Bath, Bristol + the Bard

Thermae Bath Spa Steamy puffs mist over bathers in the 92° open-air pool of the Thermae Bath Spa before escaping over gabled rooftops built two centuries ago, when Jane Austen memorialized the city of Bath in her literary romance novels. It was here where Roman soldiers sank their war-weary bodies into Britain’s original thermal healing waters during the Roman Empire’s expansion.

Bath (pronounced Baath) is one of the world’s great spa towns and one of Britain’s most picture-perfect escapes that defines English propriety. We can’t recommend a trip here highly enough, combined with a program in either Bristol on the Atlantic coast just 10 minutes away by train, or London, a lovely 90 minutes through the heralded English countryside.

As the only accessible outlet for the purifying 115° water bubbling up from underground, Thermae Bath Spa incorporates five historic structures and the modernist New Royal Bath spa—a 3-story contemporary glass edifice housing more than 50 treatment rooms. Options range from a therapist-guided Watsu experience in the smooth mineral-rich waters to the latest therapy just introduced, a Hot Stones Vichy.

Consider yourself sublimely satiated and melted to perfection after this whole body exfoliation, followed by a nourishing aromatherapy bath and hot stone massage. Before you indulge in any of the treatments, it’s imperative to spend time soaking your body in the two pools and four saunas. There’s also the modern Minerva Bath with air seats and neck massage jets, surrounded by grand columns and muted lighting.

We also love the four hi-tech, glass-enclosed aromatherapy steam rooms designed for up to 10 people, with a central fiber optic-lit waterfall shower. For a more historically accurate English spa experience, rent the private Cross Bath. The open-air thermal pool is set in the midst of an 18th century building near the Cross Spring, recognized as an official sacred site.

THE ROYAL CRESCENT One of England’s most photographed and filmed locations outside of London is called The Circus, a sweeping majesty of Georgian architecture comprised of three curved blocks of 30 townhouses, creating an elliptical curve of intricate masonry 500 feet long.

The Royal Crescent Hotel holds court here like Arthur over Camelot, occupying the two central buildings in The Circus. Built in 1768, The Relais & Chateaux property is considered the region’s most historically treasured beauty, housing 45 bedrooms filled with authentic furnishings and some of painter Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpieces. Royal Crescent epitomizes the Queen’s England, from the foyer adorned with ceremonial halberds to the lush secret garden prepared for your group. While the house butler prepares our high tea in the lilac air, we’re told Pavarotti once entertained hundreds of his closest friends here for a private concert.

“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,” praised Hanson Ansary, president/CEO of Global Management Services in Chicago, who joined us on this trip.

The hotel’s Bath House Spa is a converted coach house that more resembles a medieval church sanctuary than a spa, with rough stone floors, arched chapel windows set in brick walls and teak-lined wine vat spa tubs. And for the most rarefied of events, be sure to schedule time to sip rosé champagne with your group while cruising aboard the hotel’s private 1920s launch, the 8-person Lady Sophina. This charming little watercraft sails down the Kennet and Avon waterways from April through October.

HEAVY DUTY HISTORY London. No city in the world has had as much influence around the globe since the fall of Rome. We checked out a few places that speak to that gravitas, which planners can book privately for hob nobbing and gala events.

Just a stone’s throw from Downing Street, the ex-royal palace known as the Banqueting House is so gorgeous that Queen Elizabeth holds private dinners here. Imagine the hush over your guests when they’re first seated at a covered table laden with period dinnerware extending the length of the Undercroft room below a multi-vaulted ceiling, lit by standing candelabras prevalent in 1622 when the Banqueting House was built.

Picture guests gazing up at the Main Hall ceiling blanketed by the only intact installation in the world of a Reubens mural. Italian chairs reflective of the 1600s cushion up to 380 guests, while the serenading sounds of strings swap sets with brass instruments trumpeting from the balconies. In a word, unforgettable.

The Wallace Collection would never qualify as anyone’s cozy cottage. Five generations of Sir Richard Wallace’s family collected more than 6,000 pieces of art, furniture and porcelain. They assembled the horde in the 3-story Hertford House’s 25 galleries, located midway between Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, where they remain forever as mandated by the family.

The house is truly part of the art on view, with each room lined in color-drenched silk fabrics and ornate moldings set into gold gilded ceilings. Each room depicts a period or cultural preference from the member who originally chose that collection. Options for receptions or white-cloth dining are any or all of the four drawing rooms and a 3rd floor ballroom. For a spectacular event, book the Courtyard, a glazed contemporary atrium for 400-pax receptions.

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are a sobering reflection of a time some of us personally recall, situated not far from the Houses of Parliament. Miraculously unscathed at WWII’s end, this hallowed building was the command center where the stoic Prime Minister supervised England’s war efforts and his citizen’s refuge from the Nazi bombardments.

Guests meandering through this time capsule peek through windows at the preserved War and Map Rooms, and glance at a vignette of Churchill talking on the phone to President Harry S. Truman. The showpiece installation is the long computerized video table called The Lifeline, outlining Churchill’s dramatic legacy.

Private access can be provided to groups for grand events in two function spaces. The HCA Auditorium holds 120 seated or 250 for receptions, with vintage propaganda posters on the wall to help imbue the room with 1940s wartime vibe.

The Harmsworth Room is the wow venue for history buffs, where one full wall contains the original backup generators that literally kept the lights on during the London bombings. The space seats 100 for dinner, reception 150, but with a pillar centered in the room it can be easily divided for more intimate gatherings.

“Add a jitterbug band or servers in war uniforms for that extra wow,” says Sue Shefras, director of the DMC Blue Ribbon Events, who put our itinerary together for this trip.

Regarding the various event venues we visited, Hanson Ansary seems impressed. “We’re always in search of niche venues like this,” he says. “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 that venue’s grandeur and entertainment possibilities.”

DOYLE COLLECTION Three London boutique hotels, each a part of the 11-property Doyle Collection, are prime representations of the English capital’s heritage, modernity and an eclectic mix of both. Each is designed to service corporate clients, and while all of them are 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 food products are some of the unifying factors.

At seven stories high and the tallest building in the West End (near The Wallace Collection), the 257-room Marylebone Hotel offers a Mary Poppins perspective of neighboring real estate. This is the modern sister of the trio we visited. The inlaid black and white mosaic, a tree-of-life design wrapping around the rotund column, and the surrounding lobby floor are complemented by fuchsia and zebra-skin chairs pointedly placed in the public spaces and bedrooms. Love the prized rentable reception space for 35 called the Drawing Room, oozing with cozy warmth, hand-painted Italian wallpaper and George Smith furniture.

And what English building would be complete without a secret room? At the Marylebone, it’s a privately-owned gym with 15 trainers, a 60’ indoor pool, dance studio and private entrance for groups visiting the hotel.

The Bloomsbury Hotel is the nearest Doyle Collection hotel to the heart of London’s most popular attractions and neighborhoods. It’s just a 6-minute walk to Covent Garden, a hop-skip to the British Museum, and a 3-minute stroll to Soho.

Built in 1930, the 153-room Bloomsbury is a picture of stately refinement, deserving of its historic Grade 1 Listed status. Rich creams and browns accentuate original flagstone floors, ceilings and windows. Refurbished just last year when it was added to the Doyle Collection, the Bloomsbury offers 15 conference rooms, the largest of which seats 180 for dinner and 300 theater.

A terrace, which is unheard of in this city, is available for corporate breakouts and teas when the weather cooperates. But the most amazing venue within this former YWCA is the Library, preserved with first-run books lining the shelves. It’s a fave in the city for high-end board meetings and intimate dining for up to 16.

And this is just plain fun. The Kensington Hotel’s is a funky mix of vintage and urban chic, following a just-completed £20 million restoration of five Victorian townhouses in London’s Regency quarter. Each of the 150 rooms is individually styled, including hand-selected authentic antiques and big bright bathrooms with clawfoot bathtubs. Function space is limited, but Aubrey Restaurant’s private dining room contains a pre-War table that seats 24. Tea and fresh crumpets in the clubby Victorian lounge is obligatory.

EXCEL LONDON Down the Thames toward the Royal Docks, the ExCel London convention center opened a new addition this month housing 230,000 sf of event space, a 5,000-seat auditorium, a 3,000-pax banquet hall and a meetings suite with 17 rooms for up to 2,500 delegates visiting simultaneously.

James Rees, director of conferences/events, says ExCel is now “over a million square feet, 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 in time for The 2012 Olympic Games. As seven events are being held at ExCel, Prince Regent Station will become Prince Regent for ExCel, dropping conference guests right outside our doors.”

“This is huge,” says David Bruce, managing director of CMP Meeting Services in 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.”

BRISTOL Not all roads lead to London. The seaside city of Bristol, and birthplace of Cary Grant, is well suited for corporate types seeking the more relaxing West Country atmosphere and its close proximity to Bath. From Bristol International Airport, it’s a 20-minute ride past quaint Redland stone cottages and over the world’s first suspension bridge before arriving in SW England’s largest city.

Groups typically tour the elegantly restored SS Great Britain, the world’s first propellor-driven iron oceanliner. Suggest a visit to see the amazing glassblowers at the Bristol Blue Glassworks too.

Bristol is bent on strengthening its corporate attractions and amenities. Ready for the challenge is The Bristol Hotel, a 187-room addition to the Doyle Collection. Contemporary in warm colors with splashes of cranberry tones and the heaviest soundproofing doors around, their Meetings & Events Centre hosts 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 highlight the menu, and don’t miss out on their Welsh Black Lamb Barnsley Chop, marinated in lemon thyme, garlic and white wine.

“The number one reason I’d immediately book a group into the Bristol is their GM, Mark Roche-Garland,” says David Bruce, a hotelier of 13 years before his 24-year stint 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.”