Leader: Conferences, Issue No. 1

March 19, 2004

Students living in Edinburgh University's Chancellor's Court development enjoy double beds that can separate into two singles, en-suite shower and toilet facilities, and even a university television. For a mere £91 a week, including meals, they can also phone other rooms free and have instant access to the internet.

Edinburgh has always prided itself on the standard of its accommodation - it opened Scotland's first hall of residence more than 100 years ago. But the university admits that the degree of luxury afforded by Chancellor's Court is down to the conference trade. Like all universities, Edinburgh wants to ensure that its facilities pay their way in the 20 weeks when undergraduates are off campus.

Academics may complain about posses of badge-laden delegates losing their way and disturbing the peace when they want to focus on research, while students may object to clearing their rooms at the end of every term. But both reap the benefits of the conference crowds. The millions conference-goers contribute to university coffers help to keep prices down in the refectories, as well as providing a vital incentive to upgrade halls of residence.

And crowds there are: Warwick University, perhaps the most experienced conference provider, welcomes 35,000 delegates a year at more than 400 conferences. At the height of the season, several organisations meet simultaneously in different parts of the campus. The other 150-plus institutions hosting conferences may operate on a smaller scale, but the activity is still crucial to the balance sheet.

There is no sign of the market peaking yet. Partly, this is because universities and colleges have become much more professional at this still relatively new strand of their business. You do not need a particularly long memory to recall the generality of meetings held in draughty halls with poor sound quality, punctuated by stewed coffee and unappetising sandwiches. Bedside telephones, never mind televisions, were unheard of.

But with better facilities now the norm, it is hardly surprising that universities have become highly popular venues for conference-goers. After all, many are in attractive and/or convenient locations and there is a natural curiosity among non-academics about what lies behind the campus gates. Those who have attended meetings in which delegates are distributed around sometimes far-flung hotels of varying quality welcome the togetherness that a campus location engenders.

Of course, there are dangers associated with too much reliance on conferences. Not all students want or can afford en-suite rooms with all mod cons (although accommodation officers report that these invariably are the places most in demand). The conference tail cannot be allowed to wag the university dog. But the trade is here to stay and should be welcomed. This supplement looks at the phenomenon from both sides: the academic participant as well as the provider. It ranges from practical lessons (Budget bites) to wishful thinking (Boozing or snoozing?). As Susan Brin Hyatt notes, the fantasy conjured up in David Lodge's Small World may be no more than that, but campus conference-goers continue to live in hope. Conferences, Issue No.1
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