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Back page interview: Robin Parker, general manager, Church House Conference Centre

15 January 2009

Church House in Westminster is the London headquarters of the Church of England, but 25 per cent of the building is used for commercial enter­prise.

I worked on cruise ships for five years, and learned the technical side of the conference business in theatres. Then I ran venues like Newbury Racecourse, and Madame Tussauds: during the day it’s a major tourist attraction, but it’s now a conference centre in the evening. You can hire it for a dinner for 350 people, or a cocktail party for up to 1000. And it’s not the only one: all the museums and art galleries in London now — you can hire any of them for an evening.

When I came to Madame Tussauds it was earning £250,000 a year in ban­queting; and when I left it was making two-and-half million pounds.

You are offering people something money can’t buy. I have to say that some of these big venues aren’t cheap: they can’t compete with what you pay for a hotel. But it’s what you are buying into. An individual can’t buy Madame Tussauds for the night, but a company can offer its top 200 salesmen an incredible evening there.

Madame Tussauds is a fantastic venue to have a party, but Church House is a fabulous building and centre for conferences during the day, with a brilliant audio-visual team. It’s a different market. Church House has to be seen against hotels: I’d choose here every time. It’s a lovely setting and a great location.

Yes, it’s for serious conferences. But, having said that, during the main refurbishment in 2006, the main assembly hall where General Synod is held was adapted for all sorts of events. The raked floor and fixed seating were taken out, and now we can have dinners for 360 people, or theatre-style conferences for 600.

A successful conference to us is one where the client ends up as a happy client. They need to set up clear ob­jectives and goals of what they want to achieve, and then choose the right venue. It’s about location, clear, accessible information, good facili­ties, good service. . .

We pride ourselves on our friendly, professional staff. I’m very lucky to walk into a job where there’s such a settled, fantastic team.

On the QE2 we used to get asked some very strange questions. I was standing on deck one day, talking to a passenger, and she asked me if the crew slept on board. Absolutely honest! And we were sailing past the Needles into Southampton one day, and a passenger asked me if they were icebergs. At Madame Tussauds, we used to be asked to remove certain figures for an event because clients didn’t want to see them. Most com­monly, Richard Branson.

Any space can be used for some form of conference or event. A parish might have a room suitable for children’s parties, or a Rotarian meeting.

My parents were entertainers. My mother was a comedienne, and my father was a comedy magician, working in cabaret.

As in most entertainment, what you see isn’t what you get: my parents didn’t sit down at meals and crack endless jokes. But then they weren’t like Kenneth Williams either, manic-depressives. My father worked abroad a lot; so I went to boarding school from the age of ten, but my mother and I would go out to join him in France, Italy, Spain — wherever he was — for the holiday period. I never thought it lonely. I had a lot of good friends at home, but of course I didn’t see them very often.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been around the theatre and entertain­ment. I went through a phase of testing myself on the performance side, working as a Red Coat at But­lins, and developing an act, children’s shows, and various things — but I decided that wasn’t my final destiny.

So I went into entertainment man­age­ment. That’s what I was doing on the cruise ships: booking the acts, looking after performers. A lot of people who were in the theatre in the ’80s have gone into the conference world — it’s a relatively new industry.

I’d never call myself a hard-headed businessman. I’ve always been fairly good with people. I’ve just added skills like being able to read a balance sheet, and so on. I’d say I’m an expert in my own field, which is a bit of a niche market, but take me outside of my comfort zone and I’d struggle.

The industry is notorious for long, anti-social hours. During the run-up to Christmas you’re not going to parties: you’re putting on parties for other people to go to. But I’ve always got a big buzz from happy clients — watching people enjoy themselves.

I’m married, with three children: two daughters of 17 and 15, and a son of ten. I make time to see them. It’s very important.

I do go on a lot of conferences. It’s so much about people and networking, and the more you attend, the more you put your own venue up front. I went to a lunch recently at a very disappointing venue. The food was particularly average, and twice during lunch we got the keynote speaker from the conference down­stairs through our PA system. And they were hosting major clients. I’m not critical out loud, but . . .

If I could choose a dream venue to go to myself, it would be one that has a golf course. I’m an extremely bad golfer, but, yes, something totally different. A stately home, perhaps, out in the country, with lots of leisure facilities — and a golf course.

I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I’ve enjoyed them at all levels, reading them myself and with the children, and seeing the films.

What I’ve always wanted to be, apart from Tiger Woods, is a chef — all through my schooldays. But for good or bad, in the ’70s cooking wasn’t available to boys at school; so I could never pursue it. Everything I know was taught by my mother, who was an extremely good cook.

I love food. Let’s not beat about the bush here. I love being challenged when I’m eating. I love trying new things. I think Jamie Oliver, both as a restaurateur and in his work with schools, is fantastic. I’ve been lucky enough to eat in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and thought it fantastic.

Working on the cruise ships and the QE2 was a fantastic life. I went round the world five times. But making the decision to step ashore and into “reality” was a good one. Life aboard ship is great fun — you work hard and play hard — but it has a short life-expectancy.

I saw different places where it would be lovely to live — coastal towns with lovely climates: Perth, say, or Cape Town. And then other places that were absolutely fascinating, where you wouldn’t want to live, like Bangkok and Mumbai.

The happiest times are when I’m with my kids, and we go out all together. That’s what life is all about.

I’d choose to be by water for holi­days, every time. Well, moun­tains for skiing, of course. Both.

Who I’d like to get locked in a church with: half of me wants to say Tiger Woods. I could spend the time having golf lessons. And a quarter would say Gordon Ramsay, as long as there’s a good kitchen downstairs. But actually, I think I’d say with my kids: it would be great to spend time with them without any dis­tractions.

Robin Parker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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