Opening their doors to ad agencies and film and TV companies as well as to conferences can provide institutions with a healthy second income. Anna Fazackerley reports.
Some 400 people surged into St Andrews University last summer to listen to a Vietnamese Zen monk as part of the first Scottish residential Buddhist retreat. Next year, zoologists from all over the UK will descend on Bath University for a meeting organised by Bristol Zoo. And, in both cases, money - not research or teaching - has been the driving motivation.
The conference sector is big business for cash-strapped universities, injecting more than £160 million in revenue into their coffers each year. Universities have realised that opening their doors (and their bedrooms) to people from outside pays the bills - whether that means hosting small lectures for local groups, running large residential conferences for blue-chip companies or even providing one night's accommodation for travellers on a budget.
David Walkden, marketing manager at Venuemasters, the UK's consortium of academic venues, says the conference sector is definitely growing. He explains that in the past universities and colleges used to let out basic student rooms during the holidays. But now, with more than five times as many en suite rooms in universities and the building of dedicated residential conference centres, universities can compete with hotels for a slice of the lucrative business market.
"A conference is a learning event, so holding it at an academic venue is appropriate. There is also considerable kudos associated with events held at one of the top universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge," Walkden says.
Jane Loveys, head of residential and catering operations at Bath, cites the Ministry of Defence as a good customer: "I think it is comfortable with the disciplined, structured environment that an academic venue provides."
In a recent survey commissioned by Venuemasters, more than 80 per cent of event organisers said they would consider using academic venues in future. They listed the three main benefits as location, value for money and the size of the facilities available. To cash in on this, i10, a new consortium of ten universities in the east of England that includes Cambridge, is offering a free online service to help businesses and other organisations find appropriate conference facilities.
Straying outside the usual conference market, the University of East London has been taking advantage of its unusual Docklands campus to attract film and television companies. The university's conferences department has hired out the campus to companies shooting advertisements for Citroën, Vauxhall,
Mercedes-Benz and T-Mobile, and the site has appeared in episodes of London's Burning and EastEnders . Last Easter, ITV took over the whole Docklands campus and transformed it into a medical teaching hospital for a new drama it was filming, confusing the remaining students by replacing existing university signs with their own fictional ones.
Sehar Taskeen, the head of events at UEL, says: "Our campus is futuristic and quirky, so film companies and other clients notice it when they are driving by. It's a very big campus, so when the film crew arrives with its stream of vehicles we can accommodate them."
Even the university's conferences can be quite an unusual spectacle. It hosted Bi Con 2003, the annual gay and lesbian conference, over the August Bank Holiday last year. About 150 delegates stayed at the university to attend seminars about bisexuality, and the organisers joined with the students' union to run a series of successful entertainment nights.
"It became quite a party atmosphere that weekend," Taskeen remembers. "We're very open-minded. We don't shy away from taking on something a bit different."
It is not only the type of conferences at universities that varies, but also the scale of the operation. Walkden says some institutions make millions out of these facilities, whereas others make as little as £100,000 a year.
Warwick University is at the top end of the scale. It hosts about 3,000 events a year, from which it has an annual turnover of £20 million, and conferences is the fastest-growing business arm of the university. In addition to a large conference park in the main university, Warwick has built three high-quality conference and training centres, containing 475 en suite bedrooms. "It is positioned more like a hotel," says Amanda Simpson, the marketing manager. "The conference park competes with every university in the UK. But the conference centres compete with the big commercial conference venues."
Often the conference arm of a university is run as a completely independent business. Profits are used to improve existing facilities but are also fed back into the general pot. Many conference heads say the money helps to keep student rents at a competitive level.
Whether universities will manage to change the image of conferences - which are frequently regarded as an excuse for a trip away and a big drinking session on expenses - remains to be seen.
In my own words
Simon Kovesi, lecturer in the department of English studies, Oxford Brookes University
At an MLA convention, I went to a bar that was hosted by some association. I was still doing my PhD and I had little money. I was shocked that a bottle of beer cost $8. I joked to a woman that she would need her credit card to get a drink. She looked me up and down, tried to read my name card under the strap of my rucksack, and said, with utter contempt: 'I've got a job.' Then she walked off. Conferences, Issue No.1