“…when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Samuel Johnson, September, 1777.

STORY BY LEILA BOTHAM

Most Londoners would agree with Samuel Johnson’s observation. Some might consider it their personal life affirmation. London has always been a remarkable and intoxicating city. An epicentre of European geopolitical power for centuries, brimming with rich history, sophisticated culture, inspiring architectural feats, sprawling urban parks and a multicultural melting pot population. This rainy riverside city has recently returned to the world’s stage to host the Games for a record third time. And much like their beloved bard William Shakespeare, Britannia doesn’t intend on sharing the stage any time soon.
Every four years, the Olympic Games captivate worldwide audiences and warm the hearts of many nations. For the altruists, it is a time that countries put aside differences and unite under Pierre de Coubertin’s universal principals of respect, excellence and friendship. The average Joe looks forward to 17 days of elite sporting entertainment and swelling patriotic pride. Those of a more cynical disposition find it a distasteful, revenue-generating, marketing machine with illegally doped athletes running about in sponsored sweaters and trainers usually carrying a branded drink bottle. The truth is, most likely, a mix of all three, but no one can deny that by hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, London
has had more than its fair share of international coverage.

Up to £2.4bn (US$ 3.88bn) has been estimated to hit the tourism industry as a direct result of the Olympics. This seems fanciful if the Olympic period is any indication of business trends. Most Central London restaurants and hotels reported a significant downturn in business during the Olympic period.

According to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) an estimated four billion people watched the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, 5.5 million day trippers descended upon the city, and at its peak, Heathrow Airport had over 130,000 arrivals in one day. Few would disagree that hosting the Olympics is a 17-day worldwide tourism marketing coup. Sweeping aerial shots along the Thames, taking in Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye have been assailing televisions, iPads and newspapers all over the world. So, with government and corporate reports attributing a price tag between £9.3bn (US$ 15bn) and £12bn (US$ 19.4bn), the question at the tip of every Londoner’s tongue is – was it worth it?
The Prime Minister, David Cameron promises the Olympics will contribute £16.5bn (US$ 26.7bn) to UK GDP between 2005 and 2017. Not surprisingly, we have to wait until 2020 for official figures to be released, when most taxpayers will have lost interest in the whole affair. Yet all the numbers that have been bandied about in different parliamentary committees seem overly optimistic.
Up to £2.4bn (US$ 3.88bn) has been estimated to hit the tourism industry as a direct result of the Olympics. This seems fanciful if the Olympic period is any indication of business trends. Most Central London restaurants and hotels reported a significant downturn in business during the Olympic period. The London Mayor’s Office led a long campaign encouraging people to avoid London during the Games – and they listened. Leagues of office workers from blue chip companies like British Gas, Lloyds TSB and Bank of Scotland ‘worked-from-home’ for the two-week period. London’s core tourist trade chose to chase the sun in Barcelona or nibble on croissants in Paris rather than pay inflated room rates in London. Footfall in key West End theatre and shopping areas experienced drops between five per cent and 13 per cent on 2011 figures. Even London’s mayor, the very popular Boris Johnston who is normally impervious to negative press, received a few swipes and conceded that the Games were having a ‘patchy’ effect on some businesses.
With a seemingly negative business outlook, the silver lining in the Olympic rings shaped cloud was the increased presence and influence of the Asian business travel and events market. Whilst the usual suspects like USA, France and other continental European neighbours made up a vast majority of the visitors to the UK in 2011, Visit Britain reports that inbound business from Asia has increased by four per cent year-to-date, with Thailand at a noteworthy 51 per cent ahead of same time last year. South Korea, China and Singapore are also the key players leading the charge.
To ascertain the real value of inbound visits that are business event related is tricky, but the Asian market is a heavenly oasis in a desert of dwindling Euros.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Over 30 per cent of Chinese and over
25 per cent of Singaporean visits are business related. Asian business visitors stay for longer, spend more money and visit more attractions. During the Olympic period, large incentive groups from Asia, including big sponsors like BMW, were a dominant force, spending vast amounts of yuan, baht and won on room nights, day trips to Oxford and Bicester Village Designer Outlet, private dining rooms and tickets to West End musicals. If the Olympics have clarified anything in the UK, it’s that the Old Money of Europe is no longer spending – the real opportunities for growth are from exotic Asia.
London is usually top of the list for anyone considering a European destination for incentives, meetings and events, even more so with the world in the grip of Olympic fever. For the event planner with a generous budget, London will leave you spoilt for choice. Head straight to the expensive end of the Monopoly board for the five star hotels, most located in the desirable W1 postcode covering Mayfair and Park Lane. Enjoy the refined British luxury of Brown’s Hotel or weave through the Ferraris and Lamborghinis upon entering the iconic Dorchester on Park Lane. All within walking distance of many must-do attractions such as Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, the shopping districts of Regent and Oxford Streets, expect to stumble across A-list celebrities and European aristocracy in the lobby bar.
Unfortunately, as fate (and reality) would have it, few of us are blessed with such generous budgets but it is increasingly possible to negotiate hard and get great value for money in London. Moving further afield from the affluent districts of Mayfair, Park Lane and Knightsbridge, prices become more palatable for the budget conscious. In particular, travelling towards the trendsetting east end, Stratford home of the Olympics, has been transformed the place to eat, meet and shop.
Only a few short years ago the Olympic site at Stratford, a mere 15 minute Tube ride from Central London, was a desolate and uninspiring industrial wasteland. Now, as the home of the 2012 Olympics, the once-avoided neighbourhood has undergone significant gentrification and extensive capital investment. The Olympic Park, which stretches across 246 hectares of previously disused industrial land, is the jewel in London 2012’s crown. The site houses nine of the main competition venues, including the 80,000 capacity Olympic stadium and the astonishing Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre.
Adjoining the Olympic Park is the largest shopping mall in Europe, Westfield Stratford City, with over 250 retail outlets, 70 places to dine, Aspers Casino and three hotels providing 617 rooms – perfect for a little post-conference retail therapy or quick bite to eat. Well serviced by London’s underground trains, light rail, high-speed trains to King’s Cross and Liverpool Street stations, and direct links to the Eurostar terminal, Stratford is better connected to more attractions and international airports than most of Central London.
The Holiday Inn Stratford City opened in May 2012 with 188 rooms and seven meeting rooms aptly named after previous Olympic host cities. The Staybridge Suites located above the Holiday Inn offer plush studios and suites best suited to longer stay clientele offering a home away from home, with evening drinks for guests served on the deck overlooking the Olympic Park and Central London. Rates are much more affordable than Central London, starting from £80.00 (US$ 130) per night at Holiday Inn and £90.00
(US$ 146) per night at the Staybridge Suites. Bus pick up and drop off zones are conveniently located, and Stratford is located only five minutes by underground to both of London’s business districts – Canary Wharf and The City.
With numerous food outlets and restaurants, private dining can also be accommodated within Stratford. Aspers Casino offer the gorgeous Sky Bar and all the quality casual ethnic dining chains are nearby, including Wahaca, Cabana and Busaba Eathai, the latter offering a private dining room that overlooks the Olympic stadium and Aquatics Centre.
Whilst the British are distracted basking in the glory of their ‘greatest team ever’, there has never been a better time for Asian buyers to secure the best rates. The Olympic cash injection into restaurants and hotels failed to eventuate. Multitudes are concerned that the Olympic site will become a metaphorical ghost town. Europe is walking on financial eggshells and the American economy is still struggling. This means that you, the beloved Asian buyer are the newly crowned Kings and Queens of the UK market. 2013 and beyond will see venues and hotels fight to firm up their foothold in the affluent Asian market and in true Uncle Sam style “we want you!”

Get the most out of your dollars: Tips for planning your event in London

  • RESPONSE TIMES The British, whilst not as laissez-faire as their Mediterranean neighbours, still have very generous ideas on appropriate business response times. In Asia and Australia, 24 hours is the absolute maximum time frame to respond to a client’s email or voicemail. In London, it could be up to a week, or potentially never. Larger international chains such as Starwood and IHG along with the high-end five star hotels tend to have more consistent service levels, but there is a nine to five mentality in Britain. Do not expect contacts to respond to you outside of their work hours or on weekends. If they do, never let them go. They are a UK anomaly, definitely an exception to the rule. In all other cases, chase your contact. A lot. It is often the only way to get anything done.
  • SPECIAL EVENTS venues Finding a hotel to host your event isn’t hard in London. There are hundreds to choose from, and you will generally be able to find a competitive rate. But do not fall into the trap of hosting all (or perhaps any) aspects of your conference or event in the hotel. Most of London’s gorgeous historic buildings can be hired for events. One of the best known is Somerset House, the chosen venue of many special events throughout the year, from the launch of new musicals like Shrek, to hosting the Brazilian Olympic Team in ‘Casa Brasil’. Located on the banks of the Thames, this neoclassical palace will provide the most memorable event for clients. Alternately, the uber-chic Sketch in Mayfair is a creative and artistic haven. A unique, authentically chic London experience, Sketch is currently hosting an exhibition for foremost British contemporary artist, Martin Creed. Sketch can host events from 24 up to 550 guests with some of the most ornately decorated rooms in London.
  • USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT Whilst most travel and event management companies will use coaches, it will be faster to use public transport in many cases. Services such as the Heathrow Express train will have your group in Central London in 15 minutes – by coach, you will probably still be in Heathrow coach parking. Day trips to Oxford, Bicester Village shopping outlet or Bath will also be faster by train. Bicester Village is a 50-minute train ride from London and at least a two-hour bus ride, depending on traffic. Some bookers prefer to bus groups to the London train terminals then take the train – it’s genius and highly recommended.
  • TAKE THE EUROSTAR If by chance you are lucky enough to take your group to London and Paris, take advantage of the Eurostar. Whilst a little more expensive than flights, you will save money on transfers as you are whisked from St Pancras train terminal in the centre of London to Gare du Nord, right in the middle of all the Parisian action.
  • DRESS FOR COLD WEATHER By Asian weather standards, London is always cold, just differing degrees of cold, from crisp to freezing. An ‘unbearably’ hot day for a Briton is 26 degrees Celsius and happens perhaps five times a year. Pack a coat.

Meet&Eat

COMPILED BY LEILA BOTHAM

The British have proven themselves exceptional at many things. Soccer, introducing the stiff upper lip to the world, producing boy bands and owning Keira Knightley are just a few notable mentions. There are two obvious areas where the UK fails. Dismally. Without question, they are weather and food.

We can’t blame them for the weather; just ensure you have an umbrella even on the sunniest of days. On the other hand, if a culinary adventure is your aim, it is best you fly to Burgundy, Catalunya or Tuscany as food in the UK ranges from cheap and mediocre to prohibitively priced excellence. Home to cooking phenomenons like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, British food can be fantastic, but dining out, especially for the international visitor can be hit and miss. Inconsistency in the industry has seen the rise of several good quality, mid-range restaurant chains that are reliable and tasty. When hosting an important client for lunch or needing to book a private dining room for your boss, confidence in the quality of food and service is paramount. Here are a few insider recommendations for the uninitiated.

Coffee Catch Up?

Forget about the Italians, the Antipodeans have the edge on cool coffee spots in London. Coffee culture is still in its infancy, but Kaffeine, Flat White and Lantana all located in the West End are leading the way. Workshop Coffee Co in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch Grind near Old Street are also consistently excellent. These cafes don’t accept reservations, but you will most definitely have oodles of street cred by taking a coffee lover to these hot spots.

High end meet and eats

Do you have an enviable budget for your dinner meeting or private dining? Well, you are in luck. Most of the world’s celebrity chefs have at least one restaurant in London so Gordon, Heston and Jamie have plenty of options for you. As an alternative, there are London institutions like Bluebird Chelsea, Hakkasan and Hawksmoor, or edgier choices like Sketch. Recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, The River Café on the banks of the Thames at Hammersmith offers the best Italian food west of Tuscany. If you remember to book three months early and don’t mind the trip out of London, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck is still one of the world’s best restaurants, currently enjoying a three Michelin
star rating. All restaurants, apart from The Fat Duck, offer private dining.

• Bluebird Chelsea: www.bluebird-restaurant.co.uk
• Hakkasan: www.hakkasan.com
• Hawksmoor: www.thehawksmoor.com
• The River Café: www.rivercafe.co.uk
• Sketch: www.sketch.uk.com
• The Fat Duck: www.thefatduck.co.uk

Budget-minded but need to impress?

This is where the fine-casual (in contrast to fast-casual) restaurant chains come into play. Consistent and well priced, good quality chains are conveniently located and trustworthy. Carluccio’s and Busaba Eathai both hold cooking classes – a fun optional activity for groups or partners travelling on incentives.

  • Busaba Eathai: Conceived by Alan Yau of Hakkasan and Yauatcha acclaim, with private dining facilities in Stratford City, West End and Bicester Village: www.busaba.com
  • Carluccio’s: Passionate about Italian food with impressive retail in store. Often host opera or jazz evenings: www.carluccios.com
  • Côte: A French bistro chain offering all the classics: www.cote-restaurants.co.uk
  • Jamie’s Italian – no visit to London is complete without visiting at least one of Jamie’s restaurants: www.jamieoliver.com/italian
  • Wahaca: Inspired by Mexican market food: www.wahaca.co.uk