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Victorian landmarks and gleaming new venues meet first-class restaurants, bars and hotels. Anna Longmore wonders why it has taken us so long to discover Leeds...
It’s the fastest growing city in the UK, currently surpassed in size
only by London and Birmingham. It’s the largest legal and business centre outside the capital and one of the country’s fastest growing media hubs. Hell, it even has a Harvey Nichols. But Leeds is
still one of the events industry’s best-kept secrets.
Until now. This fine northern city has come a long way from the smoking chimneys and rattling mills of its 19th-century heyday. Mulberry and Vivienne Westwood boutiques now rub nattily clad shoulders with pound-a-penny markets, while stylish cocktail bars sit alongside time-honoured boozers. An impressive £3.2bn of investment has been poured in to generate gleaming additions to the skyline as well as to give a new lease of life to the existing venues.
It’s great news for event organisers.Purpose-built structures like the Royal Armouries and the Rose Bowl at Leeds Met are shining monuments to modern-day design, while the striking Corn Exchange, historic canalside and rejuvenated Millennium Square – with its redeveloped spaces in the Electric Press complex and the new Leeds City Museum – showcase the city’s handsome Victorian heritage.
‘The warmth of the welcome here has never been in doubt but the facilities for visitors – hotels, bars and restaurants – are in a different league now,’ says Deborah Green, chief executive of Marketing Leeds. ‘It’s more modern, more cosmopolitan and above all, there’s more choice.’ This translates to an extra 2,500 hotel rooms since 1990. Organisers can now choose from chic boutique accommodation at the longstanding 42 The Calls or sleek contemporary style at the brand new City Inn.
You’ll also find plenty of diversions beyond the boardroom, from Leeds’ legendary retail therapy to the nearby Yorkshire Moors. The nightlife is boosted by group-friendly restaurants and a clutch of cracking destination bars – with expertly prepared cocktails, reasonable prices and easy music – that you’d cross postcodes for in London. And it’s all within 20 minutes’ walk of everything else. It’s almost worth popping up for the evening; Leeds is closer to the capital than ever before, with trains running every half hour from Kings Cross and a journey time of around two hours.
In the past, Leeds might have been outstripped by destinations with a more single-minded approach, but now that Marketing Leeds and Leeds Hotels Association have joined forces to promote the destination, corporate events are high on the agenda. ‘The corporate events and meetings sector is worth around £220m to the Leeds economy. This joined-up approach has been really helpful to event organisers,’ says Gordon Jackson, chairman of the Leeds Hotels Association. ‘It means that a comprehensive programme can be put together through what is effectively a “one-stop shop”.’
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. The city is attracting attention from some high-profile quarters. Gordon Brown recently hosted a ‘Question the Cabinet’ forum at Saviles on Armouries Square, before heading over to the Royal Armouries Museum to chair a Cabinet meeting.
Now there’s another £7.2bn of investment in the pipeline – Leeds University has just embarked on a £35m building programme to improve facilities on its campus in the north of the city and a new £30m, 12,500-seat arena will fill the only remaining gap in Leeds’ venue portfolio. Down at Leeds United, meanwhile, owner (and former Chelsea boss) Ken Bates has been given approval to recreate his successful Chelsea Village development at Elland Road. Even the transport links are getting a boost. The airport, which currently serves 65 destinations, is getting a £28m redevelopment to bring in more routes, including an extra 14 with Ryanair from March 2010.
Leeds is a striking mixture of old and new, where handsome Victorian buildings sit alongside more modern-day landmarks
Millennium Square is the hub of civic activity –
from free concerts to sports screenings – and home to the new City Museum (tel: 0113 224 3732). Opened in September last year in the former Civic Theatre, some slick new event spaces include the
exhibition galleries – Natural Sciences, Ancient Worlds and so on – as well as a striking domed Central Arena where 250 guests can have dinner on a giant floor map of Leeds.
Slap bang in the middle of the city, you can’t miss the proud clock tower of Leeds Town Hall (tel: 0113 222 4444), a grand Grade I-listed building opened by Queen Victoria. The star of the 13 spaces is the 1,200-capacity Victoria Hall, one of the largest rooms in town, but there are 12 smaller chambers too. Another stunning period space worth noting is the Tiled Hall in the Leeds Art Gallery (tel: 0113 247 8248) on the Headrow. With original Victorian tilework, marble columns and an elaborate parquet room, it’s an impressive setting for receptions (for 275) and dinners (for 80) but you’ll have to move quickly – the venue closes for a refurb in January 2010.
While Leeds Met is most often associated with modern architecture, one of its lesser-known gems is the Old School Board, a listed Victorian building with wood-pannelled, high-ceilinged rooms and long windows with spectacular views out onto Millennium Square. It occupies a super-central location and the four spaces – differing in size – are well looked after.
One of the city’s largest and most renowned venues, the Royal Armouries was built in 1996 to house the UK’s collection of arms and armour, started originally by Henry VIII. A fusty old museum this isn’t. Purpose-built event spaces complement the five exhibit-laden galleries, which are used for out-of-hours entertaining. Capacities run up to 1,000 for dinner. Each has a different feel – the Hunting Gallery channels a traditional country estate while the Tournament Gallery houses two colourful jousting pavilions. Mock battles using real weapons and armour can be staged in demonstration areas.
Just outside the city centre, Harewood House (tel: 0113 218 1010) is an 18th-century treasure trove of Chippendale furniture, Sèvres porcelain, hand-painted wall-hangings and Renaissance masterpieces all set in over 100 acres of rolling Capability Brown-sculpted landscape. Stand-out entertaining spaces include the imposing Gallery (a favourite with financiers) and the south-facing terrace. Catering throughout is excellent but you can upgrade to Michelin-starred cooking from the Box Tree in Ilkley. The Courtyard is an attractive self-contained facility and a large marquee-style structure is popular with corporate clients for summer family fun days.
No line-up of landmarks would be complete without Elland Road football stadium – one of the first sights to welcome you to the city. It’s best known as the home of Leeds United but for the remaining 330-odd non-match days each year, private events make use of 40 different-sized suites, with capacity stretching up to 800. It might lack the gloss of some of the newer hotels, but a clued-up team, excellent catering and a prime location near all the major motorways keep clients coming back – and the average day delegate rate is just £35.
THE CHANGING CITY
Leeds might be proud of its heritage, but it’s onwards and upwards for the city skyline with a number of recent additions
On the northern fringes
of the city centre, a quiet but radical transformation has been taking place. Once known for its unattractive concrete tower blocks, Leeds Metropolitan University has sold off its old campus to
fund new developments. These include the distinctive burnt orange tower of the Art Faculty (known affectionately as ‘the rusty building’) and the gleaming new Rose Bowl, home to the Faculty of Business & Law. Opened this
May, the £50m building houses a cylindrical ‘bowl’ of auditoriums inside a glass-clad outer structure. Forget all notions of the fusty old lecture theatres of old, this is a light and cutting-edge
contemporary space with the latest AV kit, plush seating, bright breakout spaces and noteworthy eco-friendly credentials. And the costs are seriously competitive and conscience-salving (all the
profits go back into education). On-site parking is a bonus.
On the opposite side of the city, near the M1 and M62 junctions, waterside developments are springing up in Clarence Dock. For a long time, the Royal Armouries cut a relatively solitary figure in this part of town, but £260m of investment has brought in a number of eating, drinking, sleeping and
entertainment spaces. As well as a swanky new casino, the two-floor Alea (tel: 0113 341 3200), complete with destination restaurant and private 50-seater cinema, there’s a handy new Holiday Inn Express (tel: 0870 890 0455) for overnighters and a custom-built venue in the form of Savilles. Launched by the Royal Armouries in 2007, it’s a straightforward 1,200sq m blank-canvas space – big enough for car launches and exhibitions – which ticks all the environmental boxes and has a vast capacity of 1,500. Oh, and it’s named after local legend Sir Jimmy Savile too.
The renaissance of the waterfront continutes at Granary Wharf, where the new developments combine
a waterside setting with a two-minute walk to the station. This combination works particularly well at the brand new City Inn (tel: 0113 241 1000), where the 13th-floor Sky Lounge cocktail bar is the perfect place to start a visit to Leeds, orientating yourself over a mojito or two. The airy interior has plenty
of space for groups and there’s a huge outside terrace. Bright meeting spaces overlooking the canal are some of the city’s most appealing too.
From fish and chips to fine dining, Square Meal selects the city’s top restaurants for groups
Occupying a plum central
location on City Square, the handsome Leeds Bar and Grill (tel: 0113 244 9625) houses a sophisticated PDR for 24, seated around a long table. The £25 set menu has an eclectic international feel,
ranging from Thai prawn cakes to smoked haddock and leek risotto.
Tucked away at the far-end of the Malmaison Brasserie (tel: 0113 398 1000), the Mal PDR is a stylish, seductively lit space for private dinners of up to 12. An appealing British menu with European accents runs from bouillabaisse to burgers.
Glossy pan-Asian Chino Latino (tel: 0113 380 4080) might not have a private dining room but compensates with plenty of space for larger groups and a funky, upbeat atmosphere. The crowd-pleasing food – dim sum, tempura, sushi, sashimi and so on – is ideal for sharing too.
Top local chef Anthony Flinn’s newest opening is Piazza by Anthony (tel: 0113 247 0995), an informal 125-cover brasserie set in the stunning Corn Exchange building. Private dining is available here for up to 20 in the glass-fronted Hennessy Suite, which has three adjoining rooms and high-spec AV kit for meetings.
Regulars love the old-fashioned Gallic charm of Sous Le Nez (tel: 0113 244 0108), a longstanding bistro and wine bar with a comfortable, clean-cut 20-seater PDR. The star of the show is the classy, reasonably priced wine list. House champagne is just £5.50 a glass.
For upmarket Indian, Vineet Bhatia’s Bird Restaurant (tel: 0113 341 3244) at the Alea casino serves up traditional sub-continental crowd-pleasers alongside some novel ideas in slick, spacious surrounds, with an attractive private dining room for up to 20. The canapé-style starter selection is a winner.
OUT OF THE BOARDROOM
From skiing to shopping, rugby to aromatherapy, Leeds has plenty of diversions for down-time in your programme
Sport is a central
part of Leeds life and there’s plenty on offer within easy reach of the city centre. Just ten minutes up the road, Headingley Carnegie Stadium is home to Yorkshire County Cricket Club as well as
Leeds Rhinos Rugby League and Leeds Carnegie Rugby Union clubs. Headingley Hospitality (tel: 0113 275 7091) is a one-stop shop for corporate entertaining at the ground while Headingley Experience
(tel: 0113 203 3853) looks after bookings for conferences and private events in suites at the ground on non-match days. And while Leeds United might not be playing top-flight football at the moment, the zeal of the 23,000 loyal fans still keeps
the ground jumping at home games, making match-day hospitality packages a memorable addition to corporate programmes.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is less than 20 miles from the centre of the city, so residential events can be combined conferencing and entertaining in Leeds with outdoor pursuits and teambuilding. The Dales are yours to explore with specialists such as Camp Hill (tel: 01845 567788). Activity-hungry groups might also enjoy Xscape (tel: 01977 523092), where a 300-capacity conference centre sits alongside the UK’s largest real snow slope, two climbing walls, a 20-lane bowling alley, ice rink, aerial assault course and laserzone area. But if you’re tight on time, go-karting at Pole Position (tel: 0845 12 606 13) is a great way of letting off steam and the Leeds location doesn’t take a huge chunk out of the day.
For golfing in the area, it’s hard to beat the rolling fairways and brand new facilities at Oulton Hall (tel: 0113 282 1000), where a Nike-sponsored Academy with a custom-fit suite and state-of-the-art driving range has recently been added to the 27-hole complex. Corporate groups can also take the top floor of the recently opened Claret Jug clubhouse, complete with fire-lit lounge, balcony and 120-capacity function room.
No trip to Leeds would be complete without a spot of shopping, one of the city’s favourite pastimes. And where better to indulge than Harvey Nichols (tel: 0113 204 8000)? The open-minded approach of the Harvey Nicks team means that anything is possible, from trend talks by one of the buyers to sushi-making at Yo! or style or make-up consultations after-hours. Combine it with a drinks reception or a movie night in the Victoria Quarter Espresso Bar. Spa packages might be more popular with incentive groups – and the brand new spa (complete with 10 treatment rooms) at Oulton Hall is perfect for this – but it’s not unusual to see de-stressing sessions appearing on more business-focused schedules these days. The clean-cut business side of Thorpe Park Hotel & Spa (tel: 0113 264 1000) might lend itself to conferencing, but the spa is just as popular for its friendly modern feel. Treatments – particularly the range of half-hour options – won’t take a chunk out of your schedule or your budget
MEETING & SLEEPING
42 The Calls
The city’s first boutique hotel was well ahead of its time when it opened 18 years ago, but it still looks fresh and smart today. Set in an old corn mill on a tranquil stretch of the canal just two minutes from the Corn Exchange, its 41 homely rooms – many equipped with fishing rods – are different shapes and sizes. The comfortable penthouses can double as informal boardrooms but corporate groups can also use the 24-capacity Flatland Room, a top-floor space overlooking the canal, or the Blue Room seating 70, just over the road.
42 The Calls, Leeds, LS2 7EW, tel: 0113 244 0099
BR:41 FR:3 M:70 R:70
The latest and largest four-star addition to the city’s hotel scene has nabbed itself a nice spot on the canal, conveniently placed right next to the station. Stand-out features of the bright purpose-built venue are the sunny waterside terrace and City Café restaurant, which can be sectioned off for private events, as well as the Gallery Suite, a glass-walled space that breaks up into eight rooms. We also love the Sky Lounge, a slick cocktail bar on the 13th floor, and the minimalist rooms with iMacs, Sony flatscreens and Bose sound systems.
Granary Wharf, Dark Neville St, Leeds, LS1 4BR, tel: 0113 241 1000
BR:333 FR34 M:254 D: 200 R:330
De Vere Oulton Hall
After a £10m injection, this splendid Grade II-listed pile is sitting pretty. Swish interiors characterise the mansion’s homely rooms, but there are modern business-like spaces and extensive grounds with a 27-hole golf complex. A large chunk of the upgrade budget was invested in the new Nike-sponsored golf academy, the handsome Claret Jug clubhouse – all cosy fire-lit interiors, dark wood and leather – and a swanky new spa. In fact, the refurb of the rooms is all that’s delaying the hotel’s five-star rating so now is the best time to take advantage of the four-star prices.
Rothwell Lane, Oulton, Yorkshire, LS26 8HN, tel: 0113 282 1000
BR:152 FR:8/11 M:320 D:240 R:350
Hilton Leeds City
The steady stream of guests (business during the week, leisure at weekends) know exactly what they’re getting at this reliable longstanding fixture – clean contemporary surrounds, reliable service and a handy city-centre location near the station and M62 – but above all, it’s a well-run and friendly operation. Leisure facilities include a pool and gym and the bright loungey bar is a useful spot for informal gatherings, while function spaces range from a large, flexible suite to a handful of smaller boardrooms. An extensive refurb in 2008 freshened up the look throughout.
Neville Street, Leeds, United Kingdom LS1 4BX, tel: 0113 244 2000,
BR:206 FR:11 M:350 D: 280 R:500
Set firmly in the Mal mould, the Leeds link in the chain shares the same seductive interiors and sophisticated look as its siblings. Clad in the signature aubergine and plum palate, the inviting rooms are as carefully equipped as they are stylish (and the toiletries are some of the few that we’ll leave with). Accomplished cooking and an extensive wine list make the sexy brasserie and wine bar destinations in their own right and the private dining room is a gem. The decent selection of meeting rooms is another welcome surprise.
1 Swinegate, Leeds, LS1 4AG,
tel: 0113 398 1000
BR:100 FR:4 M:50 D:32 R:80
Behind the distinctive terracotta frontage, this Tardis-like 19th-century hotel comprises 120 bedrooms and 18 meeting rooms, ranging in style from the high-ceilinged grandeur of the 250-capacity Met Suite to neat little boardrooms. A £6m refurb transformed the lower-ground-floor meeting spaces, adding a loungey breakout area, in 2007. Original features – the striking wrought iron staircase in particular – add interest throughout. The functional modern bedrooms clad in neutral tones (including a handy selection of cheaper singles) are popular with corporate groups.
King Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, LS1 2HQ, tel: 0113 245 0841,
BR:120 FR:11 M:250 D:200 R:200
With all the clean-lined modernity you’d expect from this reliable chain, the Park Plaza combines a city centre location (just opposite the train station) with well-appointed bedrooms and meeting facilities. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but the views across the city and beyond from the 20th floor suites and penthouses are pretty spectacular, staff are efficient and gracious and the funky Chino Latino restaurant and bar offer plenty of space for entertaining. A good-value, functional all-rounder.
Boar Lane City Square, Leeds, LS1 5NS, tel: 0113 380 4000, squaremeal.co.uk/plazaleeds
BR:185 FR:11 M:200 D:200 R:150
This landmark hotel above the train station is something of a grande dame of Leeds lodgings. Sure, its art deco glamour may be a touch faded these days, but a £10m refurbishment programme has restored much of the original character and given it contemporary gloss. Stand-out spaces such as the elegant Palm Court, Ballroom and Ark Royal feature some charming details, while a handful of small meeting rooms are less memorable but just as popular. Bedrooms are well equipped for business guests.
City Square, Leeds, LS1 1PJ, tel: 0113 243 1323
BR:217 FR:16 M:600 D:550 R:700
Thorpe Park Hotel &
Don’t be deterred by the business park location – there’s more to this friendly hotel than the unremarkable modern façade suggests. It scores on all fronts, from the good-sized spa, pool and fitness facilities to a comprehensive suite of 22 meeting rooms set around the Conference Café (a cleverly conceived breakout space). The venue is justifiably proud of its endlessly friendly and efficient staff. Pleasant communal spaces – the carefully tended garden and bright atrium courtyard, for example, can also be used for events. Smart modern bedrooms, too.
1150 Century Way, Thorpe Park, Leeds, Yorkshire LS15 8ZB, tel: 0113 264 1000
BR:123 FR:14 M:150 D:150 R:150
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, autumn 2009