We headed to one of Exclusive Hotels’ most surprising event spaces to see how the group is engaging with the MICE sector

Putting together a brand-new magazine is an exciting, if slightly daunting, prospect. But a few months ago that’s exactly the position the team and I found ourselves in as we began work on the all-new SquareMeal Beyond.

In case you hadn’t already guessed, this magazine is about venues and events outside the M25. It seemed fitting, then, that we should escape our office in  Vauxhall and head out to the calm of Pennyhill Park in Berkshire – owned by Exclusive Hotels. The hope: that hunkering down in its impressive Power Room would inspire some serious blue-sky thinking.

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues brainstorm meeting space

With the morning’s brainstorming done, we’re rewarded with lunch in the newly renovated brasserie, followed by a game of croquet on the lawn.

Arriving in the hotel foyer, we’re impressed by the period furnishings and hanging tapestries – a reminder of the main building’s 170-year heritage. It’s certainly in keeping with the look and feel of a country-house hotel. The Power Room, however, is something else. Once a cottage, the space has been annexed to the main building and offers a splendid 10-seat boardroom. What makes it special is that it’s been designed for the RFU (Rugby Football Union), who train in the property’s grounds and regularly make use of this space. The Power Room even acted as the England team’s HQ ahead of this year’s Six Nations championship.

Some of the features (rose emblems on the walls, red crosses on the blinds) are clearly a nod to the England team, but the room is suited to meetings of any nature. The draw-on table allows our editor, Damien, to rub out any rejected feature ideas as quickly as he writes them down.

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues croquet

Come mid-morning, we’ve fired up the plasma and attacked the contents of the ‘brain box’. Posh popcorn, Eat Natural bars and Pureology drinks provide the energy we need to tackle the issue of Brexit’s impact on the events industry. Serious stuff… 

Expert insight

‘It’s so easy for MICE to be dull. The key is to make it more engaging,’ says Andrew Farrow. He’s the new-ish group head of marketing for Exclusive Hotels and Venues, and we’re at The Ned hotel in the City to hear how he plans on getting you, our esteemed readers, excited about the group’s four hotels and two venues.

‘The first barrier usually comes because there’s no clarity in the MICE proposition – that’s what we, as a group, are keen to establish.’ That’s a sentiment echoed by the 2017 Global Planner Sourcing Report. Collecting data from 1,200 event bookers between April and June this year, the Cvent report revealed that lack of clarity was high on the list of frustrations.

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues pennyhill brasserie dining

Exclusive’s most recent move was to ask its direct and agency bookers for a list of their ‘simple needs’ when it comes to meetings and conferences. The response was clear: ‘Event bookers don’t like rigid packages. So, by asking them what they want, we could create a new offering that satisfied as many of those simple needs as possible,’ says Farrow.

The group’s Pic n Mix offering will be introduced across all of its venues in 2018, with extras such as pre-event overnight stays for organisers, rate freezes and £1,000 vouchers for teambuilding activities.

Exclusive use

In the meantime, bookers should look at taking over one of Exclusive’s dedicated events venues. Both the Jacobean manor Fanhams Hall and the Royal Berkshire (originally built for Winston Churchill’s ancestors) house contemporary meeting spaces within their historic walls. 

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues fanhams meetings

The Energy Zone breakout spaces allow delegates to take some time out of the day’s meetings to catch up, unwind and scroll through Instagram. Both feature retro tuck shops, iPads and work stations – delegates at Fanhams can also squeeze in a game of table football.

The incentive offering

With a fifth of Exclusive’s MICE revenue coming from the incentive market, it has gone to considerable lengths to widen its offering. Next June will see South Lodge gain an £11.5m spa. ‘We want it to be different from the current offerings we have at our other properties,’ Farrow tells me. Guests from London should enjoy the Shoreditch-style barber and a vintage theme in the gym.

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues goodwood meeting room south lodge

The beginning of the year saw The Manor House add the nearby Castle Inn pub to its portfolio of buildings. Set in the 15th-century Wiltshire village of Castle Combe, the pub has private event spaces for 18 and 32 guests. It’s rumoured that the group will be introducing a microbrewery to the site, too. Groups who’ve enjoyed a day on the nearby hotel’s award-winning golf course will no doubt enjoy a few celebratory pints at the 19th hole.

SquareMeal Beyond magazine Group focus Exclusive Hotels and Venues season cookery school lainston house foodie masterclasses

Having test-driven the latest offering at Lainston House, we’d suggest the Season Cookery School for your top-end clients. Added to the Grade II-listed property last year, the space is decked out like a kitchen from the pages of Elle Decoration. Coffee served in Le Creuset mugs was a nice touch. Match a half-day course with a spot of falconry and you’ll have combined the best of indoors and outdoors.

When the conversation turns to the future, Andrew becomes a wee bit reticent. ‘There’s something big in the pipeline, but at the moment I can’t say any more than that.’ He does, however, divulge that the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns will be staying for four days each in October as ‘exclusive users’ at Pennyhill Park. Those Power Room chairs might need just a little bit of reinforcement.

The Exclusive portfolio in numbers

Function rooms 23
Bedrooms 123
Max capacity 240

Function rooms 7
Bedrooms 50
Max capacity 200

Function rooms 13
Bedrooms 89
Max capacity 250

Function rooms 8
Bedrooms 50
Max capacity 120

Function rooms 9
Bedrooms 63
Max capacity 200

Function rooms 23
Bedrooms 77
Max capacity 200

Read our review of the aforementioned Lainston House Season Cookery School here.

Photos Will Bremridge