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21 April 2014

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Venue focus - Alexandra Palace

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Alexandra Palace, Alexandra Palace Way, Wood Green, London N22 7AY

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Of all the national houses across London during the Olympic Games this summer, Holland Heineken House was hands-down the most impressive. It was at Alexandra Palace – ‘Ally Pally’ to its mates or ‘The People’s Palace’ to its elders. The Dutch took over the whole venue for the duration and received more than 130,000 visitors. There were 450 staff looking after a seamless stream of events: medal ceremonies, live broadcasts and performances from the likes of DJs Armin van Buuren and Afrojack. The music acts alone attracted crowds of 6,000-plus fans each night.  

Dedicated spaces included an athletes’ area, a reception for sponsors, a live TV studio, a ‘Fanzone’, shops and a ‘sporting experiential area’ (which to you and me means a place where you can run, jump and hit – just like the pros). There was even an indoor grandstand, set up for watching the action on the big screen.  

All of this is well and good, but why should event bookers give a damn now the capital has returned to normal? Because it was a tour de force in venue showcasing. Because, if you wanted to, you could organise something of equal proportions, even without the excuse of an occasion like the Olympics. Ally Pally’s marketing manager Charlotte Johnson makes the point: ‘Anything is possible, there is no red tape. We’re independent, meaning the venue can be exclusively branded. We want clients to come up with new and interesting ideas. We’ll try to make anything work.’ You could say flexibility is a strong point.  

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If you’ve ever been in north London on a clear day and looked further north towards the horizon, there’s a chance you’ve seen it. An impressive – some think imposing – 140-year-old structure atop a hill. Even closer, you’ll see the building boasts an enormous circular stained-glass window, part of a listed Victorian facade. And the hill on which it sits comprises the venue’s impressive 196-acre grounds. Originally built as a public centre of recreation – a role it performs today – it remains one of London’s most recognisable landmarks.  

Since opening, the venue has been hit by two fires. The on-going regeneration project, due simply to its sheer scale, has been incremental. The room-by-room regeneration has led to a characterful mix of styles. As Johnson says, there’s not much the venue can’t do. Ten thousand-person standing receptions, 500-person outdoor teambuilding activities and board meetings for 20 can all happen at the same time. And have.  

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One of V&E’s favourite examples of Alexandra Palace’s openness to grand ideas was with outré movie specialists Secret Cinema. They held an event for a screening of Lawrence of Arabia. Among the goings-on were 1,500 guests dressed in period Arab costumes and a themed market in the grounds, which were dotted with snake charmers and camels. Yes, real camels! The evening concluded with a picnic-style screening in the vast Great Hall. Harry Ross, one of SC’s producers said, ‘They had a very flexible approach and worked exceptionally hard with us to realise our creative vision.’  

Another of Alexandra Palace’s plus points is the view, which spans across the capital with only a few landmarks out of sight. To have that vantage point, though, you obviously need to be some distance away from what you’re looking at. Outside of central London, the venue’s location is a topic that Johnson regularly discusses with prospective clients.  

‘We’re ten minutes away from King’s Cross station by train and Finsbury Park [tube station] is just as quick by bus,’ she says. The Alexandra Palace train station is at the bottom of the hill and, on the organiser’s request, a shuttle service is available to these three stations. For events where guests arrive by car, there are 1,500 parking spaces available.  

If an event runs over two days or more, you have to consider accommodation. In the immediate vicinity, there’s a 300-capacity Holiday Inn. Otherwise, options abound in the King’s Cross area. There are also plans to build a three-storey hotel onsite.  

In the past, Ally Pally has focused on large-scale sporting events – the Ladbrokes World Darts Championship, for example – and concert bookings. But there is now growing demand from those looking to book conferences, AGMs, product launches and banquets, among other events. You can see why. The sheer variety of spaces makes the task of narrowing down options pleasantly difficult. The V&E team took some time to check out the main spaces for you and here’s what we found.

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The spaces

The Great Hall

As the venue’s primary event space, it is a formidable size (around 6,500sq m). And it looks impressive too. At one end, there’s that unmistakable stained-glass window, at the other, an original working Grand Willis organ (it survived the fires). The space can be used for concerts or 7,250-delegate conferences. Or you could do something like Saatchi, who built a replica of Charlotte Street – as in that real-life London street, next to Goodge Street – for an exhibition it did. Why not, eh? Splitting the space into three for multi-stage events is also a popular option. The Carphone Warehouse did a drinks-dinner-concert evening, for example. Marcus Rendle of Marcus Rendle Events, who has organised the past three events for The Carphone Warehouse, said, ‘We had the flexibility to do whatever we wanted for 9,000 people and the transport links were great. The enormity of the main room was particularly useful as everyone got the chance see the headline act.’ Rendle assures us Jamiroquai played a blinder.  

The West Hall

In terms of size, this is the next step down, with space for up to 2,500 conference delegates. The V&E team saw Mogwai play a set there during ATP’s annual I’ll Be Your Mirror event and there were significantly more people standing than that number. It works well as a central space for day-long events where you need all attendees in the same place. The Palm Court Suites, Roman Bar, Panorama Room and the Palace Suite that surround it make for good seminar or breakout spaces. Tesco did a 600-person conference and dinner-dance at the venue, moving between The West Hall for business and the adjoining Palm Court for lunch, drinks, dinner and the evening’s entertainment. Banquets are popular too, with space for up to 2,000 guests. Many of the sports fixtures are held in this space, including boxing events for up to 4,000 guests.  

Palm Court

One of the most striking parts of the building, the grand-looking Palm Court is the venue’s main entrance. The T-shaped concourse area is a popular choice for events, with space for 2,000 standing guests. During exhibitions it is a prized position and is often reserved for headline sponsors, as guests entering the building see them first. Owing to its dimensions, it also makes a good area to hold a fashion show with a catwalk running down the middle.As demonstrated by Tesco, it works well for drinks reception too. You may not notice it at first but above the entrance, on the inside, there’s a balcony which can be >> used either as a VIP area during parties or a stage for musicians to perform on. From the Palm Court you also have immediate access to the 170-capacity (theatre style) Londesborough Room, the smaller Palm Court suites (capacities range from 25 to 50 seated) and The Phoenix restaurant and bar.  

Panorama Room

The Panorama was originally built as temporary structure, but proved so popular – a superb vantage point, it makes the most of the venue’s location – that it has become a more permanent fixture. The rectangular room, which runs parallel to the West Corridor, will hold 800 theatre style. If you’re planning a big wedding – it’s a hit with the Asian community – this is worth a look. If the weather’s good, you’ll be interested in the Panorama Terrace. It holds just as many people and the view is obviously better. The South Terrace, directly in front of the Panorama Room is a great spot for a drinks reception before an evening’s banqueting indoors.  

The Roman Bar

Just off The West Hall and complete with its own fully-equipped bar, this is a handy space if you need a VIP area, media room or backstage area. It can also work as a breakout space for conferences held in The West Hall. There’s space for 70 seated or 200 standing guests in.  

West Corridor

If you’re looking for somewhere for a stand-alone event, you may not immediately think of the venue’s main thoroughfare, but the West Corridor does make for a quirky space to hold long-table banquets. After dinner, you could move guests through to the Panorama Room for drinks and late-night dancing. Don’t forget to book the adjoining Panorama Terrace if yours is a summer event.  

The Palace Suite

A bit of a tricky one to find unless you know where you’re going, the mezzanine-level Palace Suite under The Great Hall is a quirky space for a formal or fun event. Lynx (the deodorant guys) turned the room into a bachelor’s pad – complete with bath and messy bed – to promote its new fragrance. It’s also handy as a media room or backstage area for events in The Great Hall. If you’re organising a slightly more corporate function, it works well for small (relative to the other massive rooms) conferences, holding up to 360 delegates, theatre style. The venue has a list of reliable suppliers who can install AV equipment but you have the option of using your own team too.  

The East Hall and ice rink

Home to the People’s Ice Rink, which itself can be hired out for events and will hold up to 500 guests. You could combine drinks in the Ice Bar with a lesson on skates, followed by another activity in the East Hall’s working dance studio space.   The Gardens With nearly 200 acres of parkland to play with, you should have space to hold any teambuilding events you can dream up, especially as you’ll find a golf course and boating lake in the grounds. Oh, and you’ll obviously need plenty of space to park those conference camels.  

The Theatre

The venue’s atmospheric Victorian Theatre is one of the spaces yet to be renovated – and is therefore unavailable for events at the moment. But English Heritage has granted £320,000 towards the cost of its renovation. So cool is its shabby chic-style space that Take That used it as the set for one of their music videos. We’ll keep you posted on when it’ll be ready for hire.

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