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Sunday
Sep162018

From Bournemouth to Blackpool, the best and worst party conference locations

The 2018 party conference season has begun.

The Lib Dems (remember them?) are kicking things off in Brighton (15-18 September), to be followed by Ukip (Birmingham, 21-22 September).

Labour then pitch up in Manchester (23-26 September) before the Conservatives meet in Birmingham (30 Sept-3 October).

The season ends with the Greens in Bristol (5-7 October) and the SNP in Glasgow (7-9 October).

I can feel you losing interest already so I won’t labour the subject other than to say that I’m sad that my favourite conference location - Bournemouth - is no longer on the rota for the larger (Labour and Conservative) conferences.

Two years ago I nominated Forest’s top ten conference events.

Last year we began to seriously review the value of hosting events at party conference - be it a drinks reception or panel discussion - and this year it was a close call whether it was worth the effort.

Ironically it’s a difficult habit to break and so, tomorrow, I’ll post details of the two meetings we’re hosting at this year’s Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Labour and the Lib Dems aren’t worth the trouble, if I’m honest, although we may reconsider organising an event at the Labour conference if Corbyn wins the next election!

But first, here are my favourite (and least favourite) conference locations:

Bournemouth
What’s not to like? The town is fine if nothing special but the beach is as good as it gets at any UK seaside resort. Bournemouth is reasonably easy to get to by car and rail (if not exactly quick) and there’s even a small airport where I once caught a flight to Edinburgh, returning the next day to pick up my car. Conference-wise it’s very delegate friendly because there are lots of hotels and b&bs within easy walking distance of the conference centre. And at this time of year I can’t think of anything nicer than wandering down to the beach in late autumn sunshine. Or having breakfast, mid morning coffee or lunch at WestBeach seaside restaurant. Or enjoying the crispiest chilli beef at the wonderfully named Ocean Palace Restaurant.

Good: Sea views, the beach, WestBeach seaside restaurant
Bad: Too many hotels lacking modern amenities (including air-conditioning!)

Brighton
There’s much to admire about Brighton. The Royal Pavilion may attract the tourists but there’s far more to the city than the former royal residence. Arriving in Brighton in 2005 for a Forest event, David Hockney praised the light that reflects off the sea and the famous white buildings. As a conference venue however Brighton doesn’t work for me. The conference centre is ugly as hell and the famous Grand Hotel (where I was drinking hours before the IRA bomb exploded in 1983) is an unhappy reminder of a shocking event. On the other hand I have very happy memories of more recent conferences that will live with me forever.

Good: The light!
Bad: The beach - a good beach needs sand not pebbles!

Manchester
Friends insist it’s great place to live and work but I’m not entirely sold on Manchester. It has some impressive Victorian architecture but there’s something rather austere about the place. The monstrously gothic town hall is a case in point. I’m biased because Forest is banned from hosting events in the town hall due to our tobacco industry connections, but I’m not sure I would want to organise an event there anyway. It’s the sort of place where only the Addams Family could feel at home. Conference-wise however Manchester is a significant improvement on Blackpool, which it replaced, because the hotels are, in general, significantly better. And while the weather may be very similar, at least there’s more protection from the wind and the rain!

Good: Some good hotels and restaurants
Bad: Above average rainfall, Andy Burnham

Birmingham
Birmingham is an easy drive from my home in Cambridgeshire and my daughter is at university there so I’ve become a fairly regular visitor. She loves it but the city’s charms have largely eluded me so far. Like Manchester there is a reasonable choice of hotels and some fine restaurants but the much-touted canals have limited appeal. It’s certainly not Venice although, given what we hear about Venice being overwhelmed by tourists, that may be a good thing. The ICC however is a fine conference centre with excellent facilities and plenty of bars and restaurants within easy walking distance.

Good: Easy access by train or car, some good restaurants
Bad: Aesthetically challenging city centre if not downright ugly in parts

Liverpool
Apart from a couple of visits in the Eighties (one to Anfield), I came to Liverpool quite late, but I like it. In my experience the people are extremely friendly and the location of the conference centre in the rejuvenated Albert Dock area works pretty well. True, it isolates delegates a bit from the city centre, especially if you stay in one of the new hotels close to the conference centre and overlooking the old docks, but I like the feeling of space and the fact that it overlooks the Mersey. When I’ve been there I’ve often considered going back for a weekend break. The fact that I haven’t probably says something but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Good: Friendly locals
Bad: I genuinely can’t think of anything, and not for want of trying!

Doncaster
I had never been to Doncaster until Ukip (and Nigel Farage) rolled into town a few years ago. The conference was at the racecourse on the edge of town. It was all a bit surreal. On the first night we had dinner in town and walked out of the restaurant to find police cars zipping around, blue lights flashing. I haven’t been back.

Good: The racecourse was quite nice
Bad: Friday nights

Blackpool
My first visit, as a teenager, was to see the Illuminations. I was so impressed I returned a year later with a friend and a tent. That was when my brief love affair with Blackpool ended. Today I can’t find a single good word to say about the town apart from the house prices which seem incredibly cheap (according to the episode of Location, Location, Location I watched last week). There must be a reason for that and my advice is to avoid the centre at all costs and stay a short drive down the coast in Lytham St Annes because everything in Blackpool is mostly dreadful. Thankfully it’s no longer on the conference rota and for most of us that’s a blessing. Sorry.

Good: Nothing that comes to mind
Bad: Everything.

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