A strong mix of UK meetings industry leaders from both venue and agency sides gathered to discuss whether UK independent schools provide an untapped venue option for corporate and, indeed, other types of meetings and events businesses, and, if so, how they could maximise their potential.
Setting the scene for the debate, Dorothy McLaren, director of Beautiful Schools – an online venue search portal showcasing independent schools and their facilities, noted the exceptional standard of facilities that many of today’s 2,250 UK independent schools have to offer.
Dorothy is also the director of School Trunk, which is now in its third operational year and helps clear schools, enabling them to lease their premises and let accommodation during holiday periods as well as some half terms and exeat weekends.
It would seem that these schools represent a traditional market. It is one that can be difficult to penetrate, but very loyal once you get in to it.
There seems to be a growing recognition that independent schools are also commercial entities and offer some of the country’s most valuable assets. They boast magnificent buildings and world class facilities, from all-weather sports pitches to Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The commercial gains are evident and schools are now recognising both the need and opportunity to realise these assets.
From research conducted as part of the creation of Beautiful Schools, McLaren noted that almost all independent schools now allow commercial bookings and that the average booking value is currently around £5,000.
Almost all the schools surveyed by Beautiful Schools to date, she adds, have said they could accommodate more bookings, while only one reported a corporate booking.
Kate Gaskin from Right Angle Events agency kicked off the discussion by noting: “It can be a challenging experience to access schools. They usually have such great facilities, are central and beautiful, but for a corporate booker they can be ‘interesting’ to say the least.”
Former MPI UK Chapter president and Planet Planit director Paul Cook asked whether independent schools could really offer the services buyers expected. “There is unquestionably a vast array of facilities under one roof and, when I was a school governor, we certainly always had an eye on income streams. The normal classrooms tend not to suit for events and parking is an important consideration.
“My school didn’t have the appetite for outside events as there was enough pressure on the PTA to run their own events. In our case there was also an issue of resource.”
The venue host for the day’s discussions, Guy Collins-Down, director of finance & operations at South Hampstead High School (GDST) agreed that school life could be very busy. “It needs a separate entity solely focused on making money for the school, without day-to-day distractions. There are some amazing schools out there and some could suit the evening dinner market best.” Collins-Down also spoke about his time at Harrow School, pointing out it was one of the best in terms of being geared up to service the commercial market. It had been, he added, a member of the Unique Venues of London marketing consortium: “We wanted to be the first among the schools sector!”
So, how do you run a consortium effectively, and maybe there is an example there for the independent schools sector?
Church House conference centres’ general manager Robin Parker, a leading figure in the Westminster Collection of London venues commented, “With the Westminster Collection, members always retained the right to refuse new member applications as a matter of quality control.”
Maugie Lyons, director of marketing and sales at the Lensbury in Teddington, said that venue consortiums could spread best practice and help individual members. “At the very beginning of UVL, there were a couple of organisations that knew how to accommodate this kind of business. It starts with basics: mandatory answering the phone, for example, and includes passing on a range of other best practices.”
Industry consultant Samme Allen identified another challenge for schools – that of agencies who need a two-hour response to any booking enquiry. “Moreover, not every venue is good for conferences or training and a lot of work has to be done to identify each venue’s niche asset to make it as easy as possible for the agencies,” said Allen.
From the agency side, Gaskin agreed that the way you are received or your request is answered is crucial: “Our staff go back to preferred people who respond quickly. We are always looking at the competition and response times.” She also mentioned precedents for such work, having worked with colleges in Cambridge and dealing with pharma companies who liked to support specialisms in the education and research fields.
Robin Parker brought the question of perception to the fore. “It is a big issue for schools, as is the question of availability in term time. Periods when schools do have availability seems to sync with when everyone else is also fighting for business.”
Collins-Down added that some schools also had clubs which used the facilities at regular times and thought there was too much variation in booking systems. Caleb Parker underlined the importance of up-to-date data, saying that even chains like the Marriott brands had different platforms. “You need a single system, ideally,” he said.
The chair raised the question of how schools were equipped to deliver on service. Was the human factor possibly their biggest challenge, and that of providing dedicated personnel?
Collins-Down said some schools had made big investments in the service, although he admitted the levels were somewhat uneven across the numerous properties.
Beautiful Schools is a business that has acknowledged many of these challenges. The company is working closely with the top schools in the UK to create a best practice service approach, while grouping them under the Beautiful Schools brand to showcase these schools as highly respectable and viable venues to the MICE industry.
Athena Events MD, Kirk Thomas, cited the successful example of academic venues at universities’ work in the commercial venue market, including the likes of imago, the Loughborough University conference arm, and Warwick Conferences at the University of Warwick. “It is important they set up a separate commercial brand,” said Thomas.
But how many schools would get through the agency door, or on to strategic meetings management programmes?
Price thought it would vary from agency to agency. “There is a view that SMMPs and preferred partnerships can be a closed shop. But if it is a group of independent venues rather than one-offs trying to get onto a preferred list, then it is not necessarily all about commercials. There must be a wide understanding of the agency business models. Commission is another issue – there is likely to be more opportunity if schools are dealt with as a collective.”
Caleb Parker added there needed to be service standards and that it would be quicker to turn around enquiries if staff were using the same booking system technology.
Jennifer Noon, meetings and events manager at Parkinsons UK, said: “My association focuses on price, but the opportunity to do something unique appeals. More pressure on price points represents an extra opportunity for schools.”
Noon added that associations preferred dealing with other charitable organisations and foundations, “and schools would probably be good value.”
“Another plus they have,” Gaskin added, “is that there is outside space in central London. Many have playing fields that can be used.”
Advice from the table for schools included the need to network in the industry; “Put yourself out there with a proposition. You have to go out to our industry, which is very welcoming,” said Cook.
With some positive role models in tertiary education and the support of a platform such as Beautiful Schools, the roundtable agreed that independent schools could reasonably expect to find and grow business in the UK meetings and events market.
Beautiful Schools will launch in May 2017. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org, they are open to receive feedback from the industry on the potential of these venues.