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As Liverpool celebrates its year as European Capital of Culture, Anna Longmore discovers a city with ever-increasing potential for events organisers
Pride is something for which Liverpool has always been famous. In fact, it’s the one consistent theme in a civic history that has seen as many catastrophic crashes as meteoric rises. Right now, however, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Liverpool is on the up. The city has something to shout about – and for once it’s not football or the Beatles.
This is definitely Liverpool’s year. Maybe even its decade. The city is the first in Britain to win Capital of Culture since Glasgow in 1990, and money – £5bn of it, both public and private – is pouring steadily into Merseyside. Cranes numbered 40 at the peak of the development, and it’s hard to over-emphasise just how much is going on here.
Apart from the amount of redevelopment, another thing that strikes first-time visitors to the city is the elegance of the architecture. From the neoclassical St George’s Hall to the ‘Three Graces’ on the waterfront – a UNESCO World Heritage site taking in the famous Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building – monuments to the city’s affluent mercantile past abound. In total, there are 2,500 listed buildings here. The modern cityscape, however, is very much a work in progress, with a number of bold, contemporary silhouettes – the Beetham Tower, the Malmaison and retail giant Liverpool One being prime examples.
Unsurprisingly, given the level of investment, tourism is expected to double in the next five years, and among the
visitors will be thousands of delegates attending events at the brand new Arena and Convention Centre. With this sleek purpose-built venue, Liverpool has already snatched high-profile events from the likes of Harrogate (this year’s Liberal Democrat Spring Conference) and Brighton (the 2009 TUC Annual Congress).
Liberal Democrat party chief executive Lord Chris Rennard was delighted by the reception delegates received in the city. ‘We were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the reception everywhere: at the ACC Liverpool and across the city,’ he says. ‘The restaurants are good, the taxis cheap, friendly and plentiful and the transport links excellent. We had the highest attendance at a conference since the party was formed, partly because of the interest in the Capital of Culture, but also because Liverpool is a very accessible place from the rest of the country. The cultural attractions also played a big part. There’s an overwhelming feeling that we’d like to be back soon, possibly for our autumn conference.’
As the money pours in, new venues are springing up, while established ones – the famous Bluecoat Arts Centre, for example – are being transformed by the cash injections. All of which means there’s an ever-increasing range of event spaces on offer on Merseyside. In practical terms, there’s also much to attract organisers to Liverpool. First of all, thanks to Virgin Trains’ high-speed Pendolino service, the journey time from London Euston has been cut to two and a half hours. And once you arrive, it’s an easy city to get around on foot, while a taxi across town will cost you less than £5.
ON THE WATER
Liverpool’s docks have been the subject of a massive redevelopment in recent years, with the city’s famous central waterfront area being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994. There’s Pier Head, where visitors can take the famous Mersey Ferry (tel: 0151 330 1444) from just in front of the Liver Building. A sight-seeing trip on the ferry, which takes around 45 minutes, is a fitting way to get a sense of the city’s maritime past and future – a new terminal has just been added for visiting cruise liners – and the river that Liverpudlians have such affection for. Just don’t go expecting luxurious surroundings.
At Princes Dock, a short stroll from Pier Head, two modern additions to the waterfront include the Crowne Plaza (tel: 0151 243 8000) and Malmaison (tel: 0151 229 5000) hotels. The former, a four-star deluxe property built in 1998, still looks smart and modern but, as you’d expect, it’s a larger and more corporate affair than Malmaison. It has some sizeable event spaces ideally suited to conferences, with capacity for up to 700 theatre-style, and excellent leisure facilities. With only four small boardrooms catering for up to 45, the recently opened Mal is less of a proposition for events, but it’s characteristically stylish and well appointed, and the excellent Brasserie offers two very distinct private dining rooms. Both hotels have views over the Mersey.
On the other side of the Three Graces, the handsome redbrick warehouses of the 19th-century Albert Dock, similar in feel to St Katharine Docks in London, are now home to the Merseyside Maritime Museum (tel: 0151 478 4446) and the Tate Liverpool (tel: 0151 702 7400). Both make fascinating venues for events. As well as hosting conferences for up to 200 in its lecture theatre, the Maritime Museum makes a lovely setting in summer – barbecues for up to 200 guests can be held in the colonnade overlooking the docks.Alongside its contemporary art exhibitions, the Tate offers a 100-capacity auditorium, an airy café and a number of other event spaces overlooking the dock. It’s also worth noting that in-house catering is a strong suit here, with excellent wine lists by renowned sommelier Hamish Anderson.
The Beatles Story (tel: 0151 709 1963) with its Fab Four memorabilia and lookalikes certainly draws in the tourists and is worth considering as a venue for sheer novelty value (the replica Cavern room might impress diehard fans), but the ranks of waterside restaurants and bars in this area are a far more attractive option for entertaining. Generous proportions, river views and modern design lend these venues to group bookings. The sleek, contemporary Pan American Club (tel: 0151 702 5840) and charmingly idiosyncratic Circo (tel: 0151 709 7097) both offer private event spaces.
Just opposite, you can’t miss the gleaming futuristic structure of ACC Liverpool, a brand-new arena and convention centre opened in January 2008 (see box). Adjacent accommodation will be provided in the 310-bedroom Jury’s Inn (tel: 0151 244 3777) and the Staybridge Suites (tel: 08700 400 9670), which will offer self-catering rooms designed with longer stays in mind. Both are due to open in summer 2008.
Liverpool has more museums than any UK city outside London and more Georgian architecture than Bath. The Cultural Quarter refers to the handsome collection of buildings visitors encounter immediately on leaving Lime Street station, and it’s a striking first impression. Widely considered (even by those outside Liverpool) to be the finest neoclassical building in Europe, the magnificent Greco-Roman-style architecture of St George’s Hall (tel: 0151 225 6911) is a testament to the confidence and prosperity of the city in the 19th century.
The building was originally built for use as a venue for entertaining – as well as a law court – and, despite being reopened to the public in April 2007 after a £23m restoration, is still available for hire. It’s hard to imagine a more fabulously ornate backdrop than the Great Hall, with its marble columns, chandeliers, crested ceiling and stained glass window. Fittingly, the ever-flamboyant Vivienne Westwood launched her last collection here. The space has also been used for antiques shows, award ceremonies and weddings, while the smaller Concert Hall offers a more intimate alternative.
Just opposite St George’s, the similarly grand-looking Walker Art Gallery (tel: 0151 478 4199), the ‘national gallery of the north’, is the place to see fine and decorative art, from the Renaissance masters to contemporary rising stars, and a great recommendation for leisure time in the city. Like most of Liverpool’s museums, the Walker is free to visit, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the ‘Big Art for Little Artists’ facilities aimed at kids are excellent. To celebrate the city’s status as the European Capital of Culture, artist Ben Johnson has been in situ since January, creating a captivating panoramic painting of ‘The Liverpool Cityscape’. The finished work, along with a series of his other cityscapes, will be on display until November 2008. Drinks receptions for 250 to 300 can be held at the gallery, and guests can take drinks into the exhibitions themselves.
The Cultural Quarter is also home to Liverpool’s mainstream theatres, from the modern Empire Theatre (tel: 0844 847 2525), for large-scale entertainment and musicals, to the Playhouse (tel: 0151 709 4776), the old lady of the theatre scene and the place to go for classic Shakespeare and Miller in an ornate 19th-century setting. After a refurbishment in 2005, the Royal Court (tel: 0870 787 1866) offers tiered rows in the circle and balcony, but the stalls have been fitted with cabaret-style table seating, which suits a more irreverent programme that includes comedy and burlesque.
THE HOPE STREET AREA
Running between the striking Catholic cathedral (affectionately known as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’) and the gigantic Anglican cathedral, Hope Street is a laid-back, bohemian area thronged with students from the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores. It’s one of the city’s trendiest addresses, and it’s here you’ll find the renowned boutique Hope Street Hotel (tel: 0151 709 3000), a well-run and luxurious 48-bedroom property with a handful of small event spaces best suited to launches and parties.
Dining options abound, and it’s a great place for browsing if you don’t have reservations elsewhere. Two of Liverpool’s best restaurants require an advance booking. The excellent London Carriage Works (tel: 0151 705 2222) is a handsome restaurant attached to the Hope Street Hotel, serving modern international food in a spacious, upper-ground-floor dining room as well as two 36-person private rooms. Another upmarket option is the highly regarded 60 Hope Street (tel: 0151 707 6060), with its informal bistro, a 90-cover fine dining restaurant and a 30-capacity private dining room.
It seems only fitting that the Everyman Theatre (tel: 0151 709 4776) should be located in this more liberal area of the city, given its history as the most avant-garde of the playhouses here. The work of new writers is often performed, as well as smaller-scale dance productions and physical theatre, and none of the 440 seats, arranged in a horseshoe, are more than 10 metres from the stage. Attendance here is up 60 per cent, and Pete Postlethwaite’s homecoming run as King Lear, starting in October, is guaranteed to draw the crowds. The laid-back Everyman Bistro (tel: 0151 708 9545), below the theatre, is a local institution. And its private room is a gem for more informal events.
OUT OF TOWN
Merseyside has 120km of picturesque coastline. Stretching from the north of the city, the Sefton Coast, with its sandy dunes and sweeping beaches, takes in Crosby, Formby and Southport. At Crosby, you’ll find Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ art installation, featuring 100 cast-iron figures rising from the sand, spreading 3km along the beach and 1km out to sea. Sunset is a particularly atmospheric time to view them.
The 50 miles of west-facing coastline that runs up from Liverpool to Cumbria has the highest concentration of championship links courses in the world, earning it the title of England’s ‘Golf Coast’. Golf fanatics will be familiar with the three Royals – Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and St Annes and Royal Liverpool – and no doubt aware that the Royal Birkdale is to host the Open Championship in July this year.
With 15 top courses less than 30 minutes’ drive away, Southport claims the title of England’s ‘golfing capital’, but the rapid regeneration of the resort has now begun to draw corporate groups for other reasons.
Re-opening this year after a complete redevelopment, Southport Theatre and Convention Centre will offer the refurbished Floral Hall, with its stunning art deco features, 1000sq m of floor space and a 1,630-seat auditorium – both original – as well as an additional Exhibition Hall, a four-star, 130-bedroom hotel and a casino. In total, £40m will be spent on the project.
Southport is also eagerly awaiting the launch of its first boutique hotel, The Vincent (tel: 01704 534400), which will bring a range of stylishly kitted-out bedroom ‘residences’, as well as the hip first-floor V-Galleria, an event space for up to 200 guests with a balcony terrace overlooking Lord Street.
Nearby at Formby Hall Golf Resort & Spa, a £10m development is injecting the golf-focused property with a far broader appeal. The additions, which will be fully completed by May, include 62 guest rooms, two major conference and event suites, the UK’s first residential PGA academy and a vast leisure club with a spa and 25m pool. The resort works best for groups of 60 to 80 guests, who can make the most of the golf and leisure facilities and take advantage of the 250 acres for teambuilding activities. For summer events, the first-floor terrace overlooking the golf course is idyllic.
Best known as the home of the Grand National, for the rest of the year Aintree (tel: 0151 522 2922) is mostly a conference and events venue. Six miles from Liverpool’s city centre, it is easy to find by following the distinctive brown ‘site of interest’ signs. The free parking is a luxury in these parts, and a vast range of function spaces can accommodate from 10 to 750 guests. A £35m redevelopment, completed in April 2007 has boosted the facilities to include two new grandstands, the Earl of Derby and Lord Sefton, with bright conference and banqueting facilities, as well as 3,700sq m of exhibition space. Even when there’s no racing, it’s an atmospheric place with the sun streaming across the course to the grandstands. There’s plenty of accommodation in the area too.
For further information, contact the Liverpool Conference Bureau.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2008.