Conference Cambridge is the official free venue-finding service and bureau for the University and its colleges, as well as other unique properties and hotels in and around Cambridge. The bureau has also spread its hoofprint to bring in Newmarket, complete with its racing heritage, into the marketing fold for event buyers.
The destinations are not quite conjoined at the hip a la NewcastleGateshead, but nicely complement each other’s offer to planners.
The recipe certainly seems to be working and the bureau is reporting another record year, with enquiry levels up to 2,722 versus 2,372 at the same point last year. January was the busiest month in the team’s history, according to Kelly Vickers, Manager of Conference Cambridge.
“Our portfolio expansion means we have 50 venues and can offer a wide range of options to suit event requirements, year round.”
And it’s not all University conference challenges. “The portfolio includes intimate spaces such as Westcott House with its charming courtyard, the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, large outdoor spaces such as the Holiday Inn at Impington and a range of hotels able to facilitate residential events during term-time,” says Vickers, who realises relying on the same old Cambridge brand and ethos is not enough in today’s competitive market.
“We won’t stand still. To appeal to event organisers, we need to offer not only the best facilities (traditional or brand new), first class service and the most delicious cuisine, but much more besides. We’re working hard to up our game and believe the key to attracting events to our amazing city, is offering more than a location,” she adds.
Appetites and spend are returning, it seems, with the bureau reporting growing interest in fine dining. Dinner enquiries are up from 627 to 670 year-on-year, notes Vickers. And diners are spending more with average up £5 per head on last year, according to the bureau. “In the light of this trend and the foodie buzz in Cambridge, the team is exhibiting at Square Meal for the first time this year,” Vickers adds.
The Eat in Cambridge Festival is a big draw and there is clearly great interest in locally sourced produce. Significant efforts are also being made to achieve Sustainable City status. “There is a big pool of culinary talent here; a number of venues have chef awards, including Emmanuel and Downing Colleges,” says Vickers.
The Cambridge experience
Vickers notes organisers today want unusual activities to support the objectives of their events, too, “whether that’s rewarding, team-building, or simply getting more out of every event,” she says.
Of course, like any bureau chief, Vickers believes in the power of her unique brand, in this case the ‘Cambridge Experience’. There clearly is an aura that drives tourists to Cambridge, many from abroad, and this can also be a powerful driver for attracting delegates.
Conference Cambridge is able to source relevant speakers for organisers, as well as activities for delegates, who won’t have to travel far to find extra conference curricula things to do in the city. Take a punt down the River Cam, or a walking tour. Naturally, delegates will want to see inside a college. There are garden tours and musical and theatrical events, museums, art galleries, contemporary arcades and markets.
The city is not short on intriguing history. Cambridge was where Oliver Cromwell kept his horses, Samuel Pepys his original manuscripts and Darwin a family home.
The bureau team recently returned from the IMEX Frankfurt 2014 exhibition with event enquiries worth over £500,000 and Vickers believes these could, in time, realise up to £1.5m of revenue to the local economy. Those enquiries, according to Vickers, included a three-day residential medical conference for 300, one-day meetings, dinners, and a large award ceremony.
Not quite abroad is the capital, London, from where you can reach Cambridge in less than an hour by train, making the city popular with City corporates. Planners will certainly get more for their money than in central London.
A sample itinerary suggested by Vickers and her team for a London-based organisation, could start with a fast train from King’s Cross to Cambridge at 8.45am, Board meeting, buffet lunch overlooking King’s College Chapel, workshops and breakout sessions, punting on the River Cam, drinks, before a private college tour followed by dinner and the 9.15pm train back to London.
Investments in the venue infrastructure continue, says Vickers, including at Ash Court at Girton College. There is a new £5m conference centre at Robinson College; a £7m refurbishment programme at Westminster College; new accommodation at the Moller Centre; a restored dining hall at Trinity Hall; improvements at Cambridge City Hotel as well as the Jockey Club Rooms and Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket and a new court with 68 bedrooms at Churchill College.”
Conference Cambridge recently hosted an agents’ weekend, with a venue expo at Downing College, a competitive treasure hunt across the city and a supper at Girton College.
The two-day VIP programme was attended by 10 agents and partners, as well as Executive Director of the HBAA Juliet Price.
Guests arrived to an afternoon tea at the Jockey Club Rooms, enjoyed accommodation at The Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket and Madingley Hall, visited Downing College for a mini-Expo of 15 venues, participated in a ‘Live The City’ treasure hunt which gave the opportunity to explore Cambridge, took traditional Afternoon Tea at Hotel Felix (below)and concluded the day with a drinks reception and dinner in the Old Library at Girton College.
Early birds the next day had the opportunity to visit Luca Cumani’s world-class training yard in Newmarket and see the horses in training on the gallops.
Kelly Vickers, Manager of Conference Cambridge said: “The weekend was brilliant; we were privileged to be joined by so many agents, with a genuine interest in Cambridge and Newmarket.
“Our venues pulled out all the stops to offer a completely exclusive event, from the BBQ at the Bedford Lodge Hotel and a visit to Luca Cumani’s yard, to the venue networking opportunity at Downing College and a closing dinner at Girton. We certainly did our best to put Cambridge and Newmarket on the map.”
Cumani may train fewer winners these days than in his heyday, but the conference going is certainly good to firm in Cambridge and Newmarket in 2014.
This was first published in the July/August issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston