When Seiko’s sales director was charged with the launch of its futuristic Arctura watch, he wanted to make a splash. “The watch designers said it was all about being aerodynamic, so we wanted to reflect that idea in the site of the launch itself. It had to be about design and technical excellence too,” says David Innes. But even he was surprised by the venue finally selected: with its diamond--panelled, all-glass, bullet-shaped peak, the top floor of 30 St. Mary’s Axe, better known as the Gherkin, was a new London landmark he had not expected to be accessible. “There is the assumption that many well-known buildings or monuments are private or state-owned and so untouchable,” he says. “But often access is possible - and that makes an event special. You can always go to a top bar. But a bar is still just a bar.”
Indeed, the market for hiring out buildings that offer iconic architecture, historic association or the simple allure of unusual access is booming. Many of them see such a side-line as a way of paying off building costs or, if dependent on charitable contributions for their upkeep - as with, for examples, museums open free to the public - as a welcome way to top up their income. The appeal to the people who hire them is more obvious: a chance to make a statement, enhance a reputation at a time of increased competition, shout above the white noise of lesser social events or simply hold the guests’ attention. Corporations have driven the scene, though, while hire by private individuals accounts for only 5% of business, this is set to be the growth area, despite such venues typically costing between £1,000 and £15,000 for around six hours access. The Gherkin is likely to set you back £20,000 for the same. With demand growing but the number of the most prestigious venues not, prices can be expected to rise.
There are, typically, restrictions on what can be hosted in such unusual venues too: protection of the building and its contents is of paramount importance to the owners, especially with historic buildings, which means they often specify the suppliers and caterers that may be used for an event (suppliers who also tend to be specialists in fast turnarounds, able to speedily set up after the building closes for its standard day use). It also means access to some buildings remains severely limited, to as few as five events a year. “Fantastic properties that are beautifully carpeted and full of antique furniture cannot take too many rowdy parties, so we have to be careful what we accept,“explains Alice Ogilvy, head of functions for the National Trust, which now hires out some 150 properties. “But this only adds to an event’s exclusivity.”
The options are no less impressive for that. The thousand-year-old White Tower of Tower Bridge, for example, offers stunning views along the Thames, while its Martin Tower has an intimate room for just 12. London’s Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner is no mere block of marble. It has hidden rooms in its top that can be hired for dinner events. Kensington Palace allows special event guests to play aristo in Princess Diana’s pad for the evening, Chartwell, a grand manor house in Kent, to play wartime leader - it was the family home of Winston Churchill.
“These are the kinds of places that people may get to experience on a visit during the day,” says Sam Melton, who manages private functions for Historic Royal Palaces, “so to get inside when they are effectively empty, or to be given access to parts usually closed, makes for a memorable evening.”
The French government even capitalises on this boom market through its Centre des Monuments Nationaux, which organises the hiring of some of the nation’s most glorious architectural sites, from the grand and opulent - the gothic halls of la Conciergerie on the banks of the Seine - to the sacred - the 12th century Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud - and the austere - Le Corbusier’s 1928 modernist masterpiece Villa Savoye a Poissy. And although parties cannot be held within them, private visits can be organised to the likes of Notre Dame and the Sistine Chapel without having to be Madonna.
“People who socialise a lot tend to see all manner of places and these tend to be much the same, so increasingly they want to attend an event at a place that is unusual or unexpected - the hotel, however well-appointed, or the conference centre, however good the amenities, just isn’t interesting anymore,” says Nicky Pratt, head of venue reservations for the Crown Group, specialist event organisers and one of a new breed of company that is launching to serve the market. She isn’t wrong. If the choice is between rattling around a faceless interior of another bland, supposed hotspot, and being treated like royalty in, well, royalty’s home, then it is an easy one to make.