Boom Town

Posted on 30 June 2010

Boom Town

Handsome warehouse conversions rub shoulders with bold, modern constructions in this conference-friendly city. Anna Longmore discovers Manchester

The 2002 Commonwealth Games was a defining moment for Manchester. The largest event of its kind to be held in the UK – eclipsing the Olympics of 1948 – was to be held in a city that was in the throes of redevelopment after a devastating IRA bomb attack in 1996. There were those who thought the city would never pull it off. They were wrong. After 11 days during which more than 900,000 spectators watched 3,679 athletes from 72 nations compete across 17 sports, the Games ended in a spectacular closing ceremony in front of HM The Queen and a crowd of 38,000 in the newly built City of Manchester Stadium.
Eight years on, Manchester is thriving. The big events keep coming – the Labour and Conservative parties regularly return for their annual conferences – and the BBC will relocate five key departments to Salford Quays’ MediaCityUK development in 2011.
Diversity is one of the strings on the city’s bow. Looking down from Cloud 23, the new cocktail bar on the 23rd floor of the Beetham Tower (a skyscraper completed in 2007), the architectural patchwork of glassy angularity, alongside fine Victorian brickwork, sprawls out below.
Two miles away at Salford Quays, the bold outlines of The Lowry and Imperial War Museum North capitalise on the docklands’ open spaces. This variety of venues – more than 250 of them – is a boon for event organisers, but despite Manchester’s size, it feels surprisingly compact. ‘Large events get the full support of the council, the police and the tourist board,’ says Matthew Jayne, head of hospitality at The Lowry.

The Conference Quarter The Lowry - 1003_Lowry_at_Night_by_Len_Grant.jpg

Head straight to Manchester’s heart for striking spaces and abundant accommodation

With 7,500 hotel rooms across the city and a 20,000-capacity convention centre, large events are Manchester’s mainstay. When the party political conferences roll in to town, the Petersfield area of the city centre becomes a self-contained conference village, centred on the colossal Manchester Central Convention Complex. Its Central Hall, a handsome 19th-century station hall, provides 9,870sq m of pillar-free space. The complex also houses the modern 850-capacity Exchange Hall and an 804-seater auditorium, as well as 21 breakout and seminar rooms. A £28.5m investment programme has seen the addition of slick new foyer and entrance spaces, while three additional breakout rooms will be added in September.
There are 2,500 bedrooms within
a three-minute walk, with the five-star Radisson Edwardian Manchester (tel: 0161 835 9929), four-star The Midland (tel: 0161 236 3333) and Jury’s Inn (tel: 0161 953 8888).
The scale of the MCCC eclipses almost every other venue in the city, bar the MEN Arena (tel: 0161 950 5000), Manchester’s largest auditorium space with a capacity of 18,000. But don’t overlook Bridgewater Hall opposite, a gem of a classical concert hall that squares bravely up to the Goliath on the other side of Lower Mosley Street. It’s pleasant enough, with plenty of light-filled foyer spaces, but the real draw is the stunning auditorium, which combines a capacity of 2,400 with an elegant design, razor-sharp acoustics and total soundproofing.
For evening entertaining, The Midland is an attractive option opposite the MCCC and Bridgewater Hall. The hotel’s Victorian charm (it was the lodging of choice for wealthy rail travellers) was sympathetically upgraded with a £15m refurb by new owners Qhotels in 2006 and it still looks fresh four years on. For capacities in the hundreds, its standout spaces are the Stanley Suite, a wood-panelled room that used to be the Gentlemen’s Library; a 600-capacity ballroom called the Alexandra Suite; and the Trafford Room, an elegant backdrop for banquets of 180.
Manchester city centre is a rich, architectural mix of imposing period landmarks and glass-clad modernity. The historical heart of the city, Albert Square, is home to arguably its finest Victorian icon. With its proud 85m bell tower, Manchester Town Hall (tel: 0161 234 1892) is one of most important Victorian buildings in England. The gothic interior, often used as a screen double for the Houses of Parliament, is just as striking as the façade, with a series of handsome little committee rooms alongside highlights such as the spectacular Great Hall, which is perfect for gala dinners; the 150-capacity Banqueting Hall; and a commanding Council Chamber with minstrels’ gallery.

At The Quays

With the arrival of the BBC next year, Salford Quays is springing into life

Looking at the bold, modern architecture and pristine surrounds of Salford Quays, it’s hard to imagine the degenerating, rat-infested docks that occupied the site from 1894 to 1982. But it’s not just the water that has been cleaned up at this quayside development just two miles from the city centre. Since 1982, a vast regeneration project has led to the completion of landmarks such as the Imperial War Museum North and The Lowry, to add to the existing facilities at Manchester United Football Club and Lancashire County Cricket Club.
You can’t miss The Lowry, the world-class visual and performing arts centre housed in a dramatic structure at the water’s edge. The interiors are just as playful as the outer shell, with bold colours throughout. The centrepiece theatre is the Lyric, a 1,730-seater auditorium, while the Quays is smaller, with a 440 capacity. There are myriad studios and galleries, but our favourite is the Compass Room, which has almost 360-degree views over the quays – perfect for evening receptions and dinners for between 180 and 300 people.
Just across the water is the bold silhouette of the Imperial War Museum North (tel: 0161 836 4042), a vast bunker-esque structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Parties can begin with drinks in the shadow of a Harrier Jump Jet before moving into the main exhibition space for dinner, or there is a daytime conference room. The café, which overlooks the MediaCityUK site, is in demand with PR and production companies eager to check out the developments. The promenade outside the building will be completed in September and available for alfresco waterside receptions.
The future is bright for Salford Quays. Across the water at Pier 9, the MediaCityUK construction site is buzzing. Next year, the BBC will complete
the relocation of several key departments from London. At MediaCityUK’s heart will be the 12,500sq m television centre, with a 5,000-capacity piazza and landscaped park, offices, studio spaces, apartments and a 218-bedroom Holiday Inn (tel: 0161 868 1000) to add to the 142 rooms and five conference spaces at the Ramada Salford Quays (tel: 0161 876 5305).

Studio Manchester1 - Seats_Revive.jpgCreative Spaces

For hip, independent bars, restaurants and venues, look no further than the arty Northern Quarter

A hub of fashion, art and design, the Northern Quarter is the creative heart of the city. In this part of town, quirky cocktail bars rub shoulders with breezy cafés and restaurants, alongside art galleries, record shops and vintage shops. It’s a pleasant place to wile away an hour or two wandering, or for entertaining groups on a night out, though the size and style of the venues in this area are more suited to small, impromptu gatherings.
Dedicated event spaces in the area are scarce, so the newest arrival, Studio Manchester is a welcome addition. The paint has only just dried in the small complex of meeting rooms, a series of whitewashed spaces set around a colourful contemporary foyer hung with funky artwork. There’s a roof terrace for breakouts and receptions, and plenty of natural daylight. For groups keen to base themselves in the area, the Crowne Plaza (tel: 0161 828 8600), built in 2008, is a 228-bedroom property with an edgier feel than the name suggests and nine meeting rooms. The Light (tel: 0161 839 4848) is a funky aparthotel with spaces for upscale entertaining.

After Dark

For informal drinking and dining, head to the Northern Quarter for anything from margaritas to maki rolls. In nearby Chinatown – the UK’s largest outside London
– you’ll find famous names such as Yang Sing (tel: 0161 236 2200) for the familiar Cantonese line-up and Red Chilli (tel: 0161 236 2888) for fiery Szechuan cooking. 
Start a night out with drinks at Cloud 23 (tel: 0161 870 1600), the Hilton cocktail bar on the 23rd floor of the Beetham Tower. Bookings can be made for the East and West lounges, which hold 40 and 100 respectively and have spectacular panoramas. 
For fine dining without the starch, Michael Caine at Abode serves up consistently excellent modern European cooking, delivered in a series of small plates. Private dining is available for up to 24 in a pair of inter-connected function rooms.
The Manchester outpost of Gaucho (tel: 0161 833 4333), cast firmly in the familiar monochrome-and-cow-hide mould, has a private dining room with capacity for 16 people, as well as two 30-seater mezzanines. Exclusive hire is available for 200. We’re big fans of the sharing menu: platters of ceviche and empanadas followed by hunks of Argentinian steak and a liberal dousing of Malbec.
Larger groups can do destination dining and drinking at the first-floor bar/restaurant Room Manchester (tel: 0161 839 2005), where the popular 58-capacity Rose Room, with its own cocktail bar, shares the splendid wood-panelled, high-ceilinged style and innovative cooking as the main dining room.
You’ll find more contemporary surrounds, spectacular cityscapes and sparkling local ingredients at The Modern (tel: 0161 605 8282), set on the fifth and sixth floors of the glass-clad Urbis building. It offers private hire for up to 60, with expertly mixed cocktails in the upstairs bar followed by dinner downstairs.
High-end private dining can also be found in the city’s top hotels, such as The River Room at the Lowry Hotel, which has a 20-capacity private dining room serving British cooking, and The French at The Midland, with its heavy drapes, gilt-framed mirrors and chandeliers (famous as the backdrop for early Posh and Becks dates).

On The Ball

Wherever your allegiances lie, the expertise of Manchester’s famous football teams are just as evident off the pitch as on it

Manchester is still revelling in the afterglow of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which bolstered its sporting facilities and cemented its reputation as a standalone destination for international events. Football is the city’s most famous export, thanks to the mighty Manchester United, one of the most successful clubs in the history of English football. Even those normally averse to the sport will find it hard to shake off the goosebumps at the sight of the world-famous, 76,000-capacity Old Trafford stadium, a colossus that also offers a catalogue of event spaces for up to 1,200.
Highlights include the sleek Evolution Suite, the only space with views out of and into the stadium, and the 1968 Suite, a bright room offering great sunsets for evening receptions. For the best views of the pitch, book the older Stretford and Trafford gallery rooms, which sit just above the dug-out. Requests for stadium lighting during evening events, stadium tours and museum visits can usually be accommodated.
On the blue side of town, things are looking up at the City of Manchester Stadium. Bought by a wealthy Abu Dhabi-based enterprise in 2008, resident club Manchester City spent more than £100m on players in 2009. The stadium is smaller than Old Trafford, with capacity for about 47,000, but the cash injection has brought a rolling refurbishment programme that is keeping interiors in the 70 boxes and function spaces fresh.
The stand-out space is the Legends’ Lounge, a 250-capacity gallery room with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass overlooking the pitch. It’s higher up than the spaces at Old Trafford, so the feel is light and airy, with pictures of some of the club’s greatest-ever players adorning the walls. City might often be overshadowed by its rival, but the club now has the financial backing to make it serious contenders on and off the pitch. Watch this space.

Hospitality at Manchester United

No client would turn down a ticket to Old Trafford, especially towards the business end of the season. But top-end facilities come at a price. One of the slick, 16-seater Centennial Suites will set you back £182,250 for the season – the cash equivalent of one of Wayne Rooney’s toes. Match-by-match options tend towards the less formal, with the lively Red Café and the museum making colourful settings for entertaining for between £150 and £400 per person per match. Even the TV studio can be hired if it’s not in use.
It’s not just the quality on the pitch – even to the untrained eye – that is better than the average football match. During our visit to the Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munich, the more homely touches back and front of house – a hearty monkfish and bean stew for dinner and the arrival of a magician as an early icebreaker before the game, for example – made a big impression. As you’d expect, it’s a first-class operation, but when Manchester United is on winning form, no one stops for pudding. To book hospitality at Old Trafford, contact the bookings team on 0161 868 8000

Meeting  & Sleeping

Check into one of Manchester's 5,000 hotel rooms

A Grade II-listed converted warehouse in the city centre makes a handsome backdrop for the well-run ABode, which is part-owned by Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines. The 61 loft-style bedrooms are as comfortable as they are stylish and, as you’d expect from its owner, the restaurant is one of the city’s finest, so private dining is particularly popular.

City Inn
The winning formula at this reliable four-star hotel opposite Piccadilly station combines clean, contemporary styling with high-end technology (iMacs and top-spec AV) in every room. The 15 light-filled event spaces include a penthouse SkyLounge with private terrace.

Great John Street
A boutique townhouse treasure in the city centre, Great John Street packs 30 bedrooms and charming event spaces into an old schoolhouse. The loft-style bedrooms have roll-top baths, mezzanine bathrooms and oak floors, but we also love the roof garden (complete with hot tub) and rooftop lounge for events. Or how about a meeting in the Headmaster’s Office?

Hilton Manchester Deansgate
Spread over the lower 23 floors of Manchester’s first skyscraper, the Beetham Tower, stunning cityscapes are a standout feature of this slick, four-star property. Other highlights include destination bar Cloud 23 (hotel guests get priority access) and a 20m swimming pool with viewing panels down to the street below.

Lowry Hotel
Rocco Forte’s Manchester outpost is the city’s most fashionable five-star hotel, occupying a quiet spot on the river Irwell. The glass façade gives the stylish interiors a breezy feel, which is reflected in the unpretentious atmosphere. The Riverside Terrace is a gem for alfresco lunches.

The Midland
The oldest hotel in the city centre is ageing gracefully thanks to a multi-million pound refurb. The modern-looking bedrooms are pleasant enough, but the real charm lies in the public and function spaces, which have retained a distinctly Victorian character. The prime location is also an asset.

The Palace Hotel
Set in a Grade II-listed terracotta building complete with 217ft clock tower, The Palace
is a city-centre landmark in its own right. A £7m investment has given the four-star property contemporary interiors. The centrepiece Grand Room, which can accommodate 1,000 people, is the largest hotel conference space in Manchester.

Radisson Edwardian Manchester
A solid five-star from the Radisson stable, it is particularly popular with VIP delegates visiting the MCCC opposite. Well-appointed conference facilities share the contemporary feel of the bedrooms. There is even a small health club with a pool – a rarity in the city centre.

Getting There

By far the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to travel to Manchester is by train. Virgin Trains (tel: 08445 565 622) runs a regular service between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly, with three to four trains every hour. The journey time is just over two hours. Groups of three or more get a 10% discount on advance fares, while 10 or more people travelling together can save up to 70%. You can bag an advance fare for as little as £22 if you book well before travelling.

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine Summer 2010