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The Big Interview: Steve Crawford

CN meets a champion for the academic venues sector, University of Leicester conference director and new Venuemasters chairman Steve Crawford 

What were your earliest ambitions growing up and how did you come into the events industry? 

I was always very clear in my mind that I wanted a job with people although not sure what direction that would take. I started in a local hotel in South Wales and am now at the University of Leicester, which I joined in July 2013. Working on the commercial side, my roles have ranged from Warwick with 5,000 beds, even bigger now, to Missenden Abbey with 57. 

Who was an early mentor or inspirational figure? 

An early manager called Lee Bollom. He sponsored me through college and a training programme in the hotels. We worked together for several years. 

I learned a great deal from him not just from the technical side of the business but most importantly how to manage people and to show trust and respect to everyone that you work with. 

A true gentleman who sadly passed away some years ago. I miss him and still think of him a great deal.

Mash TV meets Leicester Conferences

Tell us about an early business success and a major challenge? 

I am fortunate to work in an industry that can give you instant success and feedback from the customer. I still get a buzz when the customer says that was a great gala dinner, wedding or conference. 

I try to keep myself grounded and often say that we are as good as our last meal and set of accounts. 

An early business success was the creation of a tenancy agreement with a major customer when I worked at Warwick University. This involved creating a detailed service level agreement (SLA) as they were booking 100% of the facilities for 48 weeks of the year. 

With a strong repeat customer base the focus was on quality, managing costs and ensuring the customer did not suffer from venue fatigue. 

My mindset is that challenges are there to be overcome and by clear thinking, leadership and support of the team you will get there. A big challenge was the creation and bringing back to life of College Court in Leicester (Watch the special video on conference-news.co.uk). This was my first experience of creating a whole new team and putting into place all the processes required for a successful business. To be awarded Hotel of the Year in 2016, just three years after opening is wonderful recognition of the sheer hard work, professional and fun approach displayed by the College Court team.

You have been at both Warwick and Leicester Universities and worked as a champion for these and other academic venues. Wherein lies their appeal for organisers, and what do they need to work on further? 

Having spent the bulk of my career working in universities I have seen continuous improvement and investment in the product. For the customer they have the benefit of venues that are very experienced in dealing with large numbers and many now have all year round venues offering a first-class hotel experience. 

Many of our customers like the fact that profits generated by the commercial activities stay within the university.

Leicester University has traditionally embraced a broad offer of venues, but it must be challenging to bring cohesion to the brand. Presumably the £17.5m investment in College Court has helped change that?  

While Leicester already had a successful conference business which had been operating for over 50 years it is fair to say that the arrival of College Court provided a platform to take it to the next level. With a 123-bedroomed hotel, we have brought new business to the city in excess of £2m, and last year we brought the wide portfolio together with the creation of Leicester Conferences. This is essentially the sales arm based at College Court with the responsibility of all commercial business coming into Leicester. This provides a great one stop shop for the customer where their business can be placed into the most suitable venue for their size, requirements and budget.

How did you first start working with Venuemasters and how has the organisation changed?   

As a young man I was on the Board when it was first formed back in the early eighties and when I was in the Venuemasters office a few weeks back it was interesting to read minutes of that time. 

I joined the Board in January 2017 and became chairman in November. The Board carried out a business review and a two-day strategy meeting in November 2017 produced a 12-point plan to take the consortium to the next level. 

We have plans to double the membership to 90 by 2022; we will soon be launching our new website, Learning and Development Academy and our new brand of Academic Venue Solutions which will offer some great marketing opportunities to a targeted customer base.

How do you relax out of ‘conferencing’ hours and what hobbies and/or causes are close to your heart?   

While I am passionate about work, I do find it quite easy to switch off. I can relax working in the garden, sitting by the chiminea chatting with friends and love the Peak and Lake District for some breathtaking walks. I just enjoy being with people and certainly get energy from my family and friends.

What key piece of career advice would you give to a young event professional starting out in the academic venue world today? 

Work hard, be true to yourself, don’t be afraid of mistakes (you will learn from them), treat everyone you meet with respect and have fun.

Most amusing incident seen at an academic venue?

When I worked at Warwick we had completed a major refurbishment. The new suite could cater for 600 and also sub-divide into four separate rooms each with lighting controls. I was showing my boss the flexibility. At the touch of a button you could be plunged into darkness, another offered bright light, with many permutations in between. I was not aware that the empty room I was busy pushing buttons in had not been isolated from an adjacent one where we were serving dinner for 200. They must have thought they were in a disco!