Leader of the conference trade pack

April 19, 1996

Simon Midgley looks at how holiday lettings have made Warwick a mint.

Last year the University of Warwick earned several million pounds by letting its residential facilities and lecture theatres for conferences and meetings.

Annual conference turnover was Pounds ll million - of which Pounds 3.5 million came from hosting meetings on the main university campus in vacations using student accommodation and Pounds 7.5 million from its three all-the- year-round management training centres.

The campus trade alone enabled Warwick to spend some Pounds 660,000 of "profit" on improving lecture rooms and restaurants while generating Pounds 1.1 million to subsidise the cost of its catering, recreational and residential facilities to students.

Jim Rushton, the deputy registrar, says Warwick's dedicated centres are "not just a hotel park simply providing training services". Contracts with companies such as KPMG, the National Grid and Severn Trent involve the firms and the university working together over a whole range of research and other activities.

Warwick is the market leader in an increasingly important business for universities. In the past 25 years the value of the business has grown to something in excess of Pounds l00 million a year, an estimated 10 per cent of the British conference trade.

Sixty-nine universities now belong to the British Universities Accommodation Consortium and around 30 universities now have their own year-round purpose- built management and postgraduate training and conference centres. Ninety universities, colleges and other educational centres belong to another marketing consortium, Connect, which was started to represent polytechnics.

The universities now have more than 100,000 bedrooms for letting mainly in the vacations, 20,000 of them with en-suite bathrooms.

Historically most of the universites' business has been in catering for the educational training, academic conference and professional association meetings market, but in recent years the sector's share of the lucrative corporate business market has been growing.

As universities have built purpose built centres and upgraded their facilities - more bedrooms with en-suite facilities, improved meeting rooms, greater audio visual and technical support services - they have begun to compete with hotels.

Although hotels still have 80 per cent of the corporate business market, the historical price differential between more expensive hotel facilities and less costly university accommodation has narrowed.

At Warwick the vacation conference business when students are away for 17 weeks of the year involves staging up to 370 conferences annually. Clients are charged Pounds 54.50 per 24 hours, under half the average cost of a hotel conference customer which ranges from Pounds 120 to Pounds 150 per 24 hours.

This is roughly double what some other universities with lower quality accommodation or different kinds of customers, for example bed and breakfast tourism in the north of England, are able to charge. The cost of staying in Warwick's more luxurious specialist management training centres is in excess of Pounds 100 a night.

Carole Forman, general secretary of BUAC Ltd, says universities in the Midlands do the lion's share of the corporate trade, while Scottish universities take a lot of the overseas tourist trade, Aberystwyth does field courses and some London colleges like King's do a lot of bed and breakfast work.

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