When you think of Newcastle a number of things are likely to pop into your head. The Tyne Bridge, that bottle of brown, fizzy liquid, and revellers who are completely impervious to low temperatures may well be among them. But, for some, the familiar black and white stripes of Newcastle United Football Club may well be the first.
Despite having not won a major trophy for over forty years, the devout fanaticism of the club's loyal 'Toon Army' have ensured that the club has always retained a high profile, and it's deeply associated with a number of English footballing icons from Alan Shearer to Sir Bobby Robson.
As well as providing controversial subject matter for possessive apostrophe enthusiasts, St James' Park has been the home of the Magpies since the nineteenth century and has the third largest capacity in English club football (only Arsenal and Manchester United can pack more in). However, 50,000+ match-day attendances can only pay for so many new French footballers; the rest of the week the stadium hires out its suites, executive clubs and boxes for a range of events including weddings, awards ceremonies and even X Factor auditions.
The stadium has also proved a popular choice for conferences, and there are a number of reasons why. The most enticing is, perhaps, its location – just a fifteen minute drive from Newcastle International Airport when the traffic's quiet (with free parking available).
Being unusually centrally-located for a football stadium, it's well-served by public transport too. St James metro station lies virtually underneath it, and from there it's just two stops (with one change) to the city's main rail station; or a few minutes by cab.
Accommodation, meanwhile, is a doddle. The lush Sandman Signature Hotel is directly opposite, with a Jury's Inn also nearby, and the club's business partnerships means priority bookings are available at both.
While the stadium is loftily impressive from the outside, it's the internal facilities that matter. What St James' Park can certainly provide is choice – from executive boxes (with a private bar and circular or boardroom table) to gigantic suites (each with a separate kitchen and in-house catering, meaning no cold grub), there is a space for pretty much anything from a small business meeting to an industry exhibition.
The most vibrant area on offer is probably the Magpie Suite. Formerly a restaurant and capable of fitting up to 300 guests for a banquet event, its main selling point is a stunning view of the pitch which can be enjoyed from a private outside seating area.
Unsurprisingly it's a popular room for weddings, with ceremonies currently booked for as far away as 2016, and there's even a grand piano in the corner (though sadly there was no time to test it). If you want to host an event which fully exploits the novelty of being in a football stadium then this is a fine option - it can even be combined with condensed 45-minute tours for conference guests.
The smaller Gallowgate Suite also boasts a pitch view and provides a grisly bit of trivia – the stand it's located in takes its name from the city gallows which once stood next door (while a few disgruntled fans may have once pondered re-erecting them in honour of controversial owner Mike Ashley, rest assured that former manager Chris Hughton's sacking a couple of years ago is as close to a public execution as the site has come since 1844).
If you'd prefer to downplay the football associations, or maybe there are a number of Sunderland fans in your party, you might prefer a suite without a pitch view. Though most of them take their names from former footballing personnel, such as Club 206 (Alan Shearer's club record goal tally) and the Moncur Suite (named after former captain Bobby Moncur, who lifted the club's last major trophy in 1969), sporting imagery is generally pretty low-key, plus the garish Sports Direct branding that's plastered all over the stands is mercifully absent inside. Indeed, it's easy to imagine how a bit of creative décor could easily help you forget you're in a football stadium at all.
The biggest of the suites, and one of the largest conference and banqueting facilities in the North East, is the Bamburgh Suite, which size-wise pretty much runs the length of the pitch. While this means there's room for up to a thousand guests, be aware that it also means the room is narrowly elongated which could prove somewhat awkward for certain event; the stage and dancefloor area is right in the middle, which effectively obscures it from the ends of the suite.
To counteract this, televisions are dotted about the room so that proceedings can be screened for the less well-placed (the AV equipment is all in-house and a technician can be hired by the day or hour). While the room suffers from a lack of natural light and would necessitate a bit of creative decoration to counteract this, the capacity, strong WIFI signals and late licensing (1am with catering with a limited number of 3am licenses available) make it a tempting option for larger events. An added quirk is that there is direct access to the stadium's multi-storey car park, meaning that vehicles can be wheeled in if required.
With the North East being one of the leading car manufacturing regions in Britain, situations where that could be required may not be as rare as you might think. Yet whatever industry you're working in, St James' Park is a versatile option for an array of events. It may not be quite as quirky a venue as, say, The Great North Museum, but in terms of location and facilities it's hard to beat. If only you could say the same about Alan Pardew's team this season...