A prime concern for any conference organiser is ensuring that the event is well attended. Without the right number of people in the room, all other factors are null and void. Poor attendance could mean a breakdown of relationships with sponsors, not to mention a low return for commercial events.
Even before compelling content is created to try and pull in the delegates and before the exciting incentives are outlined, there is one simple factor that could really make or break the event: accessibility. While it is commonplace for venues to have established accessibility statements covering disability access (and quite rightly so), the issue of accessibility for parents and guardians is often overlooked.
UniSpace Sunderland recently developed a Conference Creche service to attempt to tackle this issue. Comprised of a nursery and creche, the Ofsted-registered centre is managed by the University Childcare Service with professionally qualified staff. Sharon Olver, Commercial Services Manager at UniSpace, says: “The University of Sunderland had initially developed a creche to be used during its graduation ceremonies. We felt this was a service that should also be developed as an offering to the conferences and events that we host at UniSpace.
“We take accessibility seriously and with the Conference Creche we aim to open our events up to parents and carers that may otherwise either not be able to attend or be faced with costly childcare arrangements,” she says.
The ‘Happy Homes and Productive Workplaces’ report commissioned by the Working Families charity revealed that almost two-thirds of UK employees have access to flexible working hours in order to help with childcare. While statistics on the number of venues offering childcare packages are limited, some form of flexibility regarding childcare is becoming expected in the workplace and there is a distinct possibility that this expectation will extend to off-site activities, meetings and conferences.
The National Union of Students (NUS), a voluntary membership organisation and confederation of 600 students unions, provides a comprehensive childcare package at all its events. NUS Group Events Manager Davina Keen says: “NUS prides itself on being an organisation that is at the forefront of equality, diversity and accessibility for our membership and that includes all the facilities that we provide at our events. As an organisation we work across both Higher and Further Education and have found that over a third of part-time students and over 40 per cent of full time Further Education students are parents.
“As part of our offering to our membership, NUS offers a full programme of sabbatical officer training courses across the summer. These events tend to be four-day residential courses with packed agendas running from 9am – 9pm. Last year we had three delegates who required childcare and would not have been able to attend without this option.
“Across our entire events calendar there are numerous delegates who are only able to attend and engage with our events because we provide a childcare package. It is something that we at NUS are proud of and something that our delegates really appreciate.”
There are naturally a number of practical issues associated with offering childcare. “We have worked hard to ensure that the practicalities are dealt with, meaning that we can offer childcare as part of our package,” says Sharon Olver of UniSpace. While UniSpace Sunderland is fortunate enough to have the space and provisions to offer on-site childcare, this is not practical or realistic for all venues.
Keen says childcare is something that all venues can assist with to some degree: “I personally believe that it is something that venues should be able to help with, whether it is having a list of professional, certified child minders from the local area that they can recommend or that they advertise any child care facilities they have on site.”
While on-site facilities may not always be possible, there are clearly steps that can be taken by venues to ensure that they are demonstrating an understanding of the importance of childcare, even if this does mean simply pointing the organisers in the direction of local certified
The introduction of UniSpace’s Conference Creche has been well received, perhaps indicating that this is a key service other venues need to look at. NUS may well be pioneering in its approach to accessibility, but accessibility in general is an area that event organisers will be looking at more closely.
This was first published in Conference News in March 2013. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org