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The rustic vibe of Chelsea’s country cousin makes for relaxed hospitality with universal appeal. Suzanne Archer entertains at the Hampton Court Flower Show
If Chelsea Flower Show was a hothouse orchid, the Hampton Court equivalent could only be described as an English rose. Set in the magnificent grounds of Henry VIII’s feasting and feting venue, the event certainly doesn’t lack grandeur, but it’s somehow more approachable than its central London relation.
‘The show gardens at Chelsea are all about glam, whereas Hampton Court has much more of a country fair feel,’ says Judi Oliver, national accounts director for Prestige Hospitality. This refreshingly rustic vibe was apparent from the moment the Square Meal team arrived to see a stream of show-goers in wellies and wax jackets (Hunters and Barbours respectively). We looked down at our own choice of footwear (ballet pumps, low heels) and felt a little out-of-place, not to mention worried about potential mud hazards.
We needn’t have panicked. All the main paths are covered in woodchip to provide safe passage, which is just as well as Hampton Court Flower Show is huge (King Henry would have been proud). Spread across a spacious 33 acres compared to Chelsea’s compact 11, there is much more to see and do and three times more space to do it in.
From scarecrow competitions to huge marquees full of colourful blooms, grow-your-own vegetables and eco-friendly gardens, the show has broad appeal. And the quality of catering and service ensures hospitality guests will thoroughly enjoy themselves whether or not they have green fingers.
The hospitality village is in a privileged position away from the crowds, overlooking a pristine lawn stretching down to the Long Water that bisects the grounds, with picturesque views of the surrounding parkland. There’s a sense of space and detachment from the horticultural throng on the other side of the water that makes for a very laid-back feel. ‘It’s one of the few hospitality events where you can physically relax and refresh while you meet new people and I love that,’ says Hetty Dawson, marketing manager at The Private Rooms at Buckingham Gate and among our guests last year. ‘It’s great to be able to potter around in between networking, rather than being stuck in the same room all day,’ agrees Ruby Lyall, conference and sales manager at The Congress Centre.
Seating is very flexible:
private chalets are available for large groups of 40 guests, while smaller numbers share the main restaurant facility on tables of 10, making for a buzzy sociable mix. Demand is such that for 2009,
Prestige is adding another chalet: pretty good going considering that 2007 was the first year they offered hospitality at the event (the first flower show was held back in 1989).
One of the key benefits that a hospitality package at Hampton Court affords is that, unlike Chelsea, you have the opportunity of arriving half an hour ahead of the public, at 9.30am. This gives you and your guests a great chance to get your bearings (accompanied with a trusty catalogue and map) and a quick overview of the main areas so you can pinpoint exactly where you want to return later. This is a particularly opportune time to visit the show gardens, as they tend to be the most popular, and thereby attract the most crowds later on.
Back at the ranch, early wanderers are rewarded by a breakfast of mini pastries, tea and coffee, which proves a good opportunity for informal introductions on the outdoor decked terrace. Latecomers
then have plenty of time to explore the gardens before a Grand Marque Champagne and canapé reception at midday (though the bar opens from 11am if you’re after an early aperitif).
After a leisurely three-course lunch, guests are free to meander back through the gardens or relax on the terrace soaking up the sun, with only afternoon tea to interrupt them. Staff are particularly efficient and gracious, which doesn’t go unnoticed among event-savvy guests. ‘The waiters were very attentive and even gave us waterproofs at the end of the day when rain threatened,’ says Alicia Anderson, business development manager at The Roof Gardens.
As we headed back across the river at 6pm, full of cake, the green-fingered post-work crowd had just arrived to snap up end-of-the-day bargains. Compared to see-and-be-seen Chelsea, the bona fide gardeners are certainly more in evidence, which gives the event a real sense of purpose. But whether you’ve got real mud under your fingernails or are more concerned with cultivating your client relationships, Hampton Court Flower Show is a truly idyllic day in the garden.
2009’s Hampton Court Flower Show runs from 7-12 July. Hospitality packages, starting at £150 per person + VAT, are available through Prestige Hospitality (tel: 0870 421 4868)
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2009.