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Academic institutions are shaking off the chalk- dust image and investing millions in sharp, new facilities to attract lucrative events business
If university brings back memories of dodgy haircuts and even worse hangovers, it might surprise you to hear that ex-students are heading back through universities’ gates in droves, without a
traffic cone in sight.
Meetings and events are now big business at academic venues. Having once been a slice of surplus income that wasn’t taken too seriously by deans and vice-chancellors, it is now a major factor in annual budgets.
Academic institutions across the country are investing in facilities and dedicated event teams. Edinburgh First, the University of Edinburgh’s conference arm, has splashed the cash, spending £8m on the new John McIntyre Conference Centre and an events team to manage it. Conference Aston’s new £20m building in Birmingham was entirely funded by the university, while Nottingham Trent University financed the development of the £90m Nottingham Conference Centre, which opened in 2009.
Where purpose-built conference centres or hotels have to rely on turnover predictions for bank loans, the regular fees paid by students and the value of university property make for accurate, long-distance budget forecasts. Banks are more inclined to offer investment loans to academic venues, allowing them to develop. During the recession, this ability to invest has led to academic venues closing the ground on their more established competitors.
Well Met Conferencing at the newly developed Leeds Metropolitan University is making serious waves in the industry, reporting a growth of 130% during 2009. Nottingham Conference Centre – the most recent to launch – has posted figures 50% higher than expected for its first year of trading.
‘We wanted to turn over £500,000 in the first 12 months,’ says conferences and events manager Andrew Keen. ‘We’ve already broken £750,000 and we’ve only been open since March.’
But the universities aren’t raking it in at your expense. With an average day delegate rate of £33 per person and average overnight rate of £84, you’d be hard pushed to find cheaper in the industry. The main reason these venues can operate at such low costs is that the facilities are already there, so there is little point in leaving them disused for any period of time. ‘What we have is university funded, so there is no pressure of return on investment, like with purpose-built centres,’ explains Keen.
Suits and DM Boots
Students take priority during term time, but in holiday periods, it is open season for delegates. Large universities have more than 2,000 beds to fill when students are away, which makes them suitable for large-scale meetings. International summer schools, global conferences and association business/AGMs are main targets, for which they can offer rates as low £45 all-in for overnight stays.
During term time, however, running the two operations becomes more complex. With students occupying residential accommodation, conferencing teams have to work with the space available. Some, such as Nottingham Conferences, choose to focus their expertise and facilities on the day-conference market, while others go the whole hog, building hotel-standard accommodation for delegates to use on site.
The sea change occurred when universities such as Warwick, Keele and Manchester began hosting events while students were still in digs. ‘We were one of the first universities to take conference business seriously,’ says Andy Firth, conference sales executive at Manchester University. ‘In 1997, we launched Chancellors Hotel & Conference Centre, which was designed solely for delegates’ use.’
It doesn’t necessarily mean delegates and students can’t work side by side. At Well Met Conferencing in Leeds, students and suits work in tandem at the £49m Rose Bowl building, where both camps make the most of the latest technology. ‘Delegates appreciate that they are in an academic venue, so have no problem with working around students,’ says Gareth Brew, marketing assistant at the venue. ‘We allocate four rooms to delegates that students never use.’
On the operational side, things are not so entwined. At Conference Aston, the university and conference sectors are run independently, both geographically and financially. By working in a purpose-built structure as a limited company, it gives the events team the freedom to operate as a profit-focused business that pays into the university’s coffers.
The university then reinvests in the business – in Aston’s case, to the tune of a £20m business school and £500,000 worth of hotel-standard bedrooms. So, even with low rates, corporate clients are making a valuable (and CSR-friendly) contribution towards higher education.
Accommodation has long been a sticking point at academic venues. No delegate wants to be reminded of the smelly digs of studenthood, but times are changing. ‘University accommodation has come a long way in recent years,’ says Simon Thompson, managing director of Conferences:UK. ‘With more than 60,000 en suite bedrooms now available, plus many campus developments planned, it’s a far cry from the memories people have of student residences.’
Loughborough University’s Imago at Burleigh Court is a prime example of how an investment in accommodation can result in the growth of an academic venue’s profile. Since launching its campus-based hotel in 2006, Imago now offers 185 four-star-standard bedrooms, alongside 24 training rooms capable of hosting 240 delegates in term time. Add to the mix a spa and a restaurant with private dining rooms, it’s clear to see why the centre is regularly recognised with top event awards.
While it’s obviously a real boon for a university to offer purpose-built accommodation in term time, it’s not a necessity. ‘As we’re located in Nottingham city centre, we have plenty of cheap – as well as luxurious – hotel beds on our doorstep,’ says Keen. ‘We can offer a night’s accommodation for about £50 with the preferential rates we have. Delegates like it as they can roll out of bed for breakfast and stay up in the hotel bar as long as they like.’
Universities boast some of the most up-to-date AV kit on the market. With the combined cash from students’ fees and event spend, universities can afford the best facilities. Nottingham Conference Centre, for example, has just invested £120,000 on two projectors with bespoke screens for its lecture theatres, while the auditorium at Imperial College London has specially engineered acoustics and laptop accessories found nowhere else in the UK.
Although the latest technology is pretty much a given in academic venues, there is still a little competition as to who does it best. Cass Business School, built on the City University London campus in 2002, is one of the top business schools in the country. Set up as a university/business centre hybrid, it is one of the only venues to combine the finest in lecture theatres with state-of-the-art auditoriums and meeting rooms. These hybrids are found all over the country and are often the first port of call for event bookers.
Pre-recession, Conference Aston in Birmingham reported its best figures ever, turning over £900,000 in a month. The University of Essex campus has also followed the business centre model, building a specific campus in Southend, where delegates have been impressed by the ease of access. Such an option is often preferable to a university conference centre because delegates and students never cross paths. However, they are more expensive.
University campuses are self-contained, like mini towns. Restaurants, canteens, bars and shops can be made available for delegates’ use, making it easy to create a focused conference for a large number of delegates. Organisers like the fact that it is easy to manage visitors’ movements, without having to take into account traffic, transport delays and other external factors.
The sheer number of meeting spaces available is enough to get conference organisers salivating. Warwick Conferences, for example, has more than 300 meeting rooms available outside term time.
Sports facilities are another of an academic venue’s biggest assets. Nearly all have fully equipped gyms for delegates to use and those that haven’t will have links with nearby health clubs or spas. Of the 31 Olympic-length swimming pools in the country, a third are found on university campuses.
Call in the specialists
From cleaning staff to the tech guys, the staffing infrastructure is already in place at universities and colleges. That means there is little or no extra cost to bring in support teams, while necessities such as catering and reception staff are already on hand, thanks to the students.
Don’t forget about access to tutors either. The academic staff at a university are leaders in their fields, after all. ‘The access we have to specialist speakers from the university is invaluable,’ says Kirstie Danzey, marketing manager at Nottingham Conferences. ‘Professors and specialists are happy to speak at conferences, particularly in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors.’
Tutors are often the university’s biggest external asset, championing the brand across the globe. Those high up in their profession regularly attend subject-specific conferences and represent the university on the world stage. Using their presence, universities have formed the Ambassadors Scheme, which aims to help professors and those associated with a university to bring overseas business back to their institution. Its formation has proved highly successful, with Well Met Conferencing attributing an income of £415,000 to the Ambassadors Scheme.
The Olympic Effect
The 2012 games mean something different to all venues – and academic institutions are no exception. The likes of Imago, at Loughborough University, and Bath have some of the finest sports facilities in the world and will be used as pre-games bases to national Olympic teams. Indeed, the 600-strong Japanese squad has already booked Loughborough for a month-long tenure.
It’s interesting to see how other universities are approaching the games. Conference Oxford is taking the spectator route, offering up its digs on an individual basis. It is charging visitors about £45 for bed and breakfast and laying on transport to the rowing events at nearby Dorney Lake. There are also packages available for groups of 20 or more, which are aimed specifically at the international market.
Conference Aston, on the other hand, is making the most of ‘Olympic displacement’, taking advantage of companies being forced out of London and the south east. Where southern venues may have turned down long-term clients in favour of Olympic business, the Midlands and surrounding areas will look to clean up.
‘Venues involved risk losing out for cashing in on the Olympic pound – leaving them facing lost bookings to regular clients both before and after the Olympics,’ says Christine Page, head of sales and marketing at Conference Aston. ‘In an industry that depends on customer retention and loyalty, making choices based on short-term gain is, quite frankly, short-sighted.’
The cachet of a name means a lot to any event. Delegates are more likely to attend if they feel privileged to visit a venue. Despite being less than prolific on the marketing front, Oxford and Cambridg still manage to pack out schedules outside term time on the back of their heritage and facilities.
‘Guests like coming to Oxford for the tradition we stand for,’ says Janet Betts, domestic bursar for Keble College in Oxford. ‘We take delegates away from the modern world – they’re confined behind the four walls of the college. Our bedrooms aren’t even equipped with TVs.’
With 36 colleges under the Oxford umbrella, there are plenty of options. The university offers a free venue-finding service for its members, where the event team will organise schedules and fine tune arrangements.
Travel can be a problem though, as neither Oxford nor Cambridge are car-friendly cities, with many colleges offering no parking at all. This lends itself well to overnight international events, where delegates will be taking public transport anyway. With just under half of all events at Oxford coming from overseas, it works well for all concerned.
Who books academic venues?
Universities are most popular among public sector bodies, which are encouraged to support other state-run enterprises and be increasingly transparent, particularly in the wake of the expenses scandal. The NHS is a keen booker, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, which was put under pressure to cut costs by an Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry directive in 2008. The directive applies stringent rules to meeting and hospitality spend, meaning the days of boardroom retreats to five-star spas and golf country clubs are a thing of the past.
Arguably the biggest coup for academic venues this year were the spring debates between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown in the run-up to the general election in May. The University of Birmingham’s Great Hall was transformed into a sparring ground, as the leaders from the three main political parties went toe to toe on a range of issues.
Life after school
Ongoing investment means that new academic venues are set to be a firm fixture on the events circuit for the future. With many overnight centres having only been established for a decade, it’s certainly a sector in its infancy. The old guard is pumping the cash in too, with York Conferences investing £4.1m in a new facility for overnight guests despite doing good business for 40 years. New boys Liverpool Hope have also taken the initiative, attacking the media conference market with a £7.5m building designed for music performance and research with AV facilities many venues can only dream of.
The alumni of tomorrow will always hanker after the late nights and lay-ins of yesteryear, but when they do get round to heading back through the university gates, they’ll recognise as little about the facilities as the delgates
FAMOUS ALUMNI ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Birmingham: Neville Chamberlain, Anne Widdecombe, Chris Tarrant, Simon Le Bon
Cambridge: Charles Darwin, Alastair Campbell, William Wordsworth, Sacha Baron Cohen
Edinburgh: Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stella Rimmington
Exeter: JK Rowling, Zara Phillips, Will Young, Raef Bjayou, Emma B
Leeds: Jack Straw, Mark Byford, Corinne Bailey Rae, Georgie Thompson
Loughborough: Lord Coe, Sir Clive Woodward, Paula Radcliffe, Tanni Grey-Thompson
Oxford: Margaret Thatcher, Rowan Atkinson, Jeffrey Archer, Fiona Bruce
Warwick: Frank Skinner, Jennie Bond, Sting, Simon Mayo, Timmy Mallet