A neo-Jacobean stately home that allows couples to be Lord and Lady of the Manor for their big day
Sandon Hall has been the ancestral home of the Harrowby family since 1776 and has been open for weddings for the last 15 years. With 50 acres of formal gardens and 400 acres of parkland, the estate is considered the jewel in Staffordshire’s crown. We talk to team member Emma Clarke.
What is your venue’s history?
Sandon Hall is a neo-Jacobean hall built in 1854 after a fire burnt down the original house built in 1776. So, you could say we have been in the business of hosting parties and events since the 18th century.
Sandon Hall has been the ancestral home of the Harrowby family since 1776, when Nathaniel, first Baron Harrowby, bought a shooting lodge and had it transformed by the architect Samuel Wyatt into a Georgian house.
The present Lord and Lady Harrowby chose to open their house up to the public 15 years ago. They haven’t changed much of the interior; in the drawing room, you will see hand painted wallpaper, preferring to make anyone using the hall feel like Lord and Lady of the Manor for their special day.
Set in 400 acres of parkland with 50 acres of ornamental gardens, many brides choose to erect tipis and marquees in the grounds.
We have been very successful with weddings, averaging 35 weddings a year. Our next five-year plan is to drive weddings to over 50 a year and attract more mid-week corporate bookings.
Tell us about your location and site
Set in the very heart of the country, Sandon Hall is just 10 mins from J14 of the M6 motorway, but you wouldn’t have thought it. Guests turn off the A51 and on to the one-mile private drive which takes them through part of the parkland, much of which is used for sheep and pheasants.
Once guests arrive at the hall they get to appreciate the tranquillity Sandon has to offer, the peace and open space.
One of our challenges is the livestock on the parkland. The estate rents large areas out to local farmers and we are aware of the need to remove livestock from the fields we use for a period of time before events are held. However, we are lucky to have the 50 acres of formal gardens, designed by William Eames, immediately encircling the Hall which tends to cover all our guests’ needs.
We even have a church on the estate, which many wedding guests choose to walk back from, through the parkland to the Hall, for the wedding breakfast.
Every booking has exclusive use of the Hall, even when we allocate a specific room for their event. Guests are free to wander the six ground floor rooms and out into the gardens during they stay.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
We pride ourselves in flexibility; we are not one of these venues governed by budgets and shareholders, we want our guests to have the experience they aspire to (within reason). We therefore welcome any form of marquee, tipi or circus tent – yes, we have one lined up for a wedding next year on the gardens right outside the hall. For civil marriages, we can offer the use of the temple garden, which is fully licensed and allows our couples and their guests to enjoy the serenity of their surroundings. There is a small structure which will keep the bride and groom dry but their guests might have to fend off the unpredictability of the British weather. We have taken this into account and we even provide colour co-ordinated umbrellas for guests.
At the moment, we do not offer accommodation on site, however, we have planning to convert a house on the estate into two, three-bedroom self-catering units. We are also in talks with event companies who may be interested in hosting events with bell tents for guests to sleep in.
What services do you offer?
Our team are here to hold couples’ hands throughout their whole event and includes general manager Cheryl Millward, who previously ran her own events management company, and Beckie Dufton, who is the wedding co-ordinator with over 10 years event experience. Both love creating unique and special days for all guests.
We do not cook ourselves, but we have two in-house caters we recommend, chosen through extensive taste testing (which we thoroughly enjoyed). Both offer the highest standards and match the quality we represent. We also have an in-house florist, who uses many estate-grown flowers in her displays. She has many years’ experience dressing the hall and can impart her knowledge to help embellish the tables and rooms to a couples’ taste. Our resident DJ helps guests dance the night away and the bar is managed by a local brewery, providing local ales, prosecco and a large range of gins (we are working our way through them) as well as wine, spirits and beers on tap.
Our rooms inside and the temple garden outside are licensed for wedding ceremonies; the ornamental gardens provide a stunning backdrop to the photographs.
We have worked with a number of outdoor entertainers, who amuse guests during drinks receptions or photographs – only last month we had a carnival-themed corporate event with stilt walkers, jugglers and magicians milling around with guests.
Describe how you researched and sourced your marquee
We don’t buy our marquees as we are aware most guests want to make their event unique, we have therefore searched and interviewed many marquee companies for recommendation. We use the same company for events we run on site as well as recommending them to our customers; they had to meet our high standard and mirror the quality of the hall itself.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
Flexibility is key – the space we can offer, the services we can provide and timelines we can work too; we will work with every guest to structure their event according to their specific requirements.
We have just taken on a new online management system to work more efficiently as a team and with our customers, called Planning Pod. This system allows us as a team to communicate through one portal, only giving each other the relevant information, rather than telling everyone everything. The best thing about it is that we can communicate with the customer through it – seating plan templates, timings, menus etc. can be uploaded so they can control the detail.
How do you publicise yourself?
We have actually just changed our marketing plans. Previously, you would have found us in all kinds of wedding-focused media, but not too much focused on the corporate market. We know once a bride visits the hall she will fall in love with it, so we do not require high volumes of marketing for weddings, but we need to promote ourselves open for business during the week. We have just signed ourselves up for a national online conference booking directory. Hopefully, we will be seen by over 50 agents and many more conference bookers.
We are also planning a number of familiarisation visits for local businesses so they can see what we can offer. But our largest tool is our new website www.sandonhall.co.uk and social media; Twitter, Facebook and Instagram give us real time interaction with a large volume of potential customers. We also use e-newsletters to numerous databases for constant updates.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
We are a private stately home which allows our guests to feel like Lord and Lady of the Manor, promenading around the ornamental gardens. We stand out from our competitors because we offer exclusivity to all our guests so we can focus on their event. With over 400 acres of parkland available the estate is crying out for outdoor events and team building sessions.
What challenges have you faced?
Getting potential guests to know we are open. The estate is the country home to Lord and Lady Harrowby; they do not want people just wondering around the estate so we cannot have large signs saying we are open to all and we have to find other ways of attracting people to the estate.
What are your plans for next season?
We are looking for outdoor team building companies who are interested in working with us to attract a whole new market. We will also be building new accommodation on site which will hopefully grow our wedding market.
Why do you enjoy the business?
I absolutely love it, I have been in the business for over 20 years and there is no other business I would like to be in. I love standing at the back of a wedding breakfast during the speeches when everyone is smiling and saying how much they have enjoyed their day, that’s when you know you have done your job well.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We run a number of festivals and garden fêtes throughout the year, linking with partners across the area. Last year we held a drive-in movie night; it was fantastic having the screen up with the Hall lit up in the background. For most of these events we will open up the Hall for guided tours. We also provide the catering for these events, but it varies in how we provide it; sometimes it’s afternoon tea on the lawns, sometimes it’s milkshake bars and popcorn out with the event.
We are so excited about our new cater Catherine Skate. Last month, we hosted a pop up restaurant and over 80 guests booked tables. It was a lovely night and we are currently looking for dates for the next one.
With so much open space we facilitate team building events, from small group work to motorised sports and anything in-between. With any of these events we provide catering facilities back in the Hall.
We are considering glamping but need to understand all the costs and requirements for facilities, but if someone would like to work with us we are happy to look into it.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Be prepared not to sleep much and keep smiling; the good points far outweigh the bad.
Sandon Hall, Sandon, Stafford, ST18 0BZ