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Set beneath a Victorian railway viaduct and just a stone’s throw from historic Borough Market, Vinopolis is riding the wave of Bankside’s cultural boom. Karen Doyle takes a look around
In a city where ‘grand old dame’ buildings greet you at every turn, the sleek and stylish Vinopolis could be viewed as a relative newcomer. Yet even here, evidence of London’s history is everywhere – from the surrounding cobbled streets and Dickensian-era pubs, to the venue itself, which has been built into soaring raw-brick arches dating back to 1866.
Founder Duncan Vaughn-Arbuckle first stumbled across the deserted site in the 1990s – then just a series of grungy tunnels beneath a rumbling railway line, more likely to house abandoned machinery than an airy venue dedicated to everyone’s favourite tipple. His vision was to create an attraction where visitors learn about wine in a fun and informal setting, without the stuffiness often associated with oenological connoisseurs.
Vinpolis opened in 1999. And while the tourist-aimed wine tours didn’t quite take off as planned (they were a gruelling four hours long), the attraction’s events arm flourished. Party planners The Ultimate Experience saw the venue’s potential straight away. ‘We immediately viewed Vinopolis as a prime location for corporate events,’ recalls Guy Rodger, the agency’s managing director at the time. ‘We did a big event for Saatchi & Saatchi at the venue soon after it opened, followed by the first of several highly successful Christmas party seasons.’
Fast forward to 2008, and the popularity of the private events business has comfortably overtaken that of the day-to-day wine tours. The venue’s Christmas parties have now been taken in-house, but they’re still renowned for being among the best in the market, with cool, contemporary themes such as 2007’s popular ‘Freeze’ and the colourful ‘Circus’ concept for the 2008 season. This year has also seen the arrival of Rupert Ellwood from a successful term at the Natural History Museum, and the new managing director has already made his presence felt.
‘In the last couple of months we’ve completely changed our booking procedure,’ says Ellwood. ‘Now, instead of liaising with a sales person and then being handed over to the events side, clients are looked after by one person from beginning to end.’
Of course, the venue’s upgrade programme is constant – with spaces this well-used, it has to be – but the most recent changes have been more significant than a lick of paint. Along with the Great Halls, the Gallery now benefits from a state-of-the-art lighting system, which enables organisers to enliven events with flexible, multiple-coloured backdrops reflecting from the venue’s high walls.
While the range of spaces at Vinopolis can accommodate just about any style of event, each has an identity of its own. The largest of these, the 800-capacity Great Halls, is used most regularly for dinner dances, product launches and wine tastings. Indeed, for the last two years they’ve accommodated Square Meal’s own ‘Round the World’ wine tasting event. The space benefits from its own entrance and foyer, while the attached Academia room, which has windows overlooking the Halls, makes an ideal overflow space or VIP area.
Laura Davies, Square Meal’s event manager, said: ‘Having out-grown our original central City site, we needed to find a large venue that our Square Mile-based readers would still pitch up to. Vinopolis was an obvious ‘ready-themed’ option, but we were initially concerned about it being south of the river. However, we needn’t have worried, as the venue’s close proximity to London Bridge makes it very accessible, and the event continues to grow in its new home.’
The venue’s other primary spaces are the Mezzanine; a striking, industrial-style room with oak flooring, high ceilings and natural daylight that can accommodate a theatre-style conference for 400, a dinner cabaret or glamorous fashion show with equal ease.
There’s also the Gallery, a cool white space suited to temporary exhibitions, smaller conferences or cocktail receptions. Meetings can also be accommodated for up to 50 delegates in the intimate, light-flooded Vineyard room, as well as in Merlot and Malbec, two smaller boardrooms, which can each hold ten people.
‘Anyone can hire a nondescript meeting room in a hotel,’ says Ellwood. ‘At Vinopolis, each space has its own character, and the great thing is you can use them in isolation or a combination of rooms equally successfully.’ Regular clients agree. ‘The rooms are all a bit different, a bit more interesting than other places,’ says Linda Baythoon, events manager for the Group IT Marketing and Communications department at Lloyds TSB. She recently organised a conference for 220 in the Mezzanine, with a reception afterward in the Great Halls, but has also used the Odyssey Rooms in the past. Meanwhile, electronics giant Samsung recently held a conference in the Mezzanine, served refreshments in the Great Halls, and created an internet/chill-out area in Academia. ‘It was great because delegates could get away for a bit between sessions,’ says Kai Buckle, event sales manager at Vinopolis.
Of course, the headline attraction at Vinopolis will always be wine, and a plethora of entertainment options are also presented by the wine tour itself, which wends its way through the Odyssey Rooms. With spaces themed around the world’s major wine-producing countries – think heraldic French flags and an Italian courtyard with parked Lambretta’s – it’s an ideal setting for pre-event drinks and cocktails parties, especially when entertaining guests from one of the featured regions. Similarly, a tasting during the wine tour is a great way to perk delegates up after a long day of meetings, or to break the ice before an evening event.
It’s also worth noting that wine is not the only tipple on offer here. The tour caninclude a diversion into other beverages – Champagne, beer and whisky, for example, or gin, in the stylish white and blue Bombay Sapphire room, where guests can enjoy taste and smell tests, or try their hand at cocktail making. The contemporary space is perfect for private cocktail parties for up to 80 guests, especially as it has its own separate entrance.
For those looking for a teambuilding activity beyond a basic wine tasting or cocktail shaking session, Vinopolis has devised an Apprentice-style Wine Blending Challenge, which requires teams to come up with a business plan for a new vineyard and then blend different grape varieties and vintages to produce a profit-yielding wine. Plans are also in the pipeline to capitalise on Vinopolis’ close proximity to Borough Market by introducing a series of food and wine matching activities, as well as cookery sessions combined with a market ingredients hunt.
‘Our teambuilding days can be fun and engaging, or more serious and results-driven,’ says Ellwood. Furthermore, the venue can arrange for various training professionals or film-based exercises for HR managers to assess new or current staff.
Guests at Vinopolis can also make use of the four on-site bars and restaurants, which are run as separate businesses but can be hired out for events: Cantina, a warmly-lit fine dining restaurant; Brew Wharf, which features its own microbrewery; Wine Wharf, a relaxed and informal wine bar; and Bar Blue, which is the stylish bar set just inside the venue’s main entrance.
Looking to the future, Ellwood, who was responsible for blowing away the cobwebs at the Natural History Museum, is keen to make events at Vinopolis more glamorous. ‘We’re brilliant at doing conferences, exhibitions and product launches,’ he says. ‘But I’d like to bring back an element of sexiness to our events. It’s a venue with so much potential – who knows, we may even hold a rock concert in the Gallery one of these days.’
Midsummer Night Dinner
14 May 2008
Greeted at the door by a pair of stilt-walkers wreathed in flowers, keeping with the Midsummer Night theme, we were taken through to the magnificent Great Halls for pre-dinner drinks and canapés. A particularly nice touch, especially for those arriving solo, was to use the dinner seating plan as a basis for gathering together groups of guests for pre-dining drinks: a clever and unintimidating way of facilitating introductions.
Following some delicious canapés (the stand-out definitely being sea scallops flash-roasted in sesame and teriyaki), the curtains were lifted between the two halls to reveal a strikingly designed dining space, which worked seamlessly with the new lighting system, picking out delicate mauve and amber colour themes. Philippe Starck-esque chairs and giant wine glass floral centrepieces looked fresh and modern, contrasting well with the exposed brickwork of the vaulted ceiling and arches.
Food from the in-house catering team didn’t disappoint, with melt-in-your-mouth spring rump of lamb and a wicked chocolate trio for dessert.
The Great Halls
Big and beautiful, Vinopolis’ largest event space is ideal for receptions, exhibitions or dinner dances. Features its own foyer, cloakroom and entrance.
M: 250 D: 550 R: 800
Striking industrial space featuring solid oak flooring and plenty of natural daylight, as well as its own foyer. Ideal for conferences or dinner dances.
M: 400 D: 300 R: 450
Unique series of rooms consisting of the New World and European Odyssey tours, used for meetings, teambuilding activities, tasting events, themed catering areas or drinks receptions.
M: 80 D: 80 R: 350
Modern white space accommodating 200 for a dinner or reception. Temporary partitions make it ideal for product launches or exhibitions.
M: 150 D: 200 R: 200
Versatile, first-floor space, often used as a catering area, chill-out bar or VIP space in conjunction with the Great Halls or Mezzanine.
M: 100 D: 100 R: 200
Glam, cool-blue event space available for mixology teambuilding for 30 delegates or a stylish cocktail reception for 80.
M: - D: - R: 80
Intimate conference and meeting room with natural daylight and
up-to-date technological equipment.
M: 50 D - R: 50
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2008.