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There has never been a better time to hold events in Wales. Annica Wainwright reports on a hive of activity around Cardiff, while Anna Longmore checks out the country’s scenic North
We’re all guilty of overlooking things that are right on our doorstep. Countless Londoners never find time for the museums or theatres and you’d be surprised just how many English people have never set foot in Wales. Go on: try a show of hands in your office. We bet you’ll find colleagues who have yet to go – even if a trip was ‘always on the list of things to do’. By the same token, it’s pretty safe to expect that those who have visited our Celtic cousins in the west have also been back many times. Now, this may sound like a cliché, but we really think Wales is a contender for Britain’s best-kept secret. Serving up scenery that’s just as stunning as that found in Scotland and Ireland, this is arguably an even more exotic country, proud of its distinctive character, culture and language.
It also has a lot to offer event organisers and, for such a small country, there is an astonishing amount of choice. Rugged coastline, lush green valleys, cool modern venues, historic castles, boutique hotels, large-scale conference resorts, buzzing cities and unspoilt countryside – they’re all there, within easy reach of London.
Those who remember to bring £5.40 for the toll booth (only charged on the way into Wales) can pretty much always count on crossing the Severn Bridge within three hours, even with traffic on the M4. Even more reliable is the two-hour train from London Paddington to Cardiff, which also continues on to Swansea. For international events, note that Cardiff Airport carries flights to 60 destinations, with even more available through Bristol, an hour away.
The main focus of the next few pages is the area around Cardiff. Between city-centre venues, nearby resort hotels and activities in the Brecon Beacons and Vale of Glamorgan, it can cater to just about any event. We then leap to the top of the country to explore the stunning scenery and surprising range of venues in North Wales, skipping over the country’s central, west and south-west parts, which (although undeniably beautiful) are more appealing to the leisure market. Do, however, consider them for that inevitable return visit, be it a leisure break or indulgent incentive trip. For free advice and help with event bookings, contact Visit Wales.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Cardiff’s iconic Millennium Stadium (tel: 029 2082 2015), an opening that not only helped put the Welsh capital on the world sporting map but is also widely believed to have kick-started the city’s regeneration programme. The last decade has seen millions of pounds invested in sports, culture and event facilities across town – not least around Cardiff Bay (more of which later) – and there’s still plenty more to come.
Set for completion this summer, the new Cardiff City Stadium (tel: 07909 893971) will soon be joined by a new athletics stadium and ‘international sports village’, complete with city-centre white water rafting and a real snow ski slope. No wonder Cardiff has been named European Capital for Sport 2009! The good news for event organisers is that most of these facilities also incorporate function spaces. The Millennium Stadium’s seven hospitality/meeting suites, 124 executive boxes and 74,000 seats combine with a retractable roof to make it Europe’s largest indoor venue, one of just a few permanent structures able to host more than 1,000 guests for dinner whatever the weather – right on the pitch itself.
up space is the gleaming new SWALEC Stadium (tel: 029 2041 9314), which is also set to make cricket history as the first Welsh ground to host an Ashes match. A recent open day showcased the venue
in all its flexible glory and we could easily picture holding anything from meetings (in one of 21 boxes) to dinner-dances for 350 beneath the tall ceilings of The Indoor School here.
Much recent development has taken place 10 minutes south of the historic city centre, in the regenerated Cardiff Bay area. This was the hub of the ‘black gold’ trade 100 years ago, but, after the decline of the coal industry, it was left to decay.
Now, the mud flats have been turned into a 200ha lake – perfect for sailing and water-based teambuilding – with venues lined up along the shore. The main attraction is the five-year-old Wales Millennium Centre, a striking poetry-clad building designed to be ‘unmistakably Welsh’.
Home to seven major arts organisations, including the Welsh National Opera, it also offers plenty of options for event organisers. Dedicated function space ranges from small meeting rooms with views of Cardiff Bay through to a hospitality suite with space for 100 diners. It is sometimes also possible to hire all or part of the central foyer and the 1,897-seat Donald Gordon Theatre itself.
Elsewhere around the bay, you’ll find unusual event spaces at the quaint Norwegian Church (tel: 029 2045 4899), the science discovery centre Techniquest (tel: 029 2047 5475) and The Doctor Who Up Close Exhibition (tel: 029 2048 9257). But few can beat the views afforded by the function rooms within The St David’s Hotel & Spa, which overlooks the Mermaid Quay leisure development and the other Cardiff Bay venues.
Cardiff City centre is set around the walls of Castell Caerdydd (Cardiff Castle, tel: 029 2087 8100), where groups can soak up 2,000 years of history on a premium Curator Tour. Although the foundations date back to Roman times, the mock-Medieval fantasy that stands here today was largely created by eccentric architect William Burges for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who in the 1860s was among the richest men in the world.
He spared no expense on the opulent interiors in rooms like the mural-clad Banqueting Hall, where it is possible to hold formal dinners for up to 100 guests.
Larger groups will have to look across the lawns to the castle’s new Interpretation Centre, where guests can spill out onto a roof terrace with views of the keep.
Just up the road is Cardiff City Hall (tel: 029 2087 1736). Its imposing exterior hides a wide range of functional meeting rooms alongside much grander reception space in the Marble Hall and Assembly Room, the latter seating 500 for dinner. The venue works closely with next-door neighbour National Museum Cardiff (tel: 029 2039 7951), where you can entertain against the backdrop of one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings outside Paris. The galleries here can seat up to 310 diners or hold 400 for stand-up receptions.
Central Cardiff is also home to most of the city’s big-name hotels and nightspots. We particularly like the Welsh outpost of Tiger Tiger (tel: 029 2039 1944), where the club, restaurant and four bars serve up great-value food and drink alongside impressive event space. The Round Room VIP area can take up to 160 guests, while smaller groups can be let loose on one of six Lucky Voice karaoke pods, set around a separate bar. Later this summer, the upstairs Medina Bar will become Groovy Wonderland, complete with psychedelic 70s decor and a private booth with its own LED dance floor.
Think Wales and you’ll probably think action sports like white water rafting, coasteering, abseiling and zip-wiring but the South-East also offers more genteel activities – with plenty of choice for organisers looking to surprise their groups. Did you know, for instance, that the Vale of Glamorgan (just 15 minutes’ drive from Cardiff city centre) is home to an award-winning winery? At Llanerch Vineyard (tel: 01443 225877) in Hensol, groups of up to 40 can enjoy a tutored wine-tasting ahead of lunch or dinner in the onsite restaurant Calon, where Michelin-starred chef Hywel Jones consults on menus. Tours are also available at the Penderyn Distillery (tel: 01685 810650) in the Brecon Beacons.
Wales is also something of a dark horse when it comes to golf. The fact that the country’s 200-plus courses include some of the best championship-standard links in the world is something in-the-know enthusiasts have managed to keep to themselves for some time. Those looking for big-name courses are also well catered for – especially in the South-East. The star of the moment is the purpose-built Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor, which is set to host next year’s Ryder Cup.
The Newport resort is home to a further two championship golf courses, plus a fantastic range of event spaces. Golfers will particularly enjoy the 300-capacity Chairman’s Marquee, which overlooks the 18th green of the Roman Road course, and the stunning Usk Valley views from the 96-capacity private dining room within the new Twenty Ten Clubhouse, where Rafters restaurant caters well for smaller parties. Golf clinics and corporate packages, including ‘Beat the Pro’ competitions, are of course also available.
It’s a similar story at the Vale Hotel Golf & Spa Resort, just west of Cardiff, where two championship courses include the Wales National. The 650-acre estate has also teamed up with HCE Adventure (tel: 029 2089 2999) to offer a wide range of teambuilding activities. Quad-biking, clay pigeon shooting and archery can all be done onsite, but the company’s MD Nick Lyons recommends a treasure-hunt style Land Rover Challenge, where groups head out into the surrounding countryside in search of clues, perhaps ending up at a castle for dinner.
According to Patricia Crimp of Cardiff & Co, you’d have to look far and wide for a more magical setting than Caerphilly Castle (tel: 029 2088 3143). ‘It’s spectacular.’ she says. ‘It’s beautifully lit up at night and you can welcome guests with drummers on the drawbridge that leads across the moat. For a gala dinner, you could do Champagne in the Great Hall and put a marquee in the courtyard.’
Celtic Manor Resort
It’s hard to do this giant resort justice in a small review so, to save words, let’s just call it an event organiser’s dream. Between three championship golf courses, two spas and a massive convention centre – not to mention a great range of restaurants and 1,400 acres of parkland – this five-star has just about everything you’ll ever need. 4x4 driving? Tick. Separate crew accommodation? Tick. Seating for 1,200 delegates or 900 diners? Tick and tick. Add to this a high-spec AV system and well-drilled events team and you’ve got yourself a winner. Heck, they even throw in free national phone calls on top of the free Wi-Fi. Our favourite function space is the vast rooftop garden with built-in BBQ and bar. Now, if only they’d spruce up those chintzy bedrooms…
Coldra Woods, Newport, Gwent, NP18 1HQ, tel: 01633 410252, squaremeal.co.uk/celtic
BR:400 FR:46 M:1,500 D:800 R:1,500
Hilton Hotel Cardiff
We never really expect to be blown away by a Hilton hotel (the chain is too reliably uniform for that), but that’s also part of the appeal to many event bookers. Simply put, you know what you’re going to get and anything on top of that will be a bonus. As Cardiff’s most central five-star, this property’s main selling point is its fantastic location – at the top of the high street, right between the Castle and City Hall. It also employs some of the friendliest, most helpful staff we came across during our stay in Wales. A top tip here is to book executive rooms so delegates can make use of the business lounge, which has fantastic views. All event space is otherwise located at ground level and is functional rather than thrilling. The presidential suite is lovely.
Kingsway, Cardiff CF10 3HH, tel: 029 2064 6314
BR:197 FR:6 M:350 D:290 R:300
Mercure Holland House Hotel & Spa Cardiff
If you’re expecting delegates to need their own office space during your conference, look no further than this city-centre four star, where even standard rooms have almost suite-like proportions. It also has a good few spacious meeting rooms, with the Balmoral (Cardiff’s largest city-centre hotel function space) seating 710 theatre-style. The location, on a busy thoroughfare, isn’t particularly scenic but rooms on the upper floors have attractive city views and the hotel is easy to find if you’re driving into town. There’s a large parking garage just over the road and the main shopping streets and attractions are a short walk away (as is the train station). Those puzzled by the Scottish room names should note that this was once a Macdonald Hotel.
24-26 Newport Road, Cardiff CF24 0DD, tel: 029 2043 5000
BR:165 FR:15 M:710 D:624 R:1,000
The Parc Hotel
The Parc dropped the Thistle part of its moniker following an £11m refit, but while the new interiors are gorgeous – a successful marriage of Victorian features and modern furnishings – there is no mistaking that this is still very much a chain hotel. Service is far from hot, there’s no real personality to the place and even suites come with cheap own-brand toiletries (and no robes or slippers). The city-centre location is fantastic though, and with views of the high street from most bedrooms, it should at least prove popular with the shoppers in your group. Free Wi-Fi is another boon for business travellers and the function rooms are very attractive; many are even fitted with well-stocked bars. Our favourite is the wood-panelled space on the ground floor.
Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3UD, tel: 0871 376 9011
BR:138 FR:8 M:300 D:180 R:300
Park Plaza Cardiff
With a number one rating on Tripadvisor and a bagful of gleaming awards, the Park Plaza may be Cardiff’s most popular leisure hotel but it doesn’t cater quite so well to event business. Sure enough, there’s a decent range of space – the smaller meeting rooms are particularly attractive – but the main function suite lacks natural daylight and, while nicely decorated, feels a bit like an afterthought. The main focus of attention is instead on the Laguna Kitchen & Bar, where hotel guests mix with a dedicated throng of local fans. There are some lovely booths for informal drinks parties but these can sadly not be booked so it’s a case of first come, first served. Wi-Fi is free throughout and the hotel also houses Cardiff’s largest city-centre gym.
Greyfriars Road, CF10 3AL, tel: 029 2011 1111
BR:129 FR:5 M:123 D:150 R:250
The St David’s Hotel & Spa
Perched right on the edge of Cardiff Bay, with stunning views over Mermaid Quay, the Wales Millennium Centre and out across the freshwater lake, the five-star St David’s is without doubt the most impressive hotel in town. Why else would Madonna have chosen to stay here when she last played Cardiff? A recent change of ownership has brought a drop in service standards but the hotel’s facilities are still second to none. All bedrooms have private balconies and the entire building is swathed in floor-to-ceiling windows, bringing those fantastic vistas inside. Two sizeable event suites each come with their own generous pre-function areas and there’s also an attractive range of smaller meeting rooms. The spa, too, is a highlight.
Havannah Street, Cardiff, CF10 5SD, tel: 029 2045 4045, squaremeal.co.uk/davids
BR:132 FR:8 M:270 D:220 R:350
Vale Hotel Golf & Spa Resort,
We weren’t surprised to hear that the All Blacks, Arsenal and Man Utd have all stayed at the Vale. The sports facilities at this resort hotel, handily located just 15 minutes from Cardiff, are really impressive. Set in 650 acres, it serves up two championship golf courses, a sizeable gym and Wales’s largest spa alongside tennis and squash courts, plus a 3,000sq indoor arena that can also be used for exhibitions, award ceremonies and other large events. The main house has a further 10 function rooms – all featuring natural daylight and attractive views. We particularly like the masculine Board Room and spacious (700-capacity) Castle Suite, which overlooks Hensol Castle, where a luxury boutique sister hotel is due to open in 2010.
Hensol Park, Hensol, Vale of Glamorgan, CF72 8JY, tel: 01443 667800,
BR:143 FR:13 M:1,000 D:800 R:1,000+
Glassy lakes, snow-capped peaks and verdant hills rolling down to pristine beaches. It’s not New Zealand. In fact, it’s not even as far-flung as Scotland or Ireland. It’s North Wales – just three hours from London, and not a plane ticket in sight. And for those who want to do more than just admire the view, Snowdonia and the coast present myriad opportunities for high-octane fun.
Set on a tiny peninsula at the top of Wales, a few miles north of Snowdonia, Llandudno is the region’s largest town and is most famous as a classic Victorian seaside resort. The Victorians certainly knew a good spot when they saw one. Llandudno is blessed with stunning raw materials: two beaches – a graceful sweep of sand and a wilder, rockier bay – and a vast limestone headland, the Great Orme, which has almost 360-degree sea views across to the Wirral peninsula, the Welsh mountains and Anglesey. The natural beauty of the setting far outweighs the appeal of any of the tourist attractions, but the town does offer plenty of restaurants and hotels – as well as the purpose-built Venue Cymru.
Located at one end of promenade, the seafront convention centre cuts a sleek modern figure against the elegant Victorian architecture. A recent £10.7m cash injection has rejuvenated the 7,000sq m
of exhibition and conference space, ranging from a 1,500-seater auditorium and 1,800-capacity arena to 20 smaller meeting rooms and ample breakout space. The venue is bright, clean and efficiently
run, but it’s the location and sea views that really make it stand out.
Sidestep the faded old guesthouses for the town’s hipper new arrivals. In neighbouring Deganwy, The Quay (tel: 01492 564100) is a slick, modern 74-bedroom hotel on the waterfront with sea views and great leisure facilities. In Llandudno itself, well-heeled holidaymakers have been heading to The Empire (tel: 01492 860555), at the foot of the Great Orme, for decades – but its sister townhouse properties, Osborne House (tel: 01492 860330) and 72 Church Walks (tel: 01492 860555) have a more boutique-y charm and characterful antique-filled suites. Meanwhile, nearby Escape (tel: 01492 877776) might occupy an elegant Victorian villa but a funky modern theme runs through its nine bedrooms.
If you’ve made the journey to north Wales from London, chances are you’re here to tackle the mountains, lakes and coastline. For adventurous corporate groups, the Snowdonia National Park – described by the Rough Guide as ‘the most dramatic and alluring region in Wales’ – is a vast, mountainous playground. Walking, mountain-biking, scrambling and rock climbing are the most popular ways to get to grips with the rugged landscape and with 840sq m of park to play with, there are routes for every level of ability.
For organised activities and bigger groups, the largest multi-activity centre in the region is the National Mountain Centre, Plas y Brenin, (tel: 01690 720214) at the base of Mount Snowdon, a beautifully positioned and expertly run facility which regularly hosts residential team multi-activity programmes for the likes of Asda, Lloyds TSB and Reuters. There’s a stunning private lake, a forest, an artificial ski slope, indoor climbing walls and a canoe-rolling pool on-site as well as accommodation for 72 and event spaces for up to 100. The centre runs a free shuttle service from Llandudno Junction station. For coastal activities, head for the Menai Straits between the Isle of Angelsey and the mainland. Plas Menai (tel: 01248 670964) is the National Centre for Watersports and serves up a gamut of water-based activities, from kayaking and coasteering to dinghy sailing and regattas.
Catering and pleasant accommodation for groups can be arranged on-site or further afield and the corporate-savvy team are happy to tailor-make itineraries. Alternatively, enlist the services of a destination management company who can do the legwork for you. Adventure North Wales (tel: 0845 365 4265) is a useful one-stop shop for an itinerary of activities and accommodation.
The Trearddur Bay Hotel
You’re in blissfully remote territory at this medium-sized family-run hotel on the beautiful west coast of Anglesey. Don’t be fooled by its leisure-orientated appearance; as well as 40 well-appointed bedrooms, there’s a self-contained meeting centre which counts a great sea-view conference space among its facilities. With a gamut of watersports and outdoor pursuits on offer, it’s the ideal spot for activity breaks.
Lon Isallt, Trearddur Bay, Isle of Anglesey, LL65 2UN, tel: 01407 860301,
BR:40 FR:4 M:160 D:140 R:160
Tre-ysgawen Hall Country House Hotel & Spa
A short drive inland from the east coast of Anglesey, this well-run country house hotel is perfectly set up for residential conferencing. The spa, in a converted stable block, includes a good-sized gym, elegant swimming pool and a range of good-value treatments, while six attractive event spaces can hold up to 200 for meetings. Outdoor pursuits are offered through the hotel’s specialist partner.
Capel Coch, Llangefni, Isle of Anglesey,
LL77 7UR, tel: 01248 750750,
BR:29 FR:6 M:200 D:120 R:250
Still a relatively recent arrival in Deganwy marina, this large modern hotel occupies a plum seafront position with views stretching across the estuary to Conwy Castle. With 74 comfortable bedrooms and ample space in both dedicated rooms and the breezy restaurant, it’ll suit large corporate groups looking for a base
in the area. Other highlights include the excellent leisure facilities – a comprehensive spa and health club – as well as a handful of lovely penthouse rooms.
Deganwy Quay, Deganwy, Conwy, LL31 9DJ, tel: 01492 564100, squaremeal.co.uk/quay
BR:74 FR:3 M:100 D:50 R:120
Soughton Hall Hotel
Formerly a Bishop’s Palace, this striking 18th-century hall set in pretty gardens and parkland is now an independently run hotel. It’s a well-loved property and attention to detail is evident throughout, particularly in the beautifully furnished bedrooms, decorated in a range of traditional and modern styles. Event spaces, including the main house library and a marquee in the grounds, are ideal for entertaining – the hotel lends itself particularly to groups on incentive trips – and all sorts of activities can be arranged nearby.
Northop, Flintshire CH7 6AB, tel: 01352 840811, squaremeal.co.uk/soughton
BR:15 FR:4 M:300 D:200 R:300
Bodysgallen Hall Hotel
Ideally positioned between the North Wales coast and Snowdonia with lovely views of both, this imposing 17th-century house sits among terraced lawns and beautifully manicured rose gardens. A well-equipped leisure complex with a 50ft pool and spa facilities complements the 15 bedrooms and cottage suites in the grounds, while meeting rooms sit in a converted stable block next to the main house. A great base for incentive groups and residential meetings.
Llandudno, LL30 1RS, tel: 01492 584466, squaremeal.co.uk/bodysgallen
BR:34 FR:5 M:40 D:50 R:60
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, summer 2009