When universities contemplate building swimming pools to attract Olympic teams rather than students, many will feel that the external visitors' tail is wagging the campus dog. Olympic-size pools do not come cheap, and the University of Kent has invested £32 million in two years in en-suite bedrooms with the conference trade at least partly in mind (page 8). But if the aquatic attraction does the trick in 2012, it will not only repay a large slice of the investment at the time, it will also help sell the university to future students as well as conference delegates.
Kent is just one of a number of institutions hoping for big things from the Olympics. Campuses as far away as Loughborough and Bath expect to attract large, well-funded teams that will set up camp weeks ahead of the Games. Even in Scotland and Wales, universities are hoping to attract training camps for the preparatory period.
Naturally, London institutions are hoping to reap the greatest benefits. The successful bid included 12,500 beds in university and college property, as well as training and treatment facilities, student volunteers and language services. However, valuable as they will be to individual institutions, the Olympics are but one big event among many that universities increasingly depend upon to help balance the books. The trick is to balance visitors' desire for luxury with students' ability to pay during term time.
Fortunately for conference managers, the demands of the two clienteles do not diverge as much as one might suspect. This month's Times Higher /Sodexho student lifestyle survey suggested that modern students divide starkly into the haves and have-nots. While many are on the breadline (some existing on less than £30 a week), a surprising proportion are comfortably off and expect to graduate without debts. It appears that there are enough of the well-heeled variety to fill the plush end of the residences market, for universities invariably find that these rooms are the first to go when students make their choices.
This supplement demonstrates, however, that there is more to success in the conference trade than an en-suite bedroom and a late licence in the bar. Even if most university conference managers do not aspire to Olympic swimming pools, they know that features such as podcasting and blogging are becoming de rigueur for the cutting-edge event. Ralph Adam offers further tips on planning the perfect conference - or at least minimising the risk of disaster. Good customer service and attention to detail are top of the list, but he warns that a successful event and an easy life rarely go together. The tens of thousands of academics who are conference-goers, rather than organisers, are becoming increasingly demanding - and those from outside the academic world who book higher education venues are even more so. The trade is already an integral part of the economy of higher education. The considerable investment that universities are making will have to be matched by levels of service if it is to pay off.
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