Views with a room

March 19, 2004

Universities have to be businesslike and professional in providing conference venues and accommodation. Huw Richards reports.

Tony Rogers vividly remembers the conference he attended a few years ago at a northern university: "There was nobody there to greet us, show us to our rooms or explain the layout of the place, and when we got back there after the evening sessions, the place was in pitch darkness."

As executive director of the British Association of Conference Destinations, representing about 3,000 venues in some 80 destinations, Rogers tells the story as a warning to those who see the conference business as a cash cow but fail to think through its demands.

The BACD began with just four members in 1969. By last year, the British conference market was worth £7.3 billion. Universities and colleges are significant providers, with the BACD aware of between 150 and 200 offering venues.

Some, such as Warwick University, which is consistently voted the best academic venue, have invested heavily. Rogers says: "It has, in effect, five purpose-built conference venues with three or four-star accommodation." At the other end of the scale are those for whom it is still a marginal, vacation-only earner. Universities have, Rogers says, advantages as conference venues: "They are generally less expensive than other venues, have large numbers of rooms and a wide choice of meeting rooms and lecture theatres, and they tend to have good technical equipment and technicians."

Simon Forrester, operations manager for the BACD, explains that the demands made by conference-goers become greater all the time and may not suit universities.

"There is increasing expectation of the sort of personal attention and services you get in a hotel, such as 24-hour, seven-days-a-week room service and porterage. Asking people to share rooms is becoming less acceptable across the board," he says. But, on the plus side, the corporate market is much less lucrative than it was and associations, which need cheaper venues, are becoming more important in the conference market.

Both men emphasise the importance of universities taking the conference market seriously, developing a niche in the market and setting aside a budget for marketing and expert staff. This point is underlined by Forrester's memory of an unsuccessful university-based conference: "One problem was that our named contact went on holiday two weeks before the conference. You need a professional approach to the business." Conferences, Issue No.1
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