The Olympic Games are coming to Britain and, with them, thousands of visitors who will need somewhere to stay - a fact not lost on Kent University. But, reports Michael North, it is not the only institution upgrading its facilities to tap new markets
The London Olympic Games may be six years away, but Kent University is already focused on the commercial possibilities. Kevin Stuckey, the university's conference manager, says: "We're thinking about putting in an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool to attract more sports groups (training for the Games)." Stuckey is also excited by the idea of a 35-minute rail link from Canterbury to the Olympic venue in Stratford, London, which will make the Kent campus a viable accommodation choice for the Games' spectators.
Most UK universities now have commercial teams dedicated to generating conference business and filling their rooms, in and out of term time. The total UK turnover from such business is more than £150 million, and growing steadily. Terry Billingham, chief executive officer of Venuemasters, a consortium of 92 UK academic conference venues, says there were 5,500 inquiries for university facilities in 2005, a 25 per cent rise on the previous year. This is due partly to an improvement in facilities and partly to the competitive rates offered.
Many universities are making large investments in upgrading student accommodation and lecture facilities to attract conference business; or they are building bespoke conference facilities that will generate income all year round.
Kent has invested £32 million in the past two years. It has 1,300 en suite bedrooms available for conferences - key to attracting corporate clients. Stuckey says: "When students are not here, the place turns into a massive hotel."
Warwick University, the biggest player in the conference market, with an annual turnover of £20 million, has just spent £1.1 million to improve its facilities. Aston University is investing £20 million in a management development centre with 163 bedrooms, the University of the West of England is laying out £65 million for a new student village, and Leicester University is putting £19 million into residences.
Other institutions, such as Edinburgh and St Andrews, are transforming old, often listed, buildings into state-of-the-art conference venues.
Chris Power, domestic bursar at Greenwich University, speaks of a trend pushing universities to invest in facilities. "The private sector is doing a lot more. Hotels are becoming more competitive on price and quality. This has forced universities to up the ante and improve their facilities and service. In fact, more and more these days we are designing buildings with conferences in mind. Our clients demand - and get - a really professional service from us." York University's Conference Park, for example, offers a "business-class" room, complete with TV, telephone and hairdryer, for a competitive £36.50 a night.
These improvements and the target clients - corporate visitors pay more, and expect more, than impecunious academics - are having an impact on how universities structure their conference business. Manchester University runs a hotel for delegates as a franchise of the Days Hotel group - the university owns and manages the hotel but pays for the brand name and global advertising of its corporate partner. There is also an upgrade under way for another university hotel, formerly used for academic conferences.
Richard Handscombe, sales and marketing manager at Manchester, says: "We are ahead of the game because of our length of time in the conference business. We were one of the first to start marketing it properly 35 years ago." The university is about to add a £60 million, 1,000-seat lecture theatre and accommodation block - ideal for conferences - in the city centre.
Other universities are following Manchester's lead in forging partnerships or are setting up commercial conference arms. The University of East London is starting to organise events with the ExCeL centre, a huge venue in Docklands that hosts annual boat and motor shows and where a conference on Olympic cities is being planned. Loughborough University runs an "international residences conference centre", with 185 bedrooms, under the brand imago.
Birmingham University plans to redevelop an Edwardian house into a conference venue within the grounds of the 2.4-hectare Winterbourne Gardens. It is also looking at developing a residential conference facility in the Edgbaston conservation area, where it has two other listed Edwardian buildings. Geoff Pringle, head of hospitality and accommodation, says: "We are looking at non-traditional income streams. Historically there has been a lot of conference business in student accommodation, but we now have 40 to 50-week lets for students, and that business is falling away."
Pringle says the university is targeting business sectors such as law and engineering - both big in Birmingham - and is also riding on the back of the city's drive to market itself as a key European conference and meetings centre. He adds: "We're also very big on sport, and we hope for lots of complementary business with the Olympics."
With the upgrade in facilities comes a shift in the type of clients that universities seek to attract. Warwick, for example, has blue-chip global businesses such as TNT bringing delegates to its campus on a regular basis.
Stuckey says there has been a change in Kent's marketing strategy. His staff now regularly attend trade shows in Eastern Europe - in the Czech Republic and Poland, for example - to drum up academic conference and tour-operator business. Moreover, he has just sent two staff members to a sales enrichment seminar in Miamito observe how American universities penetrate different markets.
Stuckey adds that the web has also been a key tool in attracting such quirky clients as fishermen; and he says Kent, in common with southern universities such as Brighton and Exeter, is now a popular choice for holiday-makers seeking accommodation near the coast.
Like other university conference providers in the UK, Kent relies heavily on income from conferences run by large associations and charities. Stuckey and his staff will greet 2,000 people for the Lambeth Conference of Church of England bishops in 2008. "We can lay on a barbecue for 1,000 people," he boasts.
The diversity of conference clients greeted by British universities shows that venues have learnt to play to their strengths. Fedelma Connolly, a conference organiser at Roehampton University's Digby Stuart College, says some 200 junior Wimbledon tennis players get on famously in the college's communal facilities each year, as do the Girl Guides.
By the time the Olympics arrive, universities should be in gold-medal form.
Lisa Jardine, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary College, University of London, and director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters
"In 1983, at the New Approaches to Shakespeare conference in San Diego, California, I heard a paper by Stephen Greenblatt, then a rising star, on King Lear . It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard, making me see the play in an entirely fresh light.
"To my delight, Greenblatt gave me a copy of his lecture to take home with me.
"I had flown out to the three-day conference from Cambridge, where I was then teaching, and since it was mid-term, I had to be back to teach a faculty Shakespeare class. I caught an overnight flight that got in mid-morning the following day, got a train back to Cambridge, and arrived, sleepless, just in time for my Lear class.
"I proceeded, excitedly, with Greenblatt's text in front of me, to teach a class based on his lecture. Halfway through, I became aware of two languid young men from Trinity sniggering in the back row. I stopped and asked what the problem was. 'This has absolutely nothing to do with the Shakespeare exam paper,' was their reply.
"Exasperated (and overtired), I proceeded to tell them that they could not be more wrong and that I had just come from a conference where distinguished Shakespeareans had given Greenblatt a standing ovation.
"They were clearly unconvinced. Finally, I told them that they might think that Greenblatt was simply a sideshow they could ignore, but that within five years they would realise that he was where Renaissance studies was really at.
"Time has, I believe, shown that that was indeed true."
Chris Lowe, director of the Institute of Biotechnology, Cambridge University
"I was invited to speak at an enzyme engineering conference in Portland, Oregon, in 1975 when I was a newly appointed lecturer in biochemistry. Until that point, all my academic colleagues and mentors were undertaking fundamental curiosity-driven research, and that was what was expected of an academic in the UK.
"At that conference, I became decidedly 'impure'. I 'came out' and realised that my long-term career aspirations were best aligned with applied research, where there was a real and tangible goal to be addressed. It was heresy then, and in some circles still is today.
"I remember this conference well because it was the first American event I had spoken at. It was held at a boarding school in Oregon with primitive accommodation, located in the middle of nowhere and operated under the Gordon principle of morning and evening sessions. I was the last speaker on a Tuesday evening in a session that was running hopelessly late and I commenced my lecture at about 10.30pm. I noted several senior members of the audience enjoying a few zzzzzzzs prior to my talk but apparently wide awake at the end.
"This conference really directed my career from that point onwards. It made me realise that applied science and technology were acceptable, that it was the future and that, judging from the response of the world's leading scientists in this field to my talk, a sector to which I could make a serious contribution over the rest of my career in the UK.
"I am somewhat gratified that with 300 publications, 60 patents and seven companies, my early instincts were probably correct."