this bus won’t be going on a foreign tour. Instead, it roams the roads of the UK, championing the Chudley family’s unique brand of conference hotels.
Welcome to the Sundial Group. Three properties that make a refreshing riposte to the sometimes starchy world of dedicated meeting venues, born out of one family’s desire to do things a bit differently.
It all started when Mr & Mrs Chudley packed their nine-strong clan aboard the original Chudbus some 40 years ago (see overleaf for the family album). ‘Caravans just weren’t big enough,’ explains their daughter Jo, now the Sundial Group’s marketing director, who along with siblings Lucy, Tory, Robin, Tim, Pip, Penny and Nick, set off from family home Highgate House to make the week-long transatlantic voyage to New York, followed by a tour across America. ‘We were the first New Age travellers,’ she jokes.
‘We would never have been able to afford it if it wasn’t for mum’s entrepreneurial spirit,’ Jo says. ‘Mum struck a deal with clothing brand VILA, who sponsored our trip. We had to pose for pictures all over the States.’ What a lesson in marketing for a nine year old. Speaking to Jo and experiencing the properties first hand, it’s clear her mother’s influence shines through in all aspects of the business as it stands today. From opening up the family home as a guest house to publishing the autobiography More the Merrier, which details her clan’s many exploits, Diana Chudley’s spirit has influenced all the family.
While four of the siblings hold positions on the Sundial board (Tim is managing director, Jo is marketing director, Lucy is head of human resources and Robin is a non-executive director), other
Chudley members have had equally successful careers in their chosen fields.
Tory is now an interior designer. Working in London and decorating some top venues, she has built and sold a number of companies, while still turning her hand to the odd bit of styling for the Sundial properties. Nick designs bespoke computer booking software – for hotels, surprisingly enough – and Penny is in nursing. Robin has now taken the reins of their father Michael’s firm, FFP Packaging Solutions, a company specialising in novel and eco-friendly ways to carry food.
‘Our values and work ethic come from the way were brought up,’ says Jo. ‘We were taught to look after guests and offer a family welcome. We love to delight people.’ You certainly get that impression from the venues. From the smiles behind reception at Highgate House when I arrived, to the offer of fruit and water for my journey home, the family ethos is something that would bring me back time and time again.
Customers clearly agree. New figures released from the BDRC, an independent research firm for hotel groups, note that 70 per cent of Sundial custom is repeat business. Beating the likes of the Hilton and Marriott chains to the Best Value for Money award in 2008 and with clients like npower on its books, Sundial’s family ethos seems to work.The group’s three properties, Barnett Hill in Surrey, Highgate House in Northamptonshire and Woodside in Warwickshire, have certainly been developing steadily under the Sundial umbrella.
Teamscapes, its in-house teambuilding company, has been at the forefront of the growth since its inception a decade ago. Jo explains: ‘We saw people coming to our venues with planks, barrels and ropes and thought, “why can’t we do that?’’’. And do that they did. Now rolled out over Europe and Australia, Teamscapes sells itself, providing workplace-relevant challenges that stimulate body and brain. What makes the product unique is that once completed, the qualification attained offers an NVQ level of learning.
Sundial also launched Culinary Teamscapes last year with great success. Activities like the Canapé Challenge and blind cake icing work well, perfect for mixed gender groups and those who feel more comfortable in an indoor, kitchen-based environment. An idea spawned by new member of the surrogate Chudley family, marketing manager James Bland, Culinary Teamscapes is an example of how the group nurtures its own.
James has been working for the group since his early teens and has recently won the IACC Global Scholarship for emerging leaders in the conference industry. The award will see him taken to the States this year to make his own version of the original American excursion.
‘All aboard,’ says conductor Tim Chudley, as the new incarnation of the Chudbus pulls out of the gates of Highgate House. While it makes its way down to ExCeL for another exhibition, new additions to the Chudley clan will be regaled with stories of the family’s epic adventure, and the next chapter in the Chudbus’s colourful history begins.
Located within striking distance of the M6 and just outside the
historic town of Kenilworth, Woodside is the Sundial Group’s most northerly outpost. A popular destination with government institutions, law firms and financial groups, it has many of the
facilities of a spa resort, but looks far more justifiable on companies’ balance sheets. It sits in 32 acres of gardens, so makes a nice setting for summer events, while a new swimming pool,
adequately stocked fitness suite and pitch-and-putt golf course make up the facilities.
The contemporary Orchard Restaurant is a great spot for lunch, but better still is the 40-seater conservatory with views of the grounds. Plenty of outside seating for summer alfresco dining is also available, with the north-facing terrace area catching a good deal of afternoon sun. We found dinner at Woodside thoroughly enjoyable, with polite and jovial young staff happily engaging with diners. Breakfast was also excellent, with a range of unusual fresh fruit and cereals available, alongside the traditional, well-cooked English breakfast.
Holding 74 bedrooms and enough outside space for 200, Woodside works well for teambuilding events. The maximum size for meetings is 120 in the functional Redwood Room, though it opens out on to the gallery to accommodate more. We would use the Redwood Room in conjunction with the Conservatory for meetings, giving two entirely different atmospheres. The Redwood Room would be suited to the more business-orientated session, while the Conservatory makes for a more creative environment.
CONTACTS & CAPACITIES
Function Rooms:20 Bedrooms:74
Meeting:100 Dinner:120 Reception:150
Glasshouse Lane, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 2AL
tel: 01926 515800, squaremeal.co.uk/ws
A striking 17th-century country estate in
Northamptonshire, Highgate House was the Chudleys’ original home. It was first opened up to guests in 1964 as a B&B and family portraits still adorn the walls of many of the meeting rooms. The
Drawing Room, in particular, feels like the Chudleys have only just left, with images of the family growing up and the books they read shelved on the walls. The Drawing Room seats 50 for a meeting
or dinner and would be ideally suited to brainstorming sessions, relaxed meetings and private dinners.
We found the dining area the biggest asset of Highgate House. During our lunch there, the salad selection was excellent, with a pork terrine that could rival many restaurants. Set up in a self-service buffet format that would be ideal for meetings starting and finishing at different times, it has a light and airy feel, with high ceilings and a gaping skylight. The Chudleys regularly celebrate Christmas together at Highgate, using the hotel’s kitchens and extensive bar.
The ornate Baronial Hall – with its wood panelling and Victorian furniture – is an excellent space for meetings of up to 70. It also doubles as a wedding venue, with a full licence for civil ceremonies. The light and airy conservatory is well suited to meetings of a more intense and functional nature, with the adjacent landscaped gardens making an ideal breakout space for downtime. Plenty of seating is available for outside dining in the summer months.
CONTACTS & CAPACITIES
Function Rooms:10 Bedrooms:98
Meeting:240 Dinner:200 Reception:260
Groom’s Lane, Creaton, Northampton, NN6 8NN,
tel: 01604 731999, squaremeal.co.uk/hh
This one-time World War II war hospital and home of Thomas Cook, Barnett Hill, has been part of the Sundial portfolio since 1996. A picturesque venue in leafy Surrey, it’s the smallest of the Sundial venues and good for hosting boardroom retreats and small conferences. Its location between Heathrow and Gatwick airports makes it a popular choice for those coming in from overseas, while the 15 meeting rooms allow a number of conferences to operate simultaneously.
The meeting rooms are all quite different. We like the one with the largest capacity, Dunant Conference Room, which holds 70 delegates and benefits from natural light let in by three-quarter-length garden-facing windows. Our favourite, however, is The Oak Hall, which is designed with dinners in mind and has a genuine chintzy charm. Each bedroom is individually designed and styled, in keeping with the hotel’s overall theme of homely luxury. Light yellow walls and tasteful floral theming give the bedrooms a cheerful tone, while leisure facilities include a fitness room, spa, sauna and volleyball court. There are also walks and trails through the extensive gardens, which are great for break-out time relaxation and early morning strolls.
CONTACTS & CAPACITIES
Function Rooms:16 Bedrooms:54
Capacities: Meeting:70 Dinner:80 Reception:80
Blackheath Lane, Wonersh, Guildford, Surrey, GU5 0RF
tel: 01483 899200, squaremeal.co.uk/barnett
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2009.