Graduating to a new level

Academic venues used to be perceived as a decent no-frills budget option for organisers looking to cut their conference cloth somewhat snugly. However, not only have student accommodation standards steadily risen, so too have all-year-round conference facilities within the academic venue market. Some now offer their own hotels on site.

As well as deals on price to be had by staging events inside the walls of academia, increasingly better choices are to be had in terms of quality of food and service.

The long-time marketing consortium dedicated to the sector, Venuemasters, believes this market has remained “fairly stable” over the last three years, “with little variance year on year”. The consortium claims a 23 per cent increase in enquiries at its member venues, with interest in non-residential meetings proving to be particularly popular.

For some of the more dynamic brands at the top end of the academic venue scale, plodding along as normal is no longer good enough to win market share in a world where quality is consistently moving up. While perceptions of draughty old university corridors and bedrooms in need of a makeover may be out of date, there is no doubt that an academic elite is emerging as far as the conference and events offer goes.

imago at Loughborough University now operates its own on-site hotel and the accommodation facilities at Aston Conferences are very much premier league.

These major academic venue league players make their case and engage with the media and the industry far more actively and directly than some of those that would purport to represent their interests, simply because they have to.

The rise and rise of academic venues
A new breed of savvy marketing leaders has emerged at the top academic venues and is raising the flag for the academic venues brand and the standards therein.

One such leader is the Head of Marketing at Keele University’s conference arm KUCE, Marcus Wilson (pictured above) who says the range of awards and shows dedicated to the sector, including The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) Awards, the Academic Venue Show, and the VisitEngland Awards for Excellence are testimony to the accommodation, leisure and catering facilities being offered at a much greater volume and value than any hotel or conference centre.

Keele, like many academic venues, offers a research facility on its doorstep. Professor Emma Bell at Keele University management school has contributed many ideas aimed at improving the delegate experience beyond the traditional presentation format – a method, she says, that only engages a minority of attendees.

“Our conferences and events team is now putting our research into practice and suggesting ideas to organisers to help make their events as varied as possible. For example, using different spaces or trying different formats such as panel discussions or smaller workshops,” the professor notes.

In particular, the professor’s team has researched ‘unconferencing’, an idea based on the notion of disrupting the traditional format of a conference, by removing strict agendas and making presentations much more informal so that more junior members of a delegation can help shape the day.

“We have suggested reorganising the physical space to prevent delegates reverting to traditional conference behaviours,” says Professor Bell.

“For example, we may suggest replacing chairs with bean bags, or avoiding ‘staging’ areas and rearranging rows of chairs into a circle around the room and have people present sitting down. The versatility of an academic venue has shown itself to be well suited to this need,” she adds.

Navman Wireless is a company that came to Keele for a group conference event in February.  A day of conferencing included a teambuilding exercise to build a go-kart using the company’s own GPS products. This all took place inside the Grade II listed Keele Hall.

Peter Millichap, Head of Acquisition Marketing at Navman Wireless, says the event was cost-effective as well as memorable. The company also chose Keele Hall for its family event later on in the year for a BBQ and sports day. “Both days brought all at Navman closer together and helped cover the company messages,” he says.

Keele has attracted more than its share of exotic events, with Brazilian dancers and stilt walkers on campus, treasure hunts for Easter eggs and party nights for small and large groups all held in recent times.

Wilson notes the venue’s reimagining of conferences has not only attracted organisers to find out more about academic venues and what they have to offer, but also the attentions of talented staff from more traditional venues, such as hotels. “Throughout the past decade, we have seen a growing number of our staff make the move from the mainstream hospitality sector to KUCE in search of a new challenge,” he says.

Last year KUCE welcomed more than 120,000 visitors onto campus, including 10,000 residential delegates and over 30,000 day delegates.

Who profits?
At most academic institutions that host conferences and events, the profit is directly re-invested into the University or college to improve the facilities as well as the expertise. This is a force for continuous improvement and ticks an ethical box for many clients, be they corporate, association or private.

Other key features often synonymous with academic venues are free parking, free Wi-Fi and availability of high-spec AV equipment.

Lorraine Speight, who organises the Cystic Fibrosis Conference, used Cardiff Metropolitan University in 2012. It was attended by 200 delegates and she is now in the process of organising the next conference for March 2015, also at the university.

“One of the main attractions of using a university rather than a hotel or specialist conference centre was the fact that it could offer tiered seating,” she says. “I have found that hotels can rarely offer this and for the purposes of our conference this was very important. We wanted something that looked professional and ensure that all members of the audience had a good view no matter where they were sitting.”

Speight said Cardiff Met also supplied a dedicated conference manager with whom she met half a dozen times to discuss the event and changes that needed to be made beforehand. “Building a one-to-one relationship with her made the world of difference to the final result,” she says, contrasting the experience with the numerous sales managers (who might not be available on the day) she usually has to deal with in a hotel throughout such a process.

“I have found that once you have signed a contract with a hotel, you are pretty much left to your own devices to get everything ready and do not tend to be given any extra support,” she adds.

The personal touch, reasonably priced hot lunches for delegates and plenty of exhibition space are the three main reasons Speight gives for choosing a university for her events. She added that the car parking space was also superior to what most hotels offer.
Teach First in Leeds
A case study is provided by the Teach First Summer Institute, the largest teacher training event in the UK, which moved this year from the University of Warwick (where it says it spent four successful years) to Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Leeds, in partnership with the First Direct Arena and subcontracted accommodation providers.

The Teach First Impact Conference on 30 and 31 July marked the largest single event in the history of Teach First. The event featured a keynote plenary at the First Direct Arena, a panel debate for four senior leaders of UK’s largest teacher unions, an exhibition featuring 75 partners, 120 workshops and a 120-piece youth orchestra performance in the First Direct Arena.

Leeds Met project managed the event, which involved a training programme for 3,000 new teachers, tutors and staff members from 11 areas of England and Wales.

The training curriculum was complemented by a diverse social programme including sports events and evening activities.

An organiser would struggle to find all these ingredients in a hotel, for sure.

UniSpace strikes back
Sharon Olver, Business Development Manager and Commercial Manager at UniSpace Sunderland, part of the University of Sunderland, says her venue offers wall climbing and TV and radio production activities, as well as glass blowing workshops in its flagship space, the National Glass Centre. Value-add packages have helped Olver and her team increase day bookings at UniSpace at a time when many have seen them fall, she says.

“We work hard to ensure many of our events support the University’s core proposition. In June this year, for example, we hosted ‘Spectral Visions III: The Vampire Strikes Back’, an annual gothic conference organised by the English faculty at the University. This is a great example of the commercial events business supporting University activities,” she says.
City becomes the venue
Conference Cambridge, fresh from some major showcase events for agents in recent times, is also keeping up the timetable tempo for conference business.

Over at the University of Cambridge’s Robinson College, construction of a new £5m seminar building is the latest boost to academic conference facilities in the city. Work on the new building is expected to be completed in summer 2015 and, management hopes, it will help meet demand that the college has seen for medium-scale capacity conference facilities in the Cambridge area. The new space will offer cabaret style space for 80 and dining for 100.

Conference Cambridge provides a free venue-finding service for the University, colleges, hotels and other unique venues in the city, with 53 venues in its portfolio. An associate venue initiative has seen Conference Cambridge open membership to hotels and other unique properties. These additional venues complement the traditional academic offering, especially for residential events during term-time when college accommodation can be limited, or for events which require four-star hotel-style accommodation.

Manager Kelly Vickers says: “We recognise that we are competing with other UK universities, some of which can offer much larger facilities. However we are fortunate that Cambridge is a compact city so we offer use of multiple venues for large events. In effect the city becomes the venue and we can make the whole process easier with a single set of terms and conditions and a free admininistration service.”

The bureau recently added five of the University’s museums to the portfolio, events spaces that offer organisers the opportunity to host drinks receptions among treasures of national and international importance.

In terms of trends, Vickers says August has been the busiest month of the year, with the team taking 287 enquiries worth £4.13m, an increase of 24 per cent versus August 2013. In the last financial year Vickers reports a 39 per cent increase in enquiries from agents, which, she says, indicates that academic venues are higher on the agenda than ever before. On the strength of this, Conference Cambridge has joined the HBAA to consolidate the way it works with this important market.

Another trend is the growing number of enquiries for large conferences coming through students, says Vickers. The Joint Meeting of the British Mathematical Colloquium (BMC) and British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (BAMC) in 2015 will be held at the University of Cambridge and the inaugural Global Biotech Revolution GapSummit was held in April.

Vickers also flags a 13 per cent increase in the number of corporate events booking at one of the venues and strong demand from the London market in general.

A Keep it in Cambridge campaign, Vickers is sure, helped re-inform the local corporate audience and attracted a 14 per cent increase in enquiries on the previous year.

An ambassador programme also recently helped confirm three new international events for Cambridge.

“We joined the International Congress and Convention Association with help from VisitEngland’s Regional Growth Fund, which in turn helped us to exhibit at IMEX America and IMEX Frankfurt. International marketing is one of our challenges as it’s so expensive but we are making small, valuable inroads with our limited resource,” says Vickers who feels the city has just scratched the surface.

“With Cambridge’s increasing prominence as a knowledge capital, with its biomedical and technology clusters, we have an attractive proposition for international and national association events,” she adds.

Warwick’s events avenue
Another constant star in the academic venues firmament is Warwick Conferences. The team recently arranged for the economics department at the University of Warwick to deliver a speech to the HBAA conference on how an understanding of economics can be of great benefit to a conferencing business.

Relaying academic insights to the industry can encourage development and growth in the sector, says Rachael Bartlett, Head of Sales and Marketing at Warwick Conferences. “This ability to act as a bridge to bring this specific academic research insight to the conference industry helps introduce conference customers to University researchers whose research, in turn, could be of direct interest to their conference delegates,” says Bartlett.

Robert Bramley-Buhler, chose Warwick to host DHL’s Certified International Management training programme. “We noticed immediately that being on campus at a prestigious university helped to put our delegates in the right frame of mind for training, and many commented on the difference it made to their learning,” he says.
Bottom line
Academic venues offer some of Britain’s best meeting and accommodation facilities and a effective alternative for organisers, with Day Delegate Rates from just £21 and 24-Hour Rates from £54, according to Venuemasters.

Clearly, some of these venues are bound to out-of-term dates, but the largest and more experienced operators tend to have year-round event facilities and usually of surprisingly good quality.

Worth doing the research at the very least.

This was first published in the October issue of CN. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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