Meet in the Middle

Birmingham has thrown off the shackles of its industrial past and reinvented itself as Britain’s conference capital. If it’s not already on your events map, you really need to buy a new one


birm.jpgEngland’s second city has taken advantage of its central position and fine international connections to become the UK’s unrivalled conference destination. It has the venues, the bedrooms and the infrastructure to accommodate thousands of delegates,
and the restaurants and nightlife to keep them happy post-PowerPoint.
In the next few years, a host of fresh developments are scheduled to open up, from the long-awaited rebuild of New Street station to an avant-garde library and a cluster of hip hotels, enhancing the city’s appeal to event planners even further.
If you’re organising an event in Birmingham, or are simply scheduled to visit for a meeting or conference, our guide will show you how to make the most of the Midlands’ beating heart.

Getting around
Birmingham is big. There’s no denying that. The city and its associated sprawl form the UK’s second-largest urban area, covering 232 square miles. But don’t be scared. The part that matters – the city centre – is compact and easy to navigate, despite being scarred almost beyond redemption, first by the Luftwaffe’s bombs and then by post-war town planners.
Chances are you’ll arrive by train at New Street station. Built in 1967, it is a cramped and chaotic introduction to the city that’s in the process of being replaced in a £400m project, the first phase of which will be unveiled in 2012. It can’t happen soon enough – New Street currently handles 140,000 passengers each day, double the capacity it was designed for. When completed, the effect will be transformative, opening up the under-used area to the south of the station to pedestrians via an ultra-modern covered plaza. Until then, use New Street’s ‘back door’, the Navigation Street/Victoria Square exit, to avoid the worst of the station.
There are several distinct areas to the city centre. Key are the Convention Quarter and Brindleyplace, and the Mailbox (more accurately the ‘Mailbox and Cube’ following the construction of the dramatic Cube building). The city council is rebranding these, along with (rather randomly) the suburb of Edgbaston as ‘Westside’, but the name has yet to catch on with locals. Close by are the Colmore Business District and Jewellery Quarter and, of course, the Bullring and its surrounding sprawl of shops and gleaming shopping centres. Digbeth, home to the Custard Factory, Edgbaston and the famous Balti Triangle (the area around Sparkbrook, Balsall Heath and Moseley) are short cab rides away. Venues such as The Belfry, on the city’s periphery, are a good half-hour drive.
Assuming your movements are limited to the centre, you’ll do best to stay on foot. The Mailbox is three minutes’ walk from the station and the ICC just a 10-minute stroll from the Colmore Business District, for instance. Navigation is made easy by Birmingham’s penchant for ‘statement’ architecture. Look one way and you’ll see the BT Tower, turn the other and the Rotunda will be poking out of the Bullring. You’ll soon get the hang of things, and there’s signage on nearly every street corner.
If the thought of walking sends shivers down your spine, cabs are good value compared to London
(TOA Taxis is reliable; tel: 0121 427 8888).

CONVENTION QUARTER & BRINDLEYPLACE
Birmingham’s events hub has a venue for every occasion

Chances are you’re going to end up spendinga lot of time in the Convention Quarter – if not for its meeting and event spaces then for the bars and clubs of Broad ikon - IKON02_email.jpgStreet. The recently completed Brindleyplace development, just across the canal from the ICC, has added some much-needed style to the area, with several good restaurants and bars that lend themselves well to private parties.
Top dog, obviously, is the ICC (tel: 0121 644 5025.) This huge building, which blends into Symphony Hall, has 10 large halls and 10 smaller meeting rooms and played host to last year’s Conservative Party Conference. Over 14,000 delegates attended the main conference and 450 fringe meetings in just four days, so it’s well used to handling both large and small groups. Built in the 1980s, it is ageing particularly well and should always be on your venues and events shopping list.
A hundred yards up the canal, almost in the shade of the National Indoor Arena, is IET Birmingham Austin Court (tel: 0121 600 7500, squaremeal.co.uk/austin). A restored metal and nail merchants, this historic Grade-II listed Georgian redbrick building has 16 rooms of various sizes (taking up to 150 for a meeting or reception), including the tiered 150-seat Kingston Theatre. It’s a good call for weddings as well as meetings.
Brindleyplace, a new development of offices, restaurants and bars, is reached by braving the unholy trinity of All Bar One, Slug & Lettuce and Pitcher & Piano just over the canal from the ICC. There are a few good venues for parties here, such as the Ikon Gallery (tel: 0121 248 0708), with two floors, each of which can handle 150 people, plus smaller meetings rooms; Piccolino (tel: 0121 634 3055), a restaurant with private dining for up to 60; and the stylish Nuvo (tel: 0121 631 1600) bar and nightclub, opposite the Mint Hotel. The National Sea Life Centre (tel: 0121 767 3329) also makes for an unusual venue for up to 500 guests, not least due to its two hammerhead sharks. Event production and canapés, fishy or otherwise, are provided by Amadeus, part of the NEC Group.

Sleep & Eat 

Mint Hotel
Designed with the business traveller very much in mind, the Mint Hotel (previously City Inn) sits on the edge of Brindleyplace. The bar and outside terrace area are currently being refurbished, and the City Café is well regarded. All rooms come with an iMac multi-media entertainment system but more importantly (for those who loathe sleeping in air-conditioned cells) the windows actually open!
1 Brunswick Square, Brindleyplace, B1 2HW, tel: 0121 643 1003, squaremeal.co.uk/mint-b
BR:238  FR:5  M:120  D:140  R:120 

Hyatt Regency
Location, location, location… The Hyatt Regency’s can’t be beat, assuming you’re attending a conference in the ICC (they’re connected by an enclosed footbridge). As well as 319 bedrooms, the hotel has a small pool, a beautiful spa and a restaurant, Aria, that’s highly regarded by Birmingham’s culinary cognoscenti. There’s plenty of event space, so the hotel is ideal for post-ICC functions – even the laziest and most difficult-to-herd delegates won’t have an excuse not to make it across the road.
2 Bridge Street, B1 2JZ, tel: 0121 643 1234
BR:319  FR:11  M:240  D:200  R:300 

Edmunds
Local boy Andy Waters’ Brindleyplace restaurant, three minutes’ walk from the ICC, is designed with the conference crowd firmly in mind. It’s ideal for business
lunches and the 42-cover room can be
hired exclusively for groups of 30-plus.
The food’s first-rate, too.
6 Brindleyplace, B1 2JB, tel 0121 633 4944
FR:1 M:- D:42  R:50 

Bank
Bank Birmingham (there’s a second one in London) has a prime location in the Brindleyplace development. It’s a good call for summer parties, with a large terrace looking out across the water. Its two private dining rooms can be combined to create a single space for up to 100 guests. Slick and stylish, it’s definitely one to check out.
4 Brindleyplace, B1 2JB, tel 0121 633 4466
FR:2  M:100  D:100  R:200 

Loves 
If you’re planning a summer cocktail party, check out Loves on Canal Square, just
west of Brindleyplace. It has an outside
area overlooking a canal hub packed with longboats and a very capable kitchen. There’s a private dining room for eight, though the interior can’t compete with expensively designed places like Bank.
The Glasshouse, Canal Square,
B16 8FL, tel 0121 454 5151
FR:1  M:-  D:40  R:80 

KEY: BR= no. of bedrooms; FR= no. of function rooms; M= meeting capacity; D= dinner capacity; R=reception capacity

THE MAILBOX & THE CUBE
You’ll find plenty of events options in these striking city centre developments

birm - 13ch0810-189.jpgA pleasant five-minute canalside walk from the Convention Quarter, and just three minutes from New Street station, the Mailbox is an award-winning shopping-and-office complex that also happens to contain Birmingham’s Malmaison hotel (the chain’s largest; see box below). From an events point of view, there are plenty of options. The Mal, of course, has stylish meeting and function space, but there are also several of the ‘usual suspects’ chain restaurants overlooking the canal that lend themselves to private parties (Café Rouge, Bar Epernay, Bar Room Bar and a new Miller & Carter Steakhouse). On a hot summer’s night, consider eating at Côte’s (tel: 0121 631 1587) outside terrace, which sadly can’t be hired exclusively.
The Cube development, designed by Ken Shuttleworth, the man who sketched the Gherkin for Foster & Partners, will be opening this autumn, complete with a 52-bedroom Hotel Indigo, a luxurious spa and a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill on the 25th and top floor. The private dining room and terrace here, with great views across the city to the Convention Quarter, are likely to become the hottest event spaces in the city.
An added attraction, for drivers at least, is the Cube’s space-age car park, which parks your car for you. What won’t they think of next?

Sleep & Eat

Malmaison
Vies with the Hotel du Vin for the title of Birmingham’s most stylish hotel. Definitely the socialite’s choice – the Brasserie, majoring on modern British cuisine, is supremely cool and has private dining for up to 16 (there’s also a wine-tasting room-cum-PDR for groups of up to 10), while the award-winning bar buzzes at night. Definitely a place to head for (or after) a night of client entertainment. There are plenty of well-designed meeting and function spaces available too. 
The Mailbox, 1 Wharfside Street, B1 1RD, tel: 0121 246 5000
BR:189  FR:6  M:110  D:120  R:120

The Oriental
With its stylish décor, plum canalside location at the back of the Mailbox and crowd-pleasing pan-Asian menu encompassing anything from chicken satay to sushi, The Oriental is a great call for hosting a private function. In summer, guests will be able to spill outside, too.
The Mailbox, B1 1RQ, tel 0121 633 9988
FR:1  M:-  D:150  R:200

COLMORE BUSINESS DISTRICT AND THE JEWELLERY QUARTER
Birmingham’s most atmospheric areas are home to some of the city’s stand-out event spaces

maple - Restaurant1.jpg1.jpgFor whatever reason, the Colmore Business District and the atmospheric Jewellery Quarter largely escaped the attentions of the post-war town planners. Here you’re reminded that Birmingham has a history dating back to before the 1950s – St Paul’s Square, for instance, is a Georgian delight.
The city council optimistically describe the Colmore area, with its 12 listed buildings, as Birmingham’s ‘mini Manhattan’, which is pushing it a little, but there’s no denying there are some stylish places to eat and drink here, including the Hotel du Vin (see box) and Michelin-starred Purnell’s, which has a claim to be Brum’s finest restaurant. There’s no shortage of events venues either.
If you’re looking for a straight meetings space, Maple House (tel: 0121 212 8200, squaremeal.co.uk/maple), etc.venues’ first venture outside London, should be on your shortlist. It has 22 rooms, all with natural daylight, including five large suites that can be set up in a range of configurations and can handle meetings for up to 160 delegates. The break-out spaces are light and airy, with food created by Maple House’s own chefs. It’s lounge/bar area is a great call for Christmas parties, too, as it looks out onto Old Square, where the council plonk a huge and beautifully lit Christmas tree each year.
On the eastern edge of the business district is Aston Business School (tel: 0121 204 5330, squaremeal.co.uk/aston) which has a purpose-built conference centre and 162 en-suite rooms (and a further 600 during the July-September academic holiday). There are 24 conference and meeting rooms, a suntrap of a courtyard, as well as the Lakeside Centre, which can handle meetings for up to 250 delegates.
Up in the Jewellery Quarter, the stand-out space is St Pauls Gallery (tel: 0121 236 5800),
a leading specialist in signed album art. Its two adjoining rooms can be hired for private functions for up to 250 guests. It’s a great place for a product launch or cocktail party, though
a touch far from the city centre to walk in high heels. Just around the corner is the highly regarded restaurant, Lasan, and the brand-new 73-bedroom Bloc hotel (tel: 0121 233 3991).

Sleep & Eat

Hotel Du Vin
If you want to escape the Conference Quarter hothouse, Hotel du Vin makes perfect sense. What was once an eye hospital is now the largest hotel in the HdV chain, with 66 bedrooms, a Bistro, a bar, plus a pub in the cellar, right next to the spa. It also has one of the best party spaces in the city – a sandstone courtyard with a retractable roof and space for up to 100 standing
guests – plus several meeting rooms for groups of various sizes.
Church Street, B3 2NR, tel: 0121 200 0600
BR:66  FR:4  M:90  D:84  R:150

Opus
Purnell’s might have the Michelin star but Opus, just across the road, has the event spaces. Chef-director David Colcombe, who cut his teeth at Bank in Brindleyplace, serves up perfectly balanced, unfussy dishes with seasonal ingredients sourced from award-winning suppliers. The huge, cleverly designed private dining room can be sub-divided into three smaller spaces and smaller groups of up to eight can take the chef’s table, right in the thick of things. Despite having its eye firmly on the corporate market, Opus manages to retain
a refreshingly personal touch.
54 Cornwall Street, B3 2DE, tel: 0121 200 2323
FR:3  M:64  D:120  R:250

Purnell’s
Birmingham’s most famous chef, Glynn Purnell, may be burdened with the moniker ‘Yummie Brummie’, but his food is serious, Michelin-starred, stuff. The 45-cover restaurant is suitably glamorous, with a glass-walled private dining room for 10.
54 Cornwall Street, B3 2DH,
tel: 0121 212 9799
FR:2  M:-  D:37  R:70

Lasan
Since being named Britain’s best local restaurant on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, getting a table at this contemporary Indian in the atmospheric Jewellery Quarter has become nigh-on impossible. There’s no private space, but the food and service are exemplary, so great for entertaining clients. Chef-director Aktar Islam has recently branched out into event catering too.
3-4 Dakota Buildings, James Street, St Paul’s Square, B3 1SD, tel 0121 212 3664
FR:2  M:20  D:90  R:150

Asha’s
Till the arrival of Lasan, Asha Bhosle’s eponymous restaurant was the city’s first choice for Indian food. If you’re organising an event, it still is: there’s space for 190 seated or 300 standing, and there are private dining rooms for smaller groups.
Edmund House, 12-22 Newhall Street,
B3 3LX, tel: 0121 200 2767
FR:2  M:40  D:190  R:300

BULLRING, CENTRAL & DIGBETH 
Several of Birmingham’s most appealing venues can be found within a stone’s throw of New Street Station

bullring - Bullring_-_Bull.jpgBirmingham’s Bullring complex started life in the 12th century as a cattle market. Today, cows are one of the few things you can’t buy here. Shops and chain restaurants dominate the city centre, but there are some great event spaces to be found.
St Martin’s in the Bullring (tel: 0121 767 3329) is just 100 or so yards from the famous Selfridges building. There’s been a church in situ since the cattle market opened, but the current structure dates from the 1800s and its wonderfully Gothic architecture makes it one of the most dramatic venues in the city. With space for up to 400 standing or 300 to dine, it’s well used to hosting corporate sit-down dinners and cocktail parties, and there are two meeting rooms in the most modern part of the church as well.
Set in the oppressive shadow of New Street station, the Electric (tel: 0121 643 7879) is the UK’s oldest working cinema. An Art Deco delight, it has two screens (seating 108 and 78 respectively) and a bar and lounge area for private dining and drinks receptions.
A short walk east from the Bullring, the city’s science museum, Thinktank at Millennium Point (tel: 0121 202 2333) is a high-tech venue
that is home to the world’s oldest working steam engine, among other exhibits. There
are a variety of different events spaces, including a huge 360-seat IMAX cinema, a 70-seat planetarium with projection kit that would shame NASA, the 170-seat Thinktank Theatre and an exhibition hall that has hosted Her Majesty the Queen for a sit-down beanfeast. The stand-out space has to be the Hub and Atrium, though – a cathedral of gleaming steel and glass. For meetings, consider the Event Suite, which has its own entrance and can be divided into three separate rooms. 
South of the Bullring and New Street station (either 600 or 800 paces away, its forgetful management company claims) is the Custard Factory (tel: 0121 200 0910), five acres of converted warehouses and factory buildings that once churned out Bird’s Custard. It’s now home to a host of small businesses, many with an artsy or media slant, and has plenty of events spaces that aren’t to be trifled with, for anything from small meetings to larger conferences or product launches and even fashion shows.

Sleep & Eat

Staying cool apartments
Not a hotel as such, but a selection of achingly hip serviced apartments on the top floor of the Rotunda, a recently restored 1960s tower block right by New Street station. Each is furnished with well-chosen designer pieces, and the larger apartments have balconies, with unrivalled views of the city. If you need a space for
a daytime cocktail party or product launch for up to 35 guests, taking one of the penthouse apartments is a no-brainer.
The Rotunda, New Street, B2 4PA,
tel: 0121 285 1250
BR:19  FR:-

Radisson Blu
Despite being very central, the Radisson Blu’s location still manages to be less than ideal, sitting as it does by a roundabout in the area of the city cut off from civilisation by the planning catastrophe that is New Street station. It makes up for this with rooms by Matteo Thun and a hip Italian restaurant, Filini. There are 10 meeting rooms, though bear in mind that the Conference Quarter is a bit of a schlep if you need bums on seats.
12 Holloway Circus, Queensway,
B1 1BT, tel: 0121 654 6000
BR:211  FR:10  M:130  D:88  R:150

Game on
England’s second city is no runner-up when it comes to
sports venues with hospitality and conferencing options

edgbaston - Edgbaston.jpgIt always pays to check the sporting calendar when you’ve a business trip to Birmingham coming up. With two Premier League football clubs (four if you count Wolves and West Brom, but who knows for next season…), a world-famous cricket ground and golf course, chances are there’ll be a something worthy of your attention.
Big news for 2011 is the £32m redevelopment of Edgbaston (tel: 0121 446 3616), home of Warwickshire County Cricket Club and venue for this summer’s England vs India test (10-13 August; for more information, contact Keith Prowse, tel: 0845 415 0628, squaremeal.co.uk/kp). Even if there’s no cricket to watch, the new meeting, conference and function spaces in the dramatic pavilion, which opens this summer, should be on any event organiser’s radar.
Whatever Birmingham City fans might claim following their Carling Cup success, Aston Villa definitely remains the ‘first’ football team in these parts. Its American owner, Randy Lerner, has invested heavily in Villa Park (tel: 0800 612 0960, squaremeal.co.uk/avfc) since taking over in 2006, and the stadium now has some of the finest conferencing and match-day hospitality facilities in the Premier League (fingers crossed for 2011-12). It hosts big concerts off-season, with Take That playing two gigs here on 27 and 28 June.
Key rooms for conferencing and banqueting are the recently restored Holte Suite, which can accommodate 700 theatre-style or for a buffet, or up to 552 sitting down to eat, and the 1874 Suite, overlooking the pitch and with room for up to 264 to dine. There is a variety of other spaces and private boxes available to hire, and the food is recognised as among the best you’ll find at a UK sporting facility (two of its chefs scooped gold medals at this year’s Major International Football Stadia contest).
Such is Randy Lerner’s devotion to his club, he’s also restored the ‘team pub’, The Holte (tel: 0800 612 0940, squaremeal.co.uk/holte), a few hundred yards down the road. It’s a characterful place with three private rooms for groups of up to 100, and damned fine sandwiches to boot (squaremeal.co.uk/holte).
If you want to throw some golf into the mix, The Belfry (tel: 0870 900 0066, squaremeal.co.uk/belfry) will be top of your venues list.
As well as its two iconic championship courses, the club has a 324-bedroom hotel and 22 conference rooms, a spa and pool, not to mention a locally (in)famous nightclub, the Bel Air. The largest room, the Woodland Suite, can take up to 400 delegates, though there are intimate boardrooms for meetings of 12.


This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, spring 2011