In London, High-Tech Meets High Street

Historic sites and cutting edge event venues keep this city from getting tired

London Bridge night

(Pictured) London is packed with history, but it is also a cutting-edge hub of the tech industry

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." So declared the literary colossus Dr. Samuel Johnson back in 1777. London & Partners are the British capital's convention bureau tasked with preserving and polishing Johnson's impression -- and they're doing it with a combination of historic attractions and technological innovation.

"Take a new look at London," says London & Partners Director of Business Tourism and Major Events Tracy Halliwell. "The city is constantly reinventing itself. It's become a true melting pot of different sectors."

She gives the example of the pharmaceutical industry, for which the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research is opening near the end of the year, showcasing London's position as a destination for life science and R&D.

"In London any sector you're interested in is probably already here with a huge pool of leading speaker content and advocates," says Halliwell, adding that a recent study of tourists found that 80 percent of visitors said that London's heritage and culture were the main reasons for their visit. "But U.S. business visitors are not so focused on pomp, ceremony, and royalty -- they want to find the next cool thing to complement what their businesses are doing stateside."

For example, Halliwell's colleague, U.S.-born Russ Shaw of Tech London Advocates, is spearheading London's Technology Week (organized by UBM Live in association with London & Partners) running June 15-21. Last year the event drew 40,000 attendees from over 40 countries. The attendees spent the week going to over 200 events scattered around the city. "It's part of the drive to champion London's potential as a world-class hub for tech and digital businesses," says Shaw. Adding to that drive, London & Partners has recently launched Traveltech Lab, an incubator for travel technology start-ups. "Many cities around the world are creating tech centers, but in my opinion, London is leader of the pack and it's emerging in a very different way from Silicon Valley," Shaw adds. "Many Americans raise their eyebrows when I say London is the only truly global city, but it is that way and it's very exciting."

Much of that pulsating activity is happening in the business event field with a swathe of new venues, delegate hotels, restaurants, and recreational activities.

Planner In Residence
Mary O'Hagan is managing director of event production company Vivace. She has been designing creative events worldwide for 30 years but believes London is one of the greatest and most stimulating cities in the world. She agrees with designer Vivienne Westwood who believes: "There's nowhere else like London -- nothing at all, anywhere."

Q. What are some of your favorite venues for events in London?
Sofitel at LHR T5, excellent event space, great food, fabulous staff, and easy access to Windsor Castle and Kew Gardens, a world heritage site, for offsite dinners. Brown's Hotel for cozy fall/winter events. Haymarket Hotel for small events and pool parties. Corinthia for everything. I love to mix things up, especially for overseas visitors. The historic Livery Hall for the event and boutique hotels for accommodation. There are some great private members clubs. The Hospital Club has lots of space and they are very flexible and open to creative thinking. London has so much on offer you can mix and match to suit all tastes, working with a local company will give you insider knowledge to some great lesser-known London venues like the stunning Wallace Collection.

Q.What are some considerations to keep in mind when planning an event in London?
Be flexible with your dates and avoid the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon (unless you are planning an incentive trip, in which case include them and plan well ahead). November appears to be the busiest month. If groups are coming into Heathrow then hotels and restaurants near Paddington will be great because they are close to the Heathrow Express rail link. The Landmark hotel is fabulous and Chiltern Firehouse restaurant is the place to be seen. From Gatwick Airport you can take a train into Victoria Station, a good stepping off point for central London. Traffic can be very busy, when planning, so use Citymapper which will show you tube (subway), bus, walking and cycling options. Be creative in your thinking and open to doing things in different ways.

Q.What makes London a great meetings city?
There is something for everyone in London, fabulous restaurants and venues for offsite dinners. Treasure hunts around secret venues and team-building activities that make the most of this magnificent city. You can do something old (Royal Exchange Building) something new (the towering Shard) and something sparkling (dinner on the London Eye.) London has got pretty well everything you could want for both meetings and incentives.

Q.What misconceptions do Americans have about London?

Some first-timers expect London to be all fog and fish and chips. But I haven't experienced fog here for decades. And London is reputed to be overtaking Paris as a gourmet mecca, but we still love our fish and chips, although in some places it's now a luxury dish. Oh, and the transport system is much maligned but hugely improved recently partly thanks to congestion charging. Unlike New York, ask a taxi driver to take you anywhere in London and he'll actually know where it is.

What's New
Among London's latest venues is Marble Arch, offering 22 rooms for up to 120 delegates. It combines a focused learning environment with fun elements, including a number of design tricks such as a "living wall." Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street has a capacity for 450 guests who can scan unparalleled views across the City of London from London's highest public garden. The updated Wellcome Collection medical museum can accommodate 154 delegates theater-style. Its Medicine Now gallery hosts receptions for 200 guests accessed by a new $2-million staircase. IET Savoy Place will be opening next October following a whopping $40-million refurbishment. Its Riverside Room for conferences and dinners overlooks the River Thames and its Main Lecture Theatre offers "conferencing comfort" for 451. The Barbican, Europe's largest combined conference and arts venue, has just announced a direct rail link to Heathrow Airport to be open by 2018. Meanwhile, The Shard, Western Europe's highest building, is transforming its 87-story top platform to a pop-up garden space available for event hire this summer.

Hotel and Restaurant News
Opening this year, the nine-story, Citizen M Tower of London has the ruins of a Roman wall running past many of its 370 rooms and also offers beautiful views of The Tower of London. Just as close to the Tower and opening this August, the Hilton London Bankside is also moments from the renowned Tate Modern art gallery, close to bustling Borough Market and to Shakespeare's Globe theatre. Its Grand Ballroom is pillar free and holds 360 guests for dinner or 580 theater-style. Further east on the Greenwich Peninsula, the InterContinental London at The O2, opens late 2015 or early 2016, featuring 20 meeting rooms and a 32,000-square-foot ballroom for 3,000 delegates.

The recently opened M by Montcalm is smack in the middle of London's tech sector, which inspires its themes of art, music, and design technology. Novotel West is among many hotels now floating tempting packages for groups. From September to December, they're offering premium Wi-Fi, free parking, and a complimentary dinner for meetings organizers. Admiralty Arch Hotel opens late this year around a ceremonial archway built as a memorial to Queen Victoria in 1911. Guests have a wonderful view of the ceremonial parades, which pass by the arch on their way to Buckingham Palace.


Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

A-lister restaurant The Ivy has just expanded to trendy King's Road, Chelsea to become the ultra alfresco Ivy Chelsea Garden. Foodies and art buffs can consume both at the newly opened Portrait Restaurant at the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square, which features arty vertical fins floating between ceiling and floor. Farr's School of Dancing is all about pub food, featuring deep-fried popcorn cockles with chili vinegar, smoked beef, ale, and ox cheek matched with East London real ales. Just opened in London's renowned Harrods store, Tarfufi & Friends is dedicated to truffles -- served perhaps with beef tartare and quail eggs followed by truffle-infused chocolates and truffle honey.

ExCeL London Exhibition and Convention Centre (1.08 million sf)

20 percent

EAT - The Belvedere
Dating back to the 17th century, this restaurant nestles in the gorgeous and tranquil heart of Holland Park, though it's close to The Olympia Exhibition Centre and the buzz-worthy Notting Hill district. Surrounded by lawns, flower gardens, and a picturesque fountain, it offers groups an oasis of tranquility in the middle of London.

PLAY - Trafalgar Square
This famous crossroads is a whirling epicenter of outdoor entertainment beneath the 170-foot-tall Nelson's Column, guarded by four lion statues at the column's base. Close by is an abundance of art galleries, restaurants, and theatres.

MEET - The QEII Centre
This center, located near the Houses of Parliament, is the largest dedicated conference, events, and exhibition space in central London with a capacity of up to 2,500. Its spaces include small rooms like the 40-person Poet Room and 80-person Albert Suite, as well as large conference spaces like the 1,300-person Fleming and Whittle Room.


This city has no shortage of icons
for groups to check out, Big Ben's
tower at Westminster Palace being
among the most famous
This city has no shortage of icons for groups to check out, Big Ben's tower at Westminster Palace being among the most famous

Additional Attractions
Epitomizing London's fusion of history and cutting-edge technology, the magnificent 120-year-old Tower Bridge has just installed new glass floor panels to create a high-level walkway enabling visitors to experience the bridge rising beneath them 138 feet above the Thames. Further down the river, 800 years of history from the "Mother of Parliaments" is on display at a large-scale Houses of Parliament Exhibition ranging from The English Civil War to the development of civil and human rights. "What is Luxury," running until September at the sumptuous Victoria and Albert Museum, explores what properties can legitimately be described as luxurious, ranging from conceptual ideas to leading cultural artifacts. The V&A's Museum of Childhood in East London is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's trip to Wonderland with "The Alice Look" exhibition. For the first time this year, Buckingham Palace visitors can enter the State Rooms through the Grand Entrance usually reserved for heads of state and prime ministers. More than 150 dealers will present over 30,000 unique pieces from Old Masters to Art Deco at the Olympia International Art and Antique Fair from June 18-28.

Adding to London's reputation for magnificently varied theater, Benedict Cumberbatch switches his Sherlock Holmes pipe for Hamlet's poisoned sword starting in August and continues for 12 weeks at The Barbican Theatre, while across at Wyndham's they're staging American Buffalo starring Homeland's Damien Lewis and John Goodman.

As Dr. Johnson might remark, how could one possibly tire of all that?  

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.