England Dresses Up Its Past In Architectural Couture

 (This story was originally written for Prevue Magazine)
            Steamy puffs mist lazily over bathers in the 92-degree open-air pool of the Thermae Bath Spa before escaping over densely-packed gabled rooftops little changed since the legendary healing waters of Bathfirst drew international disciples. More than 200 years after Thomas Gainsborough’s initial exhibition at the Royal Society of Arts and Jane Austen memorialized Bath in her novels, people still flock to Thermae for the same healthful benefits anticipated 2000 years ago when the Romans sank their war-weary bodies into Britain’s original natural thermal spa.
            The only accessible outlet for the purifying 115-degree water bubbling up from underground, Thermae Bath Spa preserved five historic structures while capitalizing on patrons’ needs for modern amenities by erecting the New Royal Bath, a three-story contemporary glass edifice housing more than 50 spa treatment rooms. Treatments range from Watsu (a soothing therapist-guided experience through the smoothly mineral-rich waters) to exotic body wraps such as the Green Coffee slim & tone, to the latest therapy introduced this year, a Hot Stones Vichy. Consider yourself sublimely satiated after this head-to-toe body exfoliation, followed by a nourishing aromatherapy bath, and then melted to perfection by the hot stone massage on your legs and back.
            Spa treatments are only available by first booking a 2 or 4-hour luxurious session enabling you to bathe in two pools and 4 saunas. Chilly winds don’t prevent open-air pool bathing, but the less adventurous head for the ground floor Minerva Bath, a contemporary pool with grand columns, flowing curves and muted lighting smartly named after the Roman Goddess of Health and Wisdom. Mid-level, four aromatherapy-scented steam rooms corner a room-for-10-people central fiber optic-lit waterfall shower.
            For the ultimate in historically-exquisite experiences, rent the exclusively-private Cross Bath, an open-air thermal pool in the midst of an 18th century building. 12 max.
            Don’t absorb Bath’s skyline from just pool side. One of the most photographed and movie-filmed locations in Bath is The Circus, a sweeping majesty of Georgian architecture comprised of three blocks of  30 town houses split by intervening streets, creating an elliptical curve 50 feet high and 500 feet long. Holding court like Arthur over Camelot are the two central buildings known as Royal Crescent Hotel, a historically-treasured beauty built in 1768.
            With just 45 bedrooms of authentic furnishings, including some of Gainsborough’s masterpieces, the Royal Crescent epitomizes revered elegance and 18th century styling. From the moment you enter the black-and-white checkered foyer adorned with ceremonial halberds to the step out to the lush secret garden set for high tea (where Pavarotti once entertained hundreds of his closest friends for a private concert), this is not an experience for the masses.
            “The Royal Crescent lends itself to a high-end incentive program given its history, location, amenities, and its ability to create a sense of exclusivity for a client rewarding top performing executives or clients,” praised Hanson Ansary, president & ceo of Global Management Services, Inc (Chicago).
            A frequent getaway-from-the-paparazzi, celebrities find respite in the Bath House Spa, a converted coach house that more resembles a medieval church sanctuary with rough stone floors, arched chapel windows set in brick walls, and teak-lined wine vat-sized tubs. For the ultimate buzz, sip champagne while cruising aboard the hotel’s private 1920’s launch, the Lady Sophina. Seats 8. April-October.
            In the blink of an effortless train ride, the quiet charm ofBath’s yellow-stoned streets yield to the pulsating rhythm of London, where historic venues butt heads with modern structures on heavily-trafficked streets.
            Three London boutique hotels, each a part of the 11-property Doyle Collection, are prime representations of heritage, modern, and one that’s an eclectic mix of both. Each is designed to service corporate clients. While each is uniquely styled, collective touches such as plush bedding, espresso and tea pots in most rooms, hand-selected high-end furniture and art, and restaurants that use locally-sourced quality products are unifying factors.
            The inlaid black & white mosaic free-form tree-of-life design of the rotund column and surrounding lobby floor as well as the fuchsia chairs pointedly placed in the corridors and bedrooms indicate The Marylebone Hotel imbues quality. Six conference rooms max at 80, but the lobby-level prized rentable reception space for 35 is the Drawing Room, which oozes cozy warmth, hand-painted Italian wallpaper, and George Smith furniture.  At seven stories high and the tallest building in theWest End, the 257-room Marylebone offers a Mary Poppins perspective of neighboring real estate.
            What English building would be complete without a secret room? At the Marylebone, it’s a privately-owned gym with 15 trainers, 60’ foot indoor pool, dance studio and private entrance… a hotel guest perk.
            Like any metropolis,Londonis divided into defined areas. The Bloomsbury Hotel boasts of being the nearest Doyle Collection hotel to the city of London, just a 6-minute walk to Covent Garden, a hop-skip to the BritishMuseum, and a three-minute stroll to Soho. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1930, the 153-room Bloomsburyis stately refinement, deserving of its Grade 1 Listed status. Rich creams and browns accentuate original flagstone floors, ceilings and windows. Refurbished last year when added to the Doyle Collection, the Bloomsburyoffers 15 conference rooms, the largest of which seats 180 for dinner and 300 theater-style. An unheard-of-in-the-city terrace is available for corporate breakouts and teas when the weather cooperates. Most amazing venue within the former YWCA is the Library, preserved even to many of the books lining shelves. It’s a fave of high-end board meetings up to 16 or intimate incentive dining.
            Have a mixture of ages in your incentive group? The perfect choice may be The Kensington Hotel’s eclectic mix of vintage and urban chic. A shiny jewel inLondon’s Regency quarter, the just-completed 20 million pound restoration of five Victorian townhouses took this property where no other Doyle-London property has gone: each of the 150 rooms is individually styled, including hand-selected authentic antiques. Function space is limited, but Aubrey Restaurant’s private dining room contains an antique table that seats 24. The Kensington Hotel is a 5-minute walk to both the Natural History and Science Museums.
             Traversing London by The Tube is made simpler by discounted passes available from VisitBritain, says Laurie Scott, business development manager. A newly-arrived group can get panoramic perspectives via landmark amusement ride, the London Eye. Capsules for 25 rotate around the ferris wheel-type structure in 30-minutes. “Add the champagne cart and server to each capsule and you have the perfect cocktail reception before heading off to dinner,” says DMC Sue Shefras, director of Blue Ribbon Events Ltd.
            Windsor Castle or BuckinghamPalace are de rigueur for group activities, but if your incentive or corporate group enjoys dining while absorbing history, grab your beverage and canapés: these three historically-pertinent venues are a planner’s dream for strolling receptions and incomparable dining.
            The Wallace Collection would never qualify as anyone’s cozy cottage. Five generations of Sir Richard Wallace’s family collected more than 6000 pieces of art, furniture, and porcelain. They assembled them in the three-story Hertford House’s 25 galleries, where they remain to be admired as mandated by the family’s legacy. Okay, so this is an art museum, but one with each room lined in color-drenched silk fabrics and ornate moldings inset to gold gilded ceilings. Each room depicts a period or cultural preference from the member who originally chose that collection. Size does matter here. Options for reception or white-cloth dining are any (or all) of the four drawing rooms, a third floor ballroom, or for a spectacularly-stunning change, book the Courtyard, a glazed internal contemporary atrium that seats 160 or 400 for reception. 
            Fair Warning. The Banqueting House is so jaw-dropping gorgeous that Queen Elizabeth holds some of her private dinners here. Imagine the hush over your guests when a covered table laden with period dinnerware extends the length of a multi-vaulted ceiling room (the Undercroft), lit by standing candelabras prevalent in 1622 when the Banqueting House was built. Imagine guests gazing upward at the ceiling of the Main Hall blanketed by the only intact installation in the world of a Reubens mural. Italian chairs reflective of the 1600s cushion guests (up to 380), while the sweet serenading sounds of strings could be swapping sets with the brass instruments trumpeting from the balcony.
            The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are a sobering reflection of a time many of us personally recall, if not lived. Miraculously unscathed at WWII’s end, workers closed the lights and shut the doors. Guests meandering through this time capsule peek through windows at the preserved War and Map Rooms or glance at a vignette of Churchill talking on the phone to President Harry S. Truman. A sign on the outer door indicates this cubbyhole was disguised as Churchill’s private toilet to foil eavesdroppers. Private access enables guests to move between two function spaces. The HCA Auditorium holds 120, dinner-style & 250, reception. (Spam canapés, anyone?) Larger and plainer of the two, even with posters maintaining the 1940s feel, HCA offers current technology. The Harmsworth Room is the WOW factor for history buffs, as one full wall contains the original backup generators that literally kept the lights on during bombings. 100 for dinner, reception 150, but with a pillar centered in the room, it can be easily divided for smaller groups. “Add a jitterbug band or servers in war uniforms for that extra wow,” says Sue Shefras.
            “We are always in search of niche venues,” said Hanson Ansary. “The Churchill Museum appeals to clients with a keen interest in history, while the Banqueting House will appeal more to clients with larger budgets, allowing them to take full advantage of this venue’s grandeur and entertainment.”
            Across London, James Rees, director of conferences & events for ExCel London, boasts that the convention center’s addition of 230,000 sf, plus a 5,000- seat auditorium, 3,000-delegate banquet hall and a meetings suite with 17 rooms for up to 2,500 delegates at any one time, will put ExCel at “over a million sq, putting us in Europe’s big boy league. We’ll have the capacity for up to 76,000 people at any one time. We’re effectively creating a new event district,” says Rees, “in time for The 2012 Olympic Games. As seven events are actually being held at ExCel, Prince Regent Station will become Prince Regent for ExCel, dropping conference guests right outside our doors.”
            Six hotels, from 3-5 stars, will immediately surround ExCel by the end of 2011.
            “This is huge,” says David Bruce, managing director of CMP Meeting Services (Dallas). “With the new auditorium, breakouts and banqueting rooms on the second floor, I can bring a group here and they’ll never have to go anywhere else but to their hotel. It affords privacy, so even a group of 400 won’t feel lost in the space.”
            Not all roads lead to London.  An hour-and-a-half train ride from London and only 10 minutes to Bath, Bristol is a harbor-side community bent on strengthening their corporate amenities. Ready for the challenge is The Bristol Hotel, a 187-room addition to the Doyle Collection. Contemporary in warm neutral colors with splashes of cranberry tones and the heaviest soundproofing doors around, their Meetings & Events Centre can host 400. The Bristol’s newly-built waterside River Grille Restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor group dining. Signature drinks and a divine English Bread & Butter pudding are on the menu, but don’t miss out on their Welsh Black Lamb Barnsley Chop, marinated in lemon thyme, garlic and white wine.
            But the “#1 reason I’d immediately book a group into theBristolis their GM, Mark Roche-Garland,” says David Bruce, a hotelier of 13 years before his 24 years as a meeting planner. “He’s totally hands-on. His staff is young but well-trained, and it’s obvious they care about the details. It guarantees the quality of the overall-product.”
 Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com

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