University Challenge

Improved facilities and the demand for cheaper venues have led to a resurgence of universities as conference venues. But they will have to work hard to prise any more customers away from hotels and purpose-built centres. Catherine Stewart repo

Universities have made great strides in the last ten years towards shrugging off their image as inhospitable, spartan centres of learning, in an effort to court the meetings industry. They have done this by positioning themselves as a viable, cheaper alternative to the luxury hotels and purpose-built conference centres.

Apart from serious efforts to upgrade accommodation and facilities, the universities also recently banded together to form the British University Accommodation Consortium (BUAC) in an attempt to present a single marketing presence.

The size, scope and improved facilities of universities is undisputed. This, added to tighter budgetary constraints, has boosted their standing in the market. Even so, traditional conference venues still hold sway – often remaining the automatic choice of venue for marketers and associations alike.

But what can the university facilities bring to the party, and are their efforts in vain?

The University of Warwick Conference Park has been offering meeting facilities since 1965. A 300-strong dedicated conference team now co-ordinates the university’s estimated 400 conferences per year – all held during student vacations.

A combination of state-of-the-art lecture theatres, three purpose-built residential training centres, restaurants, sports facilities and accommodation for 1,500 delegates – including 600 en-suite bedrooms, has earned Warwick industry-wide approval. The university has been voted Best Academic Conference Venue for five years running by the readers of Meetings and Incentives Magazine.

Yet despite these accolades, Warwick University is first and foremost an academic centre – the students always come first.

Jane Humphries, Warwick’s sales and conference manager, insists that the university’s upgrading of its facilities has a dual purpose.

“Students are now customers,” she says. “They expect more and they want good accommodation.”

This sentiment is echoed by Frances Johnson, conference and marketing manager at Leeds University, another major academic conference venue. Johnson points out that the addition of en-suite bedrooms and top-class catering facilities (including a newly-installed gourmet chef) is part and parcel of the overall marketing experience.

“We can’t dedicate too much of our efforts to the conference sector, but whatever we do, is also of benefit to students. Nowadays, vice-chancellors understand marketing,” says Johnson. She also points out that in the face of education cuts, hosting conferences has become an increasingly important revenue stream. “Ten years ago it was not so important,” she adds.

A clear signal of the times is the fact that Johnson’s professional title has been changed from conference officer to conference and marketing manager.

With an eye to the affluent corporate market, Leeds now offers 600 en-suite bedrooms and luxurious niceties such as direct dial phones and a trouser press are already in the pipeline.

But despite the flurry of upgrading, the universities accept that they are firmly positioned at the budget end of the market. Although Leeds University can count the likes of British Gas, Next, IBM and Harrods amongst its clients, its bread and butter market remains the trade associations and charities, where delegates often pay for themselves.

Full board en-suite accommodation with full use of the meeting rooms costs an average 49 per night at Leeds. This is compared to rates of between 80 and 100 at a luxury hotel.

For clients in the charity, the price differential is crucial.

Dorothy Harvey, head of fundraising at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, maintains that economy, location and the provision of en-suite facilities are leading criteria when selecting a venue, and as a result universities are always top of the list.

Presentations director at Page & Moy Marketing Group, Iain Liddiard, believes universities present good value for money. “They don’t add outrageous extras to the final bill.

“If accommodation is basic or box-like, at least it’s on site together with gymnasiums and swimming pools. We would never find this package at a traditional venue,” he says.

The provision of copious car parking space, “endless lecture theatres”, and full audio-visual equipment is another advantage according to Liddiard.

He adds that the academic atmosphere, particularly at older establishments, “can add that certain cachet to an event and be very conducive to discussion groups”.

This view is borne out by Liz Quick, sales manager at Talking Point, which uses St Johns College Cambridge for many conferences it is asked to arrange.

“When it comes to training seminars” says Quick, “marketers don’t want a hotel with a mini-bar – they want a classroom feel”.

St Johns enjoys a popular following. Managing director of The Event Organisation and president of Meeting Professionals International, Vanessa Cotton, praises the college, saying that the combination of charming historical surroundings, madrigals, champagne, punting and an academic atmosphere makes for a good meeting.

Even so, she is not convinced that universities can pose as true contenders in the battle for marketers’ conference budgets, despite having made serious efforts to upgrade their facilities.

Cotton cites a number of drawbacks faced by universities when competing against other venues.

Besides the obvious point that universities’ main focus is academia and not conferencing, Cotton also points out that timing is against them.

Universities are not open during term-time, restricting their availability to just 17 weeks a year. The conference high seasons are during April/May and October/November those months when universities are closed to business.

Although a lot of money and effort may have spent upgrading residential facilities, universities still have a reputation for providing the bare essentials. Corporate customers, says Cotton, in particular, expect direct dial phones, laptop points, and air-conditioning as a matter of course.

The tendency for more and more conferences to be backed by specific sponsors can also prove problematic.

“Sponsors want a slick environment. The sponsor calls the tune and often feels more comfortable in purpose-built venue,” says Cotton.

This seems particularly relevant with residential conferences. Rodney Payne, meetings and events manager for Thomas Cook, professes himself “open-minded” when it comes to choosing venues for corporate conferences, training and product sessions. He says he would consider using university facilities during the day, but for an overnight stay would probably resort to a five-star hotel.

Cotton believes that corporate customers ultimately “go to venues which reflect the brand or are sufficiently bland to have the brand imprinted on them”. In such cases, purpose-built centres usually win the day.

“After all, conference centres, and often hotels, are specifically designed for the conference experience. Out-side the core programme, networking is vital and.delegates need the social surroundings in which they are used conducting business.”

Paul Clark, exhibitions co-ordinator at the AA, says he selects venues depending on the nature of the venue but does concede that for a big occasion, an AGM for example, the purpose-built venue takes the day.

Despite her reservations Cotton believes universities will make some headway in the market, but says the best marketing efforts in the world cannot disguise the fact that a university is just that, a university. “But hotels and conference centres are not resting on their laurels,” she adds.

Quick agrees. “Universities must work on changing people’s perceptions. At the moment, they are under-selling themselves when they could be providing a viable alternative,” she says and points out that she has never received any marketing literature from a university.

Pointing to the glut of conferences at busy times of year, increasingly shorter lead times and the constant drive for economy, Quick adds that “if there ever was a time for universities to market themselves, it’s now”.

It would seem, however, that when people do use universities for their conferences, they end up happy customers. At Warwick University’s Jane Humphries claims repeat business now accounts for up to 70 per cent of her business.

Humphries admits that it will take time and effort for universities to build their brand in the conference sector but says the evidence points to a growing commitment, and necessity, to get it right.

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