Meetings check: Amberley Castle

Background The meetings market is very important to hotels, and as times get tough and firms cut back on their budgets, the hotel chains have become more imaginative in finding new ways to persuade companies to gather together in an off-site location. Von Essen Hotels, best known for its elegant country house properties, has come up with a “brain food” menu to “tackle the well-known problem of declining concentration and energy levels in conferences and meetings”.

What is it? A menu that has been introduced across all of Von Essen’s 28 hotels. It features a selection of tasty smoothies, snacks that can be served during breaks – such as cherry, almond, oat and honey energy bars, and blueberry, banana and ginger muffins – and a lunch menu containing dishes such as smoked salmon with mango salsa; pea, mint and barley risotto; and smoked mackerel on a seed-topped crostini. All are created with ingredients designed to boost energy and concentration.

The venue Part of Von Essen Hotels’ Classic Set of properties, Amberley Castle is a member of the Relais and Châteaux luxury hotel collection. The 19-room castle has a history dating back to 1103. The entire property and grounds can be hired for events, as can individual meeting rooms. There are several of these, from the oak-panelled King Charles room, which seats 12, to the Great room, which holds up to 34 people. There is also an all-weather tennis court, a croquet lawn in the dry moat and an 18-hole professional putting course, with team-building activities ranging from archery and falconry to horse riding and axe throwing.

The meeting Arriving first thing in the morning after an early start (the nearby railway station is 80 minutes from London Victoria), the thought of smoothies was less appealing to the team than a strong coffee and a croissant. After waking ourselves up with a dose of caffeine and some pastries, we were more open to the healthy stuff. Each smoothie had different properties. For instance, the Mixed Very Berry (raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and cranberry) had vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, potassium and iron, all good for stress and fatigue, we were told. The Brazilian Super Fruit (acai, banana and apple), meanwhile, promised to release natural energy to stimulate the brain. We gorged on the energy bars and muffins, then got down to work.

Lunch was the big test. The resident sommelier, who had popped down from the fully booked lunch in the restaurant upstairs, provided a detailed description of each perfectly presented dish, explaining not only the ingredients but their intended effect. He was superb – not overly serious, but never succumbing to the easy laugh.

Did it work? Yes, we thought so. The portions weren’t huge, but were tasty and filling, and no one was drowsy in the afternoon despite it being a warm day. You could put this down to the placebo effect, of course – we were told the food would have a particular impact, and it did. It was definitely an advantage having someone who could describe the dishes while they were being served rather than them being left on a side table for us to help ourselves to. The menu provided an interesting distraction for the group – as well as its energising properties, it was a form of entertainment that allowed us to exchange opinions about something other than work.

Is it worth it? Yes, but bear in mind that the menu comes as an additional cost to the standard meal price (see fact file, left).

Verdict  Something quite out of the ordinary that gave an interesting focus to a day’s off-site meeting and encouraged innovative thinking.

Fact file

Price The “brain food” package costs £70 per person (minimum ten delegates) and includes the menu and meeting room hire, but not equipment. The standard menu package is £50 per person.

Contact Amberley Castle, Amberley, Near Arundel, West Sussex; tel +44 (0)1798 831 992; amberleycastle.co.uk, vonessen.co.uk

Andrew Gough


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