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28 July 2014

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Take a bow: arts hospitality

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The days of ‘dinner and a show’ are over. Nowadays, arts venues are pulling out all the stops to give corporate groups the VIP experience. From backstage tours to edible viewings, we’ve found some of the best this autumn. 

Punch Drunk National Theatre - 1309_Arts_Hospitality_Punchdrunk_(credit_Birgit_Ralf).jpg

With nearly 90 million people attending performances, exhibitions and film screenings in the Arts Council’s portfolio alone, and music, visual and performing arts contributing over £4b a year to the national economy, demand for entertainment is more than healthy. Even during the recession, theatre tickets were flying out of box offices, and music arenas were full to the rafters. Standard tickets can go for not much short of hospitality ones and although some argue that theatre and film don’t lend themselves naturally to corporate entertaining, partnered with the likes of backstage tours and interactive experiences, they are becoming some of the most popular on the market. 

Behind the scenes

Getting backstage seems to be a growing hit. Head of hospitality and events at the National Theatre (tel: 020 7452 3999) Charley Taylor-Smith has noticed a change of expectations when it comes to booking hospitality tickets. ‘Recent trends have shown clients want more from their events these days. Corporate entertainment needs to have that little bit extra and event bookers often want to know how we can entertain their guests, as much as what we are going to feed them.’

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Celebrating its 50th birthday this October, this British arts industry stalwart shows no signs of slowing down – it just had £68m pumped into it for its current revamp. And alongside the theatre package on offer, groups can also enjoy backstage tours for a small additional cost. Lasting up to one hour and 15 minutes, the tours are also a good shout for away-days or after a conference at on-site venue The Deck (tel: 020 7452 3931), and can be suited to a group’s interests, be it in a particular NT-affiliated theatre or the impressive costume department.

Royal Albert Hall (tel: 020 7959 0607) is also offering something pretty special. For a maximum of 20 people, backstage tours of Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam, (4 January to 9 February 2014) will give guests exclusive access before and after the show to areas that are normally restricted to the public. The venue’s chief operations officer, Jasper Hope, explains their appeal: ‘There’s always a fascination with how the shows at the hall are put together, and this tour goes above and beyond anything we’ve ever offered before.’

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The package includes a guided tour, a tête-a-tête with the crew, a private box, and you’ll be well fed and watered. You’ll even meet the performers after the show – all for just £100 on top of your hospitality tickets. Go the whole-hog and opt for the 12-seat Grand Tier Box.

In the thick of it

Immersive events make for great talking points, and with more popping up all over the capital it would be a crime to miss the most talked-about this year. Combining dance, music and theatre, Punchdrunk (tel: 020 3475 4285) productions take masked audiences through multi-storey venues, and its current production The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is its most ambitious yet.

Set in former sorting office Temple Studios, shows are available to book for groups of up to nine (through The National Theatre). The company also offers bespoke events, with groups able to arrange talks with artistic director Felix Barratt on the set itself. Corporate clients can even book a private show and follow it with a party. We’ve been to one: it was raucous.

Punch Drunk National Theatre - 1310_Arts_Hospitality_Punchdrunk_(credit_Birgit_Ralf).jpg

Meanwhile, the ICA (tel: 020 7766 1432) is offering groups the chance to hold events in a piece of contemporary art. From 16 October until 22 December the venue’s theatre will be transformed by Chinese artist Zhang Enli into his new work ‘Space Painting’. Groups of up to 250 can enjoy a drinks party in the installation.

Get involved

Interactivity adds another dimension to arts events. Soho House and Teatime Production’s Edible Cinema is as much a culinary experience as it is a viewing one.

Whether it’s an art-house classic or a recent picture, each viewing held in Electric Cinema (tel: 020 7908 9696) or Aubin Cinema (tel: 0845 604 8486) is accompanied by a selection of numbered boxes which viewers are prompted to open during specific scenes – Some Like it Hot sees audiences swigging pineapple and passion fruit soup garnished with celery salt out of oysters in reference to Shell oil. Pre-selected screenings include the likes of Withnail & I (let’s hope drinks aren’t compulsory), or you can choose a film of your own liking. Prices start at £48.50pp, based on a full house.

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Set the scene

With the likes of Future Cinema hosting sell-out extravaganzas, as well as being available for private bookings, themed film events may not be new, but they’re certainly popular. The countdown for the Oscars 2014 is already past the halfway mark so it’s a great time of year to look for potential award-winners.

Former garment factory turned arts centre Rich Mix (tel: 020 7613 7495) has held themed screenings such as a 20s-style party alongside The Great Gatsby and a black tie cocktail evening to accompany Skyfall. Its three purpose-built screening rooms can hold up to 181 guests, and with an events team to hand, all you have to do is choose between a new blockbuster or an old classic. We reckon Pulp Fiction would go down an absolute treat.

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Up close 

UK gallery visitor figures are at the highest level since records began, so private views are a fail-safe way of entertaining. We recently popped over to The Victoria and Albert Museum (tel: 020 7942 2888) for one of Mastercard’s Priceless Nights to see its exhibition, ‘Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s’. Greeted with prosecco and mango cocktails and canapés such as lamb skewers and goats’ cheese tartlets, we joined 250 prize winners to take over the museum’s fashion galleries – our favourite piece was a denim jacket covered in gold hair pins (trust us, it was glorious). Showing until February next year, the collection includes designs from Vivienne Westwood and the space even has an 80s dance area. The exhibition can be hired exclusively for groups alongside a drinks reception with tour guides on hand.

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Plans are already underway for the Southbank Centre’s (tel: 020 7921 0702) redevelopment and this autumn may be one of the last chances to see the Hayward Gallery before it undergoes a revamp. One of the newest exhibitions on offer, photographer Dayanita Singh’s ‘Go Away Closer’, is available Monday to Wednesday for private views alongside drinks receptions.

Look out for...

  • The Book of Mormon (ongoing) at the Prince of Wales Theatre – the fastest-selling musical London’s West End has ever seen.
  •  Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (14 Nov-4 Feb) at the National Portrait Gallery – portraits by exciting new photographers.
  • Pop Art Design (22 Oct-9 Feb) at The Barbican – more than 200 works from the likes of Peter Blake and Andy Warhol.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (ongoing) at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – the brand new musical directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes.
  • Romeo and Juliet (19 Oct-17 Dec) at the Royal Opera House – a 20th-century classic performed by The Royal Ballet.

Arts caterers

Whitechapel Gallery

  • Angela Hartnett's Smart Hospitality

Southbank Centre

London Film Museum 

The British Museum

  • Zafferano

The ICA 


This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, autumn 2013.


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