Conferences are a great way for universities to boost finances, but, says Caroline Davis, you need to offer something special and be prepared to cater to some strange tastes to attract the big spenders
Want a nice little earner? Why not invest in expanding your university's conference facilities? A survey for The Times Higher shows that Warwick University - the undisputed champion in the field - is raking in more than £20 million a year from conferences. But other universities are not doing too badly - Manchester University brings in £10 million, Nottingham University £8 million and Aston University £3.5 million.
Venuemasters, a consortium promoting about 100 academic venues in the UK, reckons that its university members bring in close to £100 million a year, mainly from non-academic conferences. And this figure is set to rise as the number of conference bookings has increased in many institutions over the past five years.
Terry Billingham, chief executive of Venuemasters, says the money made from non-academic conferences is often ploughed back into improving facilities, creating a knock-on effect for academic conferences.
Amanda Simpson, who works in marketing for Warwick Conferences, says Warwick "recognises the importance of securing additional revenue streams to support the academic side". It's a bit of a virtuous circle, she explains, adding that part of the university's success in the conferences field derives from its high profile academically. "Conferences want to be associated with the academic environment," she says.
Among the third of UK universities that took part in The Times Higher survey, the number of bookings taken each year varied enormously. Warwick, which has a large conference park in the main university and three high-quality conference and training centres containing 475 en suite bedrooms, calculates that it takes 5,320 bookings annually. It defines a booking as a meeting lasting eight hours or more.
Manchester takes an estimated 3,000, and Keele University about 2,500. But some universities say they take just 20 bookings. Only one institution - Sunderland University - reports that bookings have decreased over the past five years. Otherwise, they are static or, in most cases, on the up.
The average value of conferences also varies widely between institutions.
Greenwich University scores the highest, making an average £20,000 per event. In contrast, Leeds, Lancaster and Wolverhampton universities gross less than £2,000 per conference.
The majority of institutions report that the percentage of non-academic conferences - which tend to be the most lucrative - is increasing. Most take more than half their bookings from non-academic organisations. The University of Central England claims to have the highest proportion of non-academic conferences - 90 per cent.
Just one institution surveyed - Luton University - says it does not offer residential accommodation for conferences. Although some universities have designated conference centres, most accommodate people in student bedrooms, so their holiday capacity vastly outstrips what they can offer during term time.
Some institutions can offer bed and breakfast for up to 4,000 delegates.
Oxford and Cambridge universities are somewhat exceptional as the college structure allows them to offer far more accommodation - Cambridge, offers accommodation for up to 7,000 delegates.
Of all the survey respondents, Brighton University can cater for the largest non-residential conference. It says that if every meeting room on its four sites was filled to capacity, it could accommodate 5,100 delegates.
But despite universities building myriad facilities geared to their conference delegates, the survey shows that students still come first.
Almost all institutions allow their students to use their conference facilities during term time. Only Aston feels that they should be kept away.
Universities are also mindful that student bedrooms are for students only.
Less than a third of respondents run residential conferences during term time, and those institutions that do can run only comparatively small events.
The survey shows that universities have become very focused on marketing their conference facilities. The most popular forum for advertising is Venuemasters.
With so many universities across the UK, respondents say that what differentiates one from the other is location.
The University of Kent at Canterbury sells itself as "one hour from London, two hours from Paris". Exeter University's location enables it to offer delegates the joys of ghost tours and shark fishing. Luton, meanwhile, boasts that "the Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne have visited on occasions".
Leicester University has a great marketing weapon in its vice-chancellor, Robert Burgess. "He is a great ambassador for the service," says Sarah McRobbie, conference sales and marketing manager. "He sees the importance not only in terms of the money generated being reinvested to improve the facilities, but also how the profile of academic departments is increased through good-quality conferences and events."
Universities are increasingly using their local tourist boards to drum up business, and this means that many have now had their bedrooms accredited.
No university surveyed says it offers 5-star accommodation to delegates, but the days when staying in a university meant staying in a pokey dark room on a camp bed are over. Toiletries, the occasional chocolate on a pillow and, increasingly, free high-speed internet access are the features that delegates can look forward to at many institutions. Warwick even has an on-site bakery, producing fresh biscuits and cakes for delegates daily.
Three universities - Luton, Royal Holloway, and Warwick - rate some of their accommodation as 4 star. At the other end of the spectrum, Wolverhampton and Kingston award their rooms a zero rating.
The survey makes it clear that universities bend over backwards to accommodate the requests of their conference delegates, but sometimes they can be more than a little demanding.
Conference teams have done their best to meet pleas for firewalking (walking over hot coals) on manicured Cambridge lawns; for space to dig latrines at Greenwich; for oversized chairs for oversized delegates at Nottingham; and for a coffin to be delivered to Essex University.
David Meli of residential and commercial services at Leeds recalls a particularly unusual request - a customer who wanted to use university kitchens to fry locusts and grasshoppers before dipping them in chocolate to offer at an exhibition. "The request was politely declined," he adds.
But the conference team at Aston believes it has seen it all. "Nothing is unusual anymore," says a spokeswoman.
WHO'S CASHING IN?
Institution Annual turnover
King's College London £2,300,000
St Andrews £1,200,000
East Anglia £1,000,000
Central England £250,000
Divya Tolia-Kelly usually returns home from academic conferences fit to drop. "I don't find it easy," says the 35-year-old human geographer. "When I come back, I'm usually exhausted. You meet friends, but you are also spending a lot of time talking to people who you do not know very well, who might be employing you or assessing what you are doing. We are acting as salespeople, selling our research skills and our ideas, and it can be hard work."
The Durham University academic believes, however, that neglecting the conference circuit is not an option. "If you try just to keep up through publications, you will be out of date. People's current research isn't usually reflected in the publications. If you attend conferences, you are involved in people's current thinking.
"Not all conference sessions are inspiring; it is difficult to get the mix right without having a narrow set of papers reflecting a known group of researchers," she says.
She recommends a disciplinary mix of people who can "think creatively without worrying about strategic relationships".