A stimulating environment

Academic venuesUniversities with conference facilities have been suitably placed to offer event organisers a viable venue option in the current economic climate. Based throughout the UK, their main reason for being is to provide a varied, accessible and stimulating learning environment.

Ranging from those traditional universities steeped in history, featuring impressive architectural surroundings to a new raft of universities with modern state of the art facilities, they offer not just something for the student population, but are also a credible venue choice for the meetings, conferences and events market.

Living up to expectations
These stimulating environments at universities provide inspiring locations for event organisers but do the facilities and service provided live up to expectations?

Traditionally, academic venues have been favoured by the association, sports and not-for-profit sectors. Limited availability of facilities and varying standards has not always painted a positive picture for event organisers looking for an inspiring location with facilities and a service that meet their expectations.         

However, many of the larger universities now offer meeting facilities and overnight accommodation all year round. They have continued to invest heavily in their meetings facilities even in the current economic climate to keep up with the requirements of students and conference organisers. This has enabled them to retain a competitive advantage compared with other conference venues, boasting a healthy ratio of repeat business.

And those universities with year round meetings facilities but limited overnight accommodation out of student vacations develop strong relationships with adjacent hotels to offer a complete residential conference package all year round.

As well as benefitting the university, there is a significant economic impact on the local economy. The two ‘customers’ for the universities generally complement each other. Those universities with purpose-built, all year round facilities often employ specific teams dedicated to the needs of the event organiser. For those with limited availability, students clearly take priority during term time but when they leave for vacation, they also leave often in excess of 1,000 bedrooms which the conference teams actively sell to larger organisations. The more traditional association, sports and not-for-profit sectors often require a large number of bedrooms to be reserved which hotels are not always willing to do a long way in advance.

Positive feedback
Strong award-winning marketing campaigns have helped to raise the profile of academic venues to a wider audience, earning them a credible place in the meetings, conference and events market. The consortium VenueMasters provides a collective marketing opportunity for academic venues as well as networking opportunities for the venues to learn best practice and keep up to date with current market conditions. But do the facilities and service provided by academic venues live up to the promises made in their marketing drives?

Recent research carried out by VenueMasters with 200 buyers, 73 per cent of whom had used academic venues suggested that they do. 53 per cent of these buyers who had used academic venues thought their facilities were the same or better than hotels and 58 per cent believed they were the same or better than conference centres. And all buyers rated value for money as the most important factor when selecting a venue.

Looking to the future, although these buyers are predicting an increase in the number of events being planned for 2011 compared with 2009, the increase in expenditure predicted did not necessarily match, suggesting that value for money would continue to be a major decision-making factor.

Good news then for academic venues, often able to offer a variety of options for an event organiser, especially if budgets are tight. The wide range of different facilities available at an academic venue can also offer a number of options to an event organiser, without compromising on the overall quality of the event.

Academic facilities in Nottingham
The conference facilities at the University of Nottingham were re-branded under the collective ‘Nottingham Conferences’ banner in May 2008. Prior to this, the same set of facilities had been promoted either under the purpose built all year round banner of the East Midlands Conference Centre or the University of Nottingham Conference Centres, which reflected all of the conference facilities available over three campuses in student vacations.

A confusing picture then for the event organiser and the team selling both products?

Two years on and now that the Nottingham Conferences brand is established, the team have effectively been able to market their complete range of products to a wider market and offer options for clients depending on their requirements. They still have a number of clients in the association, sports and not-for-profit categories but have found that corporate clients are now considering not just the year-round East Midlands Conference Centre, but also facilities based on Jubilee Campus and Sutton Bonington, where on-site accommodation can be offered.

Teaching facilities continue to be invested in on all campuses, and on University Park current ongoing building work totaling over £10 million is a combination of brand new teaching buildings and extensions to existing facilities. This will provide a new 380-seat tiered curved theatre and a number of small meeting rooms for 2011, to further complement the existing offering.

Specific academic fields

For event organisers looking to attract speakers who are experts in a specific academic field, universities often offer a wealth of relevant resources. And with ongoing research being carried out, they offer a unique resource for a conference. Experts in their own field are also often keen to showcase the university where they are based and conference teams based at universities can help organisers to find a relevant speaker from sources on campus.

Award-winning chefs are now commonplace in academic venues, allowing a range of high quality menu choices to suit a variety of different events.

Profits generated from conferences held at academic venues are reinvested into the university. As well as providing a source of income for keeping these meetings facilities up to date, revenue can also be invested back into other learning facilities. At a time when the funding of higher education is being reviewed universities are recognising the importance of the revenue streams that hosting conferences and events can generate.

Investment in the future
In November of this year the EMCC, Nottingham Conferences flag ship venue will be celebrating its Silver Jubilee. Rather than hosting a lavish celebration, the conference team decided to work alongside the community partnerships team at The University of Nottingham to develop a range of activities with local school children. In February the teams launched a competition to develop a logo to celebrate the anniversary that will be applied to certain publicity materials linked in with the celebrations. Rather than paying a graphic designer to design a logo, the team developed a project in partnership with three local primary schools.

In May, 115 pupils from Dovecote Primary, Whitegate Primary and Milford Primary schools in Clifton, Nottingham visited the East Midlands Conference Centre to find out the winner of the competition. The winning team were presented with their certificates by Chris Jagger, chief estates and facilities officer at the University and then went on to spend a morning at a local design studio to see their winning design transformed onto the website and a new advertising campaign.

After the summer break, the same children who are now in year six were presented with the second part of the project.

Ian Litchfield, head chef at the East Midlands Conference Centre visited each of the schools to launch a competition by asking them to design a healthy sandwich. After inspiring them with knowledge gained over his 15 years experience at the East Midlands Conference Centre, Ian left the teams to consider their choice of bread and filling, paying particular attention to presentation and ease of eating along with a full ingredient listing and costs and an illustration of their creations. Entries will be judged by Ian and a panel of colleagues and two teams from each school will be shortlisted to return to the EMCC’s kitchens to prepare their designs from scratch in a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ style event at the end of November.

The complete package
Nottingham Conferences represents the entire range of conference facilities at The University of Nottingham and incorporates the East Midlands Conference Centre, University Park, Jubilee Campus and Sutton Bonington. A flexible range of facilities are available for conferences meetings and events across the four locations, all supported by dedicated event coordinators, on-site audio visual support and award winning chefs.

Accommodation is available on site during student vacations or in adjacent hotels via a dedicated hotel reservation service.

For more information:
Web: www.nottinghamconferences.co.uk