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November 19, 2007

STADIUMS ROCK: London's finest sporting venues fight it out

Sports hospitality is nothing new. Take your clients out for a day at Chelsea, West Ham, Aston Villa, Manchester United, etc on a match day and offer them VIP treatment plus a great view of the game. But recently the stakes have been raised, with football, cricket and rugby clubs alike upgrading their facilities to attract meetings and conference business, which is becoming a serious revenue earner for those that are getting it right.

Events organisers are now spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a sports venue in London, particularly when it comes to football. So when the capital’s marketing body VisitLondon recently offered EVENTS:review a tour of some of the major players in this field, we thought it would be a great chance to see how they compared to each other.

On the list were the new Wembley and Arsenal’s home the Emirates Stadium, the two newest football grounds in London, both of which contain purpose-built meetings and conference facilities. There was also Twickenham Stadium and Lords, home of rugby and cricket respectively. Which would appeal the most and why?

The hallowed halls
The tour opens at Lords, where ancient really does meet modern. From the hallowed halls of the Pavilion, built in 1890, to the futuristic Media Centre, which opened in 1999, there are certainly a wide variety of spaces on offer, albeit for smaller-scale events. Both face each other at opposite ends of the pitch as if walking from one end of the ground to the other transported you 100 years or more into the future or the past depending on where you started your journey.

Both are also architectural triumphs. The Pavilion reeks of Englishness and tradition, with an atmosphere akin to entering a university college. The ceilings are high, the rooms are grand, adorned with cricket paintings. The jewel is the Long Room, a splendid space with tall windows along one side looking out onto the pitch, three striking chandeliers and ornate cornicing on the ceiling. It’s also the Pavilion’s biggest room, holding 200 people seated. “Everything from recitals and receptions to board meeting are held here,” reveals our guide Richard Mernane, “plus there’s a lovely roof terrace that’s perfect for summer parties.” In fact, the Pavilion is ideal for any event requiring a traditional, grand ambience – and if the guest like their cricket, so much the better.

The Media Centre, however, couldn’t be more of a contrast. Hosting 120 journalists on match days, it offers Space Age facilities for presentations in the middle of the structure, with perfect break out areas at either end, plus a stunning bar at the rear, and all bathed in natural light. “It attracts a lot of technology companies,” says Mernane, but it would brighten up any event no matter what sector it focused on, and affords breathtaking views of the ground. Its sky blue egg-shaped form resembles an alien spacecraft and the Media Centre has won no less than seven architectural awards, including the coveted Sterling Prize.

Gunning for glory
Stop number two is the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s new home. The big money earner here is corporate hospitality, which brought in £33 million last year. Meanwhile, other events, from product launches to conferences and meetings, brought in a respectable £3 million. A whole tier is dedicated to hospitality and conferences with four main suites, all of which feature a huge wall of sloping glass looking out from the stadium upon what is unfortunately not a particular attractive view of roads and housing. They cater for 40 to 650 people and, although they clearly offer state-of-the-art conference facilities, are fairly standard and do lack atmosphere. In fact, the whole stadium lacks the history of Lords. That said, the neutral décor has drawn a huge variety of events from the Women in Business conference to the X-Factor auditions, and is soon to welcome the beauty queen competition Miss Commonwealth.

Undoubtedly the standout room, only recently available for corporate hire, is the Diamond Club suite – for which members pay £100,000 for two seats over three years – decked out in an Art Deco style that doesn’t quite work, but is still fabulous for special functions. There’s also wonderful cuisine – which ER was lucky enough to sample – overseen by leading chef Raymond Blanc.

Underneath the arch
Next up is Wembley, which towers over north London, crowned by the famous arch. “It now has a 90,000 capacity, and the old stadium had only a third of the footprint of the new both vertically and horizontally,” says senior sales manager – special events Amir Vered. Yes, this place is huge! So much so in fact that when touring the three levels of conference and hospitality facilities – the largest room of which holds up to 1,900 people – you could be forgiven for forgetting you were in the home of football, as unlike the corridors of the Emirates Stadium, any reference to the game is absent.

Although slightly cold, due to the black and grey colour scheme, the suites are striking, featuring tall ceilings and a sloping glass wall, like the Emirates stadium, as well as sharing a terrible view – this time of building sites and retail parks. However, I was particularly impressed with the hospitality boxes that opened onto the pitch, offering stunning views of the inside of the stadium. They oozed luxury and would be great for small gatherings.

Swing high

From the home of football, to the home of rugby. Although a very big stadium accommodating more than 80,000 fans with up-to-date facilities, the old members room at Twickenham has the feel of a stately home, with wood panelling and fireplace. There is also a deep sense of sporting history here that is missing from the Emirates and Wembley, albeit in the name of a different-shaped ball. The conference facilities currently on offer are not as modern as the other two stadiums, but they are of a good standard.

Probably my favourite space was the England changing rooms, which contains wooden seats featuring plaques with the names of the last players that used them. It’s rectangular shape and exciting atmosphere make it perfect for motivational training sessions.

However, the real excitement about Twickenham is not what currently exists, but what’s to come. By the end of 2008, the stadium will feature a number of new conference suites, some looking out onto the hallowed turf, and a Marriot Hotel with 156 rooms, plus a Virgin Active gym and a purpose-built conference auditorium. There literally will be no sporting venue like it in the UK.

So what’s ER’s pick of these great venues? Well with the quirky and engaging mix of old and new, traditional and modern, it will have to be Lords, although the Emirates and Wembley stadiums offer excellent facilities and can entertain bigger audiences. However, I can’t help feeling that Twickenham will eclipse them all upon completion.

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