By Ann Witmer
Normandy Farm’s past is as distinctive as its enormous red roofs and the snowy white stucco wall that surrounds the hotel and conference center.
For more than two centuries, owners of this gentleman’s farm ran newspapers, raised thoroughbred horses and Ayrshire cattle and built what was then the country’s largest barn. One of the owners honeymooned in France, returned home and named the farm after Normandy.
Unfortunately, the owners also ran up debts and evaded taxes. Eventually, the farm, in Blue Bell, Pa., a small, affluent community 25 miles west of Philadelphia, fell into disrepair, and parcels were sold off for development.
Conferences become new cash crop
All this changed in 2000 when Hansen Properties Inc., owner of the Blue Bell Country Club across the street, bought what was left of the farm and embarked on a $30 million renovation to restore it and convert it into a hotel, conference a, banquet facility and restaurant. In 2001, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its agricultural past and its architecture.
The Normandy Farm Conference Center opened in 2004 with 23,000 square feet of meeting space. Certified by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), its 17 meeting rooms and two ballrooms blend the farm’s agrarian history with the needs of modern meeting planners.
Barn reborn as conference center
For example, although the two-level conference center is housed in a 200-by-50-foot barn, meeting rooms are equipped with wired and wireless Internet access and technology that ranges from VHS to Blu-ray.
There’s also a human touch. Like the early-rising farmer, technology wizard Tom McCoy, who took charge of wiring the old barn for modern times, shows up for work at 5:30 each morning ready to pitch in and help presenters set up for their meetings.
Marge Martinez, who organizes meetings for Merck and Co., praised the quality of service.
“If you are in the middle of a meeting and need anything at all, from a vegetarian meal to a small room where a manager can have a videoconference hookup, you just email or call the business office, and they are there — within a moment.”
Meeting rooms range from six rooms that each seat 20 to 40 people to three rooms for 50 to 100. And although barns, by nature, do not have large windows, each meeting room has at least one window to let in natural light.
There are also six soundproof executive conference rooms for four to 12 people, with videotaping capabilities. They are often used for legal depostions
Horse stable becomes ballroom
The 6,100-square-foot Grand Ballroom, once a horse stable, is grand inside but still sports stall doors on its exterior.
Another ballroom, 3,000 square feet in size, incorporates the farm’s three tall silos, now lighted nooks that can house a bar, a coffee station or tables for VIPs.
Both ballrooms have separate entrances, prefunction space and access to open-air terraces.
In keeping with Normandy Farm’s “be prepared and be flexible” approach, the barn’s hayloft is always set up for breaks.
In the center of the conference center, a vaulted atrium glows with polished old wood. It was a hangout for pigeons and a hawk that swooped in daily to hunt. Behind massive wooden ladders once used to climb into the loft are booths where you can plug in a laptop.
Recognizing that many of today’s meetings come together without much lead time, this conference center offers packages that include hot breakfast and lunch buffets, morning and afternoon snacks and continuous refreshments like ice cream in a cooler. Parking is free, and shuttles will transport guests to places within a 10-mile radius.
“I can call them on short notice and know they’ll take care of everything,” said Merck’s Martinez.
“It is a place that feels like home,” said Hilary Zajac, Normandy Farm’s conference services manager, who held meetings there when she was a planner for Pfizer.
Hotel added in 2005
The center’s 113-room hotel was newly built in 2005, and its style mimics the farm’s original buildings. Wireless throughout, the hotel has an indoor pool, a fitness center and a game room.
There are also 28 suites within the walls of the compound in two gatehouses, a carriage house and, in the newest accommodation, a former stagecoach stop now called the Manor House. It opened four years ago.
Nearby pharmaceutical and financial firms account for much of Normandy Farm’s meeting business, according to Melissa McDevitt, director of sales.
“They like this place with all of the conveniences, some personality and independence, which means we can do things more quickly than a chain can.”
Although Normandy Farm can stage events for up to 400 people, the optimal size for a meeting, Zajac said, is 150. Those meetings take over the entire hotel.
McDevitt estimates that 65 percent of Normandy Farm’s business is corporate and association meetings, primarily from the mid-Atlantic region (New York and northern New Jersey to Virginia and west to Pittsburgh). Major clients include Johnson and Johnson, Keystone Foods, Merck and Siemens.
In keeping with Normandy Farm’s agricultural past, food is important. A saucy new restaurant and lounge called the Farmer’s Daughter opened in February.
Its farm-to-table approach features fresh, sustainable and local ingredients abundant in the surrounding area, known as the Garden Spot. The restaurant has two private dining rooms, one for 14, the other for 40.
Although fresh and local, the food is far from down-home. “Refined simplicity” and “farm chic” are the preferred descriptions for homemade items — from pickles and pastries to soda and ice cream — served there.
Menus change daily depending on what’s available. Diners should expect the unexpected, like scallops with fiddlehead ferns and turnip puree, or local mushrooms smoked with local ricotta and cacao nibs in a butternut squash sauce.
Even the mixers, infusions and fresh juice drinks in the bar and lounge are made from local fruits and vegetables.
Team building often focuses on food and is led by the kitchen staff.
Normandy Farm’s sister property, the Blue Bell Country Club, adds the option of a nearby off-site event for up to 300 people. Located across the street, the club has an 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.
For more than 80 years, Normandy Farm has been known for the white stucco wall that rings it. The wall has added beauty, seclusion and mystique to this old farm, now a bustling hotel and conference center along a busy highway. Few realize it was built to keep out hobos.