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As Savoy Place celebrates its centenary as the home of the IET, Louise Troy finds that this versatile venue is busier than ever
Talk about relishing a challenge. Many venues would quail at the thought of running a series of events for 400 children – let alone doing them at the height of the corporate Christmas party season. But that’s exactly what the events team at Savoy Place took on when they agreed to host the world-renowned Royal Institution Christmas lectures.
To add to the pressure, the lectures would be recorded and copies sent to all the schools in the country – meaning that the central London building’s lecture theatre not only needed to be comfortable and engaging for the children, but also look good on TV. Oh, and one more thing – it had to be adaptable enough to cope with the interactive experiments mathematician Marcus du Sautoy wanted to carry out. To meet the brief, the flat floor was replaced with a built-up luminous green stage, the Cuban mahogany walls were covered in video screens, and money cannons, giant cakes and an original Enigma codebreaking machine were brought in. ‘I did walk in and think: “I can’t believe we’ve managed to do this”,’ admits the venue’s sales and development manager Sarah McQueen. ‘But we are such a flexible team. I think sometimes people paint a picture in their heads that we can only deal with meetings and conferences. Those are brilliant, and we host a lot, but we can be a really creative team here and I would say to my guys: “Never say never!”’
The staff’s can-do attitude is one reason why business is booming at Savoy Place, the global headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which has more than 150,000 members worldwide and outposts in Birmingham and Glasgow (see overleaf). This year, the building is celebrating its centenary year as the IET’s home and McQueen says that she has never seen it so busy. It hosts thousands of events a year – everything from meetings for two to banquets for hundreds – so there’s certainly enough to keep the 18-strong events team occupied.
Before the engineers arrived, Savoy Place already had a rich history. Burned down by angry serfs in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the building was then reborn as a hospital, a prison and a military barracks, before becoming the site of the BBC’s first ever radio broadcast. Versatility, it seems, has always been a strength here. These days, a range of 18 function rooms of different sizes and styles are spread over three floors, with the largest holding up to 462 people. Just beyond the building’s smart marble and smoked glass lobby lies the first of its standout spaces: the Lecture Theatre, home of the Royal Institution lectures in 2006. Its walls are covered in original mahogany, with portraits of innovators such as Ohm and Faraday, and there are plush blue chairs. This can be a very flexible space: the seating on the flat floor can be removed, allowing a focal space for teambuilding events such as Ready Steady Cook-style challenges and chocolate-making demonstrations. There are five other rooms on the ground floor, including the neutral and pale wood Lancaster Room, with a built-in mezzanine that provides a perfect cloakroom or exhibition space. With the adjacent Maxwell Suite, and the Common Room just across the hall, the ground floor can comfortably hold 300 for cocktails or coffee between sessions in the Lecture Theatre.
The Common Room deserves a mention in itself: with wooden panels and cream carpets, it’s a refined and stylish space, bathed in light from the full-length windows. All credit to the IET’s double glazing, too, because despite the traffic whizzing by a few feet away (thankfully obscured by the greenery of Embankment Gardens outside) it’s wonderfully peaceful.
Like the Lecture Theatre, the Common Room is licensed for weddings (it can hold 70), and the pillars running down the window side of the room look stunning covered in chains of flowers or fairy lights. For Sue Cartwright at Richmond Events, it was the adaptability of the first-floor rooms that attracted her to the venue. ‘Savoy Place has got flexible space – and lots of it,’ she says. ‘For example, it’s rare to find a good lecture theatre in central London. In a hotel, you would have had to build a stage set and that costs money. There’s also plenty of exhibition space, so it was perfect for what we do, which is bring suppliers and buyers together.’ On the third floor, the big attraction is the Riverside Room, the largest flat-floored space in the building, which is flooded with natural light. The windows also afford some sought-after panoramas – the view stretches from Big Ben to St Paul’s and even on to Canary Wharf when the leaves are no longer on the trees. The room can hold 250 for dinner (or be partitioned into three smaller spaces) and is the third and final area of the building which can be used for wedding ceremonies. However, its most popular incarnation is as a Christmas party venue, making the most of the rich red colour scheme.
‘We install a huge tree every year, so as soon as you walk into the room you get a sense that it is a festive party,’ says McQueen. ‘You don’t need to go too drastic because the views are such a huge feature, so it doesn’t cost a huge amount to theme.’ The CBI chose the Riverside Room for the organisation’s latest Christmas party. ‘It was a great find – the balcony really clinched it,’ says event executive Amy Mullins. ‘The room is not too fussy, almost a blank canvas but quite nice already. We had a James Bond theme, with cut-outs and martini glasses with candles in, and it had a great atmosphere.’
Looking forward, the current economic climate has brought a new set of challenges for 2009. McQueen and the team have been quick to find ways to ensure that their clients’ money is put to the best possible use, such as the new ‘Short Notice Savers’ tariff, which offers discounts to clients booking less than eight weeks in advance. ‘With the recession, everyone is very budget-conscious,’ she adds. ‘They want to get as much value as they can out of events. We’re being much more transparent with our rates, saying, “If you come to us you get free Wi-Fi, you get AV inclusive with the packages, you get water on the table”. That’s had a really good response.’ The venue itself might be hundreds of years old, but it’s this fresh thinking that keeps clients coming back.
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