Sports, Olympics and Culture in London.

It’s February and snowing in Chicago – what else is new. And though it’s still mildly cold in London, I know it will be 20 degrees nicer; I am looking forward to this visit to the UK. One of the reasons I’m here is to check out some of the sports venues available for hosting corporate and association events. I am also excited to learn about what progress London is making toward preparing the city for the London 2012 Games.

I flew British Airways, and it’s been about a year since I’ve been in the BA lounge in O’Hare at Chicago (International Terminal). Last time it was under construction, and now it’s a comfortable and contemporary space with enough room for everyone to take care of work or simply chat with friends and colleagues on their trip.

The flight was completely smooth, and the flight attendants were friendly and helpful. Of course, Hethrow is one of the busiest airports in the world, but my experience was quick and efficient in Terminal 5 – even my driver from Tristar was ready and waiting upon arrival offering me a couple of guide books to help explore London. Tristar offers international chauffeur services. Of course, expect many drivers there in the lobby, so walk around until you find yours.

My hotel is the InterContinental Park Lane, which is located at the corner of Green Park and Hyde Park in Mayfair. InterContinental Park Lane is comfortable and sleek in design, being contemporary and chic while creating a tranquil atmosphere. It reflects a color palette of reds, browns and creams throughout the lobby, hallways and guestrooms.

After catching up on a couple hours of sleep, I had Sunday Brunch at Cookbook Café, InterContinental London Park Lane’s casual restaurant. Overlooking Hyde Park, Cookbook Café offers a 39 GBP brunch. There’s a nice variety of breakfast and lunch options, so I opted to sample as many different items as I could. I really liked the fresh waffles with chocolate sauce.

Afterward, it was a good time to use the late afternoon as an opportunity to try to convince myself to take a long walk to help burn off the calories. I wandered through Green Park to St. James Park and into Westminster for a couple of hours.

After returning, I checked out Club Intercontinental on the seventh floor where I caught up on some work, enjoyed some snacks, and went back to my room. It always takes a day to recover from an overseas flight from the U.S. to anywhere in Europe.

Day 2: Sports Theme

My day today was focused on experiencing some sports venues available in London. One of the most famous spots is Wimbledon. Wimbledon is a charming town near London.

Wimbledon (The All England Lawn Tennis Club) is getting a facelift with a new retractable roof that will open in June this year (2009). And the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum is a great venue that holds a range of private events – highlights there include 200 degree cinema that shows the science of tennis, the “whites” of Wimbledon that showcases tennis outfits from the 1880s to modern day, and McEnroe’s Ghost is a great exhibit. Of course, there are lots of other great items.

And Wimbledon is one of the London sports venues being used for the Tennis competition at the 2012 Games – up to 30,000 people will be able to watch the players compete.

Chelsea Football Club plays at Stamford Bridge, which is very “marketing-friendly”. With a capacity of more than 42,000 and a range of private suites and meeting space, Chelsea Football Club is definitely a sports stadium that business travelers and planners may wish to consider during game days and non-game days. Many business events that are incorporate Chelsea Football Club choose to stay at one of Chelsea’s two on-site hotels, Millennium Hotel — the upscale four star property, or Copthorne Hotel.

The Three Michelin star awarded Marco Pierre White restaurant “Marco” is also on property, and this is available for private dining.

The third London sports venue visited was Lord’s The Home of Cricket, the official site of Lord’s Cricket Ground and Maryleborne Cricket Club. Lord’s is the most famous and historic cricket ground in the world. And although some modern updates have been added (e.g., the Investec Media Centre – also available), Lord’s still maintains its Victorian charm. Event planning opportunities exist both indoors and outdoors, and catering, meetings and events is managed by an in-house team. Very nice.

Day 3: Olympics Theme

By no means is it the only reason anyone travels or hosts meetings and events, but it’s certainly good to know that London is busy preparing to become the host city for the London 2012 Games.

Today served as an opportunity for the London 2012 Games hosts to provide an update to the events community as to how the city is designed for event organizers in London to prepare for the Games.

“Events 2012 and Beyond” was a one day program designed to promote business event opportunities associated with 2012. Two significant messages were conveyed: 1) the UK event industry fair pricing and practice charter launch helps to reinforce a philosophy that London will be affordable for event services during the Games; and 2) many London event suppliers are eager to learn how they may meet the needs of corporate sponsors.

At this point in time, a drive through the Olympic Village shows that the city is busy building the area. Progress is coming along nicely here.

Day 4: Arts and Culture Theme

Breakfast at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant is popular with many local business people come here, and it’s quite a distance from central London. But it’s also something that many visitors to London wish to support. Fifteen is where Jamie Oliver filmed cooking shows Jamie’s Kitchen and Return to Jamie’s Kitchen, and is now a thriving enterprise that creates annual Chef apprenticeships for 20 youngsters.

Fifteen is located in an older warehouse, where the restaurant currently occupies the ground and lower level floors. During breakfast (bubble and squeak – a English concoction of potatoes and leftover vegetables with baked beans, rocket leaves and an egg on top), I learned that Fifteen is looking to expand the number of business events hosted at the restaurant, as they hope to expand the facilities in the next couple of years to own the whole building.

After breakfast, I spent a couple hours on the Southbank of the Thames. And one of the most iconic cultural venues there is Shakespeare’s Globe, an open-air theatre in the round with an indoor exhibition hall and space below the outdoor theatre. The theatre season runs from April to October with 250,000 performances and a capacity of 1,500 people per performance. Shakespeare’s Globe also offers a variety of space available inside and outside Shakespeare’s Globe that’s available for meetings or special events.

The Southbank has become quite the hot spot for evenings and weekends, including outdoor activities and more. Riverfront attractions include BFI Southbank, the National Theatre, the London Eye and more.

Not too far away is London’s Covent Garden, and the last stop on my culture visit is the Royal Opera House. This is a unique London venue, and meeting space is coveted here. Several venues include The Paul Hamlyn Hall, The Crush Room and The Royal Ballet Studios, among others. However, it’s important to note that meetings and events are available only when the Royal Opera House space isn’t being used for theatre purposes.

In the evening, I stopped into Sound at Leicester Square, a popular venue with event space for group nightlife options.

Day 5: Food, Wine, Gaming and Theatre

On my way to Borough Market, I stopped into Westminster Abbey because I haven’t had enough time to actually go inside during any previous visits to London. What an amazing place. Westminster Abbey is more than 700 years old, and famous for serving as the resting ground of kings, queens, statesmen, soldiers, poets, priests and more. The audio tour will provide amazing insights and highlights to England’s historic past, and worship services are held daily.

I’m not sure how to incorporate a label about Westminster Abbey on a day of indulgence and sins, but I think it’s important to flag that Westminster Abbey takes a good couple of hours of your time.

Then it was off to Vinopolis located along the River Thames on the southbank. Vinopolis is London’s answer to wine tasting in the city. With pricing from 25-30 GBP per person, you can get an introduction to wine tasting, followed by about 7 different wine tastings, a specialty gin drink and three rum tastings. Wow, I went there on an empty stomach, so about halfways through I stopped into Burrough Market where the vendors are happy to explain to you about their fresh products and you can easily find enough food to take care of lunch. And then I went back into Vinopolis to finish off my drink tickets.

Vinopolis is a great venue for hosting group and private events. A great idea is to provide your guests with 10 or 20 GBP to spend at Buough Market before going to Vinopolis, let them find cheeses and other items to go with their wine and rum tastings, and bring that into the venue.

Then it was off to Empire Casino in Leicester square, a free casino that offers two restaurants, poker, casino gaming and four bars. It’s possible to rent many different spaces here for group and private events, including poker nights, blackjack tournaments and more. This is a nice “middle market” casino to host corporate events and launches.

No visit to London is complete without taking in a musical or show. I went to Cambridge Theatre to experience Chicago The Musical – which seemed kind of appropriate for this Chicago guy in London. London theatre is a must for any London visit.

Departure Day

For me, one of the best ways to spend some final moments in a city is by enjoying a neighborhood spot that’s quietly tucked away. In London, that’s Shepherds Market in Mayfair (at least this is my spot).

With tea, a croissant and an English breakfast in a small storefront restaurant, this is my time to reflect on my visit to London, knowing that I will definitely return soon. Breakfast was followed by a stroll around Mayfair and a walk through Green Park until it was time to depart for the airport.

I have a ritual of always organizing myself before sleeping in order to prepare for the next day, so I was relatively fully packed and ready for the departure from the hotel. My airport transfer was using a company called Green Tomato taxi which is known for being an environmentally-friendly car service that has an entire fleet of Prius vehicles.

Check-in at Hethrow’s Terminal 5 went perfectly smooth, but it’s important to remind travelers to leave for the airport about three hours prior to departure, especially for international flights. This way, there’s plenty of time to make it through airport screenings and provide enough time to enjoy some snacks or duty free shopping.

If you’re traveling business class, the BA business lounge provides complimentary food and beverage, and computer terminals. If you arrive early enough, but I didn’t, there’s also complimentary spa services at Elemis Travel Spa. The reason to arrive early is because they have a first come/first served policy for one of the six available treatment stations.

Originally Published January 2009.