A couple years ago, the BBC moved its sports, research and tech departments from London two hours north to Manchester’s new MediaCityUK. I’m here during the London Olympics with John Ryan, a Manchester Green Badge tour guide, who shows me around the world’s busiest newsroom at the moment. The energy is palpable among the hundreds of TV monitors and countless journalists manning endless banks of computer screens. I’m thinking any more high-tech than this, and you have to go to NASA. Planners can book the same 20-minute tour for their attendees interested in life at “The Beeb.”
Manchester today is aggressively focused on the future and new tech, rebuilding its infrastructure after the economy collapsed when the main port closed decades ago. But first we need to step back 600 years.
“Dutch weavers came here in the 1400s because the climate was good to turn cotton into thread,” says Ryan. “We’re like your Seattle.” In the 1800s, the invention of the cotton jenny in Manchester spawned the Industrial Revolution. At one point, over 90% of the world’s cotton was traded here, after arriving from the U.S. through the world’s first shipping canal into the world’s first industrial park. With the arrival of container shipping however, it all went bust in the ‘70s.
“This whole area was one big, filthy, abandoned dump,” sums up Ryan. “But you’d never know it, would you?”
The shiny new glass buildings of MediaCityUK now occupy the banks of these canals following one of the world’s largest land reclamation projects, much like London did at its post-industrial Olympic Park. While kayakers paddle by us, Ryan says the canals have achieved Blue Flag certification.
MediaCityUK began with the opening of The Lowry in 2000. The performing art center’s modern design for its time was unlike anything anyone had seen before. It’s a 15-minute tram ride from Manchester city center to see theatrical plays here following their premieres in London’s West End. For conferences, The Lowry hosts 1,730 delegates.
Then the Imperial War Museum North opened in 2002, designed by celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind. The building is composed of three structural “shards,” inspired by a broken tea cup on the floor. This place is intense.
“The War Museum examines the impact of war on people’s lives,” says Ryan. We show up for the hourly, 360-degree “Big Picture Show” when the museum goes dark and the interior walls light up with full scale images of London during the air raids. During the narration, loud sirens and emergency lights add to the visceral, all-encompassing effect. The exhibits are sombre and inspirational, ranging from voice recordings of nurses in WWII London to vehicles blown up in Baghdad. Capacity in the main exhibition space is 700 pax.
UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD
Next to the BBC buildings, the 1-year-old University of Salford Manchester offers its media production facilities to groups. Arrange a mock press conference or interview with anyone in the group, which other participants can film and record to create a TV broadcast. Students will help with post-production editing, and the finished product can then be used to communicate with the rest of the company or client.
“There’s a really collaborative element with that between the students and everyone in the group,” says Scott Masheder, business development manager. “The school places a priority on collaboration, innovation and creativity within the context of new media and global business.”
A variety of event spaces include a 3rd floor meeting room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking MediaCityUK. The ground floor lobby, also with wall-to-wall windows, features a multi-tile video wall with a main screen and additional TV towers. For events, planners can link live feeds from there to remote computers anywhere in the world.
Masheder is especially proud of the Black Box Theater for 150 pax, with one of the largest HD screens in the UK. The space can be used for lectures or performances.
“We try to integrate technology into any event,” he says. “There are tons of spotlights and digital opportunities for creating different moods and a unique brand experience.”
Just outside Manchester’s downtown core, The Point at Lancashire County Cricket Club is a bright red, purpose-built event space that opened in 2010 atop the city’s venerable old cricket stadium. Think of The Point as a private stadium box for you and 1,000 of your closest friends, seated.
The 200-foot long, 12,000-sf contiguous space features a 25-foot high ceiling and outdoor balcony spanning the entire length. The Point is open year-round for galas, and it’s especially fun during cricket season from April to September.
“Conference organizers and meeting planners can also book the Halle Orchestra, who are based in Manchester,” says Emma Wallace, senior events coordinator. “That adds a really special atmosphere to any event.”
A full onsite kitchen prepares dishes like pot roasted lamb shank with potatoes, savoy cabbage and crispy bacon with mint gravy. The Point is divisible by four, with four bars.
The Manchester United Football Club is the world’s most famous soccer team. I didn’t make it out to the stadium on the outskirts of town due to the Games, but it caters to groups with a conference center for 1,100 delegates and a wide variety of box suites for corporate clients. Planners can also book museum and stadium tours, highlighting some of the greatest heros of the sport who played for Man U, from David Beckham to Cristiano Ronaldo. Also check out our Nov/Dec 2012 issue for our write up of the new National Football Museum, which opened last July.
RADISSON BLU EDWARDIAN MANCHESTER
The Free Trade Hall in central Manchester was originally opened in 1856 for important cultural events and political meetings. On this spot, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde performed plays, Prime Minister Churchill spoke to the masses and Bob Dylan introduced the electric guitar to the world during the first ever televised concert.
The busy 263-room Radisson Blu Edwardian Manchester now occupies this national landmark structure, with 20 naturally lit meeting rooms including the 3,900-sf Halle Ballroom located in the original Free Trade Hall. The hotel’s business/leisure mix is 80/20; it’s one of only two 5-star properties in the city; and it’s connected under cover to the recently expanded Manchester Central Convention Complex.
There are 18 suites with large outdoor patios, named after singers who’ve performed here. Room decor is refined and restrained with Scandinavian slate, percale linens and blazing fast WiFi. And altogether, there are 800 original B&W photos throughout the guest rooms and public spaces.
Because the original Trade Halls were designed like a Victorian palazzo, the lofty lobby and fine dining Opus One restaurant are filled with natural light. In December, the new Opus One Reserve champagne bar opened within the Colonnade facade, the oldest part of the building, for elegant receptions up to 50 people.
While touring the hotel with Kevin Healey, director of sales/marketing, he points out the 10-room spa and the 2nd floor Free Trade Bar, where groupies used to wait for the bands. Across the street, the Taps & Epanays restaurant provides signing privileges for guests at Radisson Blu.
“We are very, very much like a village in Manchester,” says Healey. “Everyone works with everyone and helps each other out, because in the end, we’re all committed to promoting Manchester on the world stage.”
Located just two blocks from the Piccadilly central train depot, the 61-room ABode Manchester has a youthful insider vibe and one of the best restaurants in town. The building was originally a cotton merchant designed by the same architect as the Empire State Building. Orginal tiles still line the hallways, and industrial beams are visible in the comfy residential-style guest rooms. ABode just wrapped a softgood refurb in the rooms, categorized as: Comfortable, Desirable, Enviable & Fabulous, basically depending on view and size.
The 80-seat Michael Caines restaurant, operated by the Michelin-rated chef of the same name, is a hotspot in town with an affordable, fine dining tapas menu. Apps like slow-poached Loch Duart salmon & oscietra caviar run $9. Private dining capacity is 26. Off the lobby, Caines’ MC Cafe Bar & Grill is friendly, casual and filled with locals.
“I love ABode, it really has that original/modern balance that makes Manchester so cool,” says Debbie Kelly, business tourism marketing executive with Visit Manchester. Over breakfast she says, “We really are the heart of the UK with close access to so many iconic destinations; it’s a great hub city. There’s a new Washington, DC to Manchester direct flight that opened in May on United, too.”
Kelly also mentions the EventCity convention facility and Airport City—two new pioneering developments designed to raise Manchester’s profile as a major convention hub in Europe. “Mostly,” she says, “Manchester is a city of innovation driving ideas forward.”
Encompassing 20 acres of Manchester’s previously blighted northern downtown core, NOMA is a new redevelopment of the very neighborhood where the Industrial Revolution first took roots. Dubbed “Manchester’s Sustainable City Centre District,” the mixed-use, $1 billion regentrification project will revolve around the Angel Square building. The stunning “Sliced Egg” is one of Europe’s most sustainable buildings, scheduled to open this spring.
“This building highlights our approach to innovation and how we’re leading the way in long-term business development and urban living,” says Ruairidh Jackson, director of strategy/development. He explains that the entire project is designed to share information and innovation in tech, design, IT and urban planning with any visiting corporate, scientific and academic group who wants to listen.
“We want to use this as a live test bed,” says Jackson. “It’s a building technology system to show that anyone can do this, and that it has positive economic benefits.”
I cautiously ask why the people behind NOMA, known as The Co-operative Group, are giving away their knowledge.
Jackson smiles, “We’re a co-op so we already have to share all our information. We’re transparent in everything we do; we might as well promote the heck out of it, right?”
Ruth Robinson is managing director of Brighter Business Solutions, who provides DMC/PCO services in Manchester.
“We support marketing efforts to attract events here, and then we market to attendees to attend,” she says. “There is so much new stuff in Manchester, and there’s an incredible collaborative passion among everyone to innovate while protecting our culture and heritage.”
Robinson recommends Jamie’s Italian for dinner, operated by British star chef Jamie Oliver. His restaurants have a fresh market vibe centered around a central charcuterie station with Iberian ham hanging from racks above. The sharing plates are the way to go here with all kinds of hams, cheeses, olives, breads and mustards. Jamie’s Manchester is housed inside a beautiful old bank building with a 60-foot high ceiling and wraparound balcony seating. For VIPs, there’s a fun private dining room in the old bank vault.
Two more restaurants I have to recommend. The Oast House is a preserved barn in the heart of the financial district. For awesome burgers for 200-pax indoors, ask Natalie Brindle to hook you up. And SoLIta opened last fall in the bohemian Northern Quarter district. Owner Dominic Sotgiu invented a proprietary “Inka” oven that uses coconut husks to barbecue bone-in Texas ribeyes. Innovation is everywhere in Manchester, but go easy on his deep-fried mac ’n cheese balls.