London rediscovered

The capital’s rich history is only part of its appeal. As Norman Miller discovers, what keeps drawing millions of business travellers back is London’s enduring ability to reinvent itself

Old and new collide in London

Across the Thames to St Paul's Cathedral (Corbis)

It’s been 2,000 years since the Romans founded, on the Thames, what is still referred to simply as the City – today, London’s financial heart. Since then, the world has been beating a path to Europe’s largest conurbation, and each generation has left its mark on a capital rich in history. Visitors might encounter Norman ‘garderobes’ (otherwise known as toilets, in the White Tower at the Tower of London), a wine bar that survived the Great Fire of London (The Olde Wine Shades on Martin Lane) or a church clock dating from the year Edmund Halley observed his eponymous comet (at St James Garlickhythe, across the river from Shakespeare’s Globe). But its past is only part of London’s appeal. What keeps drawing millions of business travellers and tourists to the city is its enduring ability to reinvent itself.

The London building boom

To the east of St Paul’s Cathedral lies the City’s huddled mass of skyscrapers – the iconic Gherkin overshadowed by new arrivals including the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-Talkie. In the next few years, the area will be transformed, again, by the 62-storey 22 Bishopsgate. Plans are also in place for an even taller construction – 1 Undershaft, and these are only the tip of the iceberg. Between February 2014 and February 2015, 263 buildings of more than 20 storeys were in the pipeline around the capital.

Investment in architecture, and the improvements to infrastructure that often accompany it, has a trickle-down effect, leading to further expenditure and, ultimately, the regeneration of entire communities. Take the once-moribund Greenwich: the Millennium Dome, subsequently the O2 Centre, brought traffic to the area, and just two years after the 2012 Olympics, the borough reported significant inward investment from a wide variety of overseas firms. “There is huge redevelopment and investment going on in the area,” confirms Capita Travel and Events’ director of supplier partnerships, Leigh Cowlishaw, “The O2 used to be perceived as relatively far from the centre of town, but the reality is you can hop on the Jubilee line and get there quickly.”

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Old and new often mingle on London’s skyline (Corbis)

Transport improvements

The quality of its transport connections is at the heart of London’s appeal. Five airports offer direct flights to more than 340 destinations, plus Eurostar trains link St Pancras to Paris and Brussels in two hours. For Cowlishaw, its connectivity makes not just being in London, but actually getting there, an enjoyable and business-appropriate activity. “It starts from the minute you leave your house and doesn’t stop ’til you get home. It’s a fantastic visitor experience.”

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The city isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to transport infrastructure. Big schemes such as HS2 and Crossrail, as well as smaller improvements, are transforming the process of navigating the capital. Contactless credit and debit cards can now be used in lieu of Oyster cards, 24-hour tube services at weekends are due this year, and in January, the Oyster network was extended to cover trains as far as Gatwick – lengthening Transport for London’s reach. Looking further ahead, options for a Crossrail 2 development connecting the National Rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire to the London transport system are being explored, and an extension of the Bakerloo line into south-east London is currently under consideration.

Meetings and events: book ahead, or out of town

The flip side of increased accessibility is that there’s more competition than ever for anyone planning a meeting or business event, and it’s hardly surprising that the American Express Meeting and Events Forecast 2016 named London Europe’s number-one destination for meetings. As a result, London can be expensive, especially compared with other parts of the UK. “Sheer demand in London is keeping rates high,” agrees Cowlishaw. “However, if you look at the total cost of a trip flying in and out of the capital, the ease of delegate travel, and the overall visitor experience, it can be worth paying compared to sending delegates somewhere inaccessible and inconvenient.”

Event planners should be prepared to either book significantly in advance – venues such as Marriott’s Grosvenor House, says Cowlishaw, are now booking years ahead – or look beyond traditional locations. “The mood in London is confident, and demand in many areas continues to outpace supply. Availability is the biggest issue at the moment. If you want to hold an event in the capital you need to be prepared to be flexible about your venues and location. The lead time for events is getting longer because the big, grand spaces and ever-popular venues are getting snapped up further and further in advance. Bookers may need to consider looking further afield to find the size and style of venue they’re after.”

The good news? Investment in transport links means planners can cast their nets over a much wider area to find the ideal venue for their briefs and budgets. “Areas outside the centre that weren’t traditionally seen as ‘local’ London,” adds Cowlishaw, “will increasingly be considered.”

Places to stay: check into the latest exciting venues

In accommodation, meanwhile, things are looking as dynamic as they are in the venue sector. According to Zanine Adams, head of business development UK at promotional agency London & Partners, the number of hotel rooms is expected to grow by 12% over the next three years. “Low-cost and five star accommodation are driving the uplift, with an increase of 29% and 22% in the number of properties respectively.”

The InterContinental hotel at the O2 in London (4kclips / Shutterstock, Inc.)

The InterContinental hotel at the O2 in London (4kclips / Shutterstock, Inc.)

Dozens of exciting hotel developments are on the cards, including the Hilton London Bankside, and the hotly anticipated InterContinental London at the O2 opened in January. And whereas some hotel chains are choosing to set up a little out of town, those who want to increase their presence in the centre of London are having to be creative. “The new Edwardian Leicester Square is groundbreaking, literally,” says Cowlishaw. “They have extended several floors underground to maximise the space in a prime London location. It’s a Las Vegas-style property, with everything guests could possibly need on site.”

Leisure time: don’t be afraid to try new things

The capital offers downtime diversions of such variety and calibre, any venue must pull out all the stops to become a destination in its own right. “London’s hospitality scene has always been cutting-edge,” says Paul Mansi, chief operating officer at Edwardian Hotels London. “The city prides itself on trialling new things – be that exhibitions or bar concepts or food genres.”

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Trendy Brixton Village has become a foodie destination for Londoners (Alamy)

Yes, there are more than 60 Michelin-starred restaurants to tempt discerning diners, but there’s also an astonishing array of other establishments serving food from all corners of the world, including a vibrant pop-up bar and restaurant and street food scene. Some of the most interesting nights out can be had by hopping on a tube to one of the bustling food markets, such as Brixton Village, or by booking one of the capital’s many escape-the-room games (also perfect for team-building).

For those of a slightly more traditional inclination, the Tate Modern’s anticipated extension opens in June, and later in the year the Design Museum is moving closer to the V&A in Kensington. With world-leading credentials in sport, music, culture and more, there’s no doubt London has as much to offer on the leisure front as it does in accommodation, venues and meeting space.

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