Campuses across the country are creating innovative and imaginative venues to meet the demands of clients and delegates. Michael North steps into space
It was cabaret tables last year, now it's wi-fi and interconnectivity," says David Honan, sales and marketing assistant for York University's conference office, describing the changing demands of conference clients on institutions' spaces. Universities are working hard to keep up. "There is a bigger demand for new technologies now - internet and fast broadband connection is expected. If you don't have that, you are up against it," Honan adds.
York's premier conference venue, the National Science Learning Centre, now offers a multitude of new technologies, including push-button voting systems so delegates can vote on issues from their seats, video filming suites that allow training in interview techniques, 3D cinema acoustics in lecture theatres so the back row can hear as well as the front, and wireless presentation kits that allow a lecturer to wander Jerry Springer-like among his or her audience.
Honan says that the way conference delegates interact in the spaces provided is also changing: food is now most usually taken in buffet style to maximise networking among delegates. This also allows delegates to wander among exhibits, often displayed on large plasma screens. Typically, corporate clients will invite companies to exhibit their products for a fee that goes towards the cost of the conference.
Universities have a number of unique selling points for the conference market: they often have huge landscaped settings, great sports facilities and, particularly in the case of large institutions such as Kent and Warwick, a wide range of lecture hall and room sizes that attract the big corporate clients.
Kevin Stuckey, conference manager at Kent, says that those spaces must now be adaptable: "There is increasing demand for more flexible space - for example, tiered seating needs to be collapsible. We once had to provide a boardroom-sized table for 100 people." Geoff Pringle, head of hospitality and accommodation at Birmingham, adds: "There must also be plenty of break-out space and spaces for social interaction. There is also a shift towards good leisure facilities. People like to see gyms, saunas and pools even if they don't use them."
Kingston University's new facility, the Centre for Sustainable Communities Achieved through Integrated Professional Education (C-Scaipe), is a prime example of the latest in teaching spaces built with conference clients in mind.
The £1.4 million project includes an innovative lecture theatre.
Amanda Lewis, the director of C-Scaipe, says: "It's not what you'd expect - there is no fixed seating, no podium; it's a debating chamber in a rectangular room divided down the middle with seating for 120 people.
Students sit at circular tables, the seats are brightly coloured two-seater sofas. It has a smart, crisp corporate image."
Lewis says the design is intended to stimulate interaction and is a far cry from stale spaces where you might find some David Brent holding court.
"When you walk into the room, you don't expect that you are going to be talked at for two hours," she says.
And Lewis enthuses about one snazzy technological innovation: a "smart board" that not only projects images from laptops but can be written on by speakers, who can then print and circulate their notes.
Birmingham University is planning a multimedia centre on land behind its Shakespeare Institute in Stratford that it hopes will attract corporate conference clients.
Project director Andrew Paine says the £100 million project will house a flexible auditorium for a wide variety of users and the institute will seek to bring "the Shakespeare brand" to new audiences, particularly business people. "Take the way in which theatre directors have to prepare a play - rehearsals are a journey of joint collaboration, an experience where all the cast have an opportunity to influence the play. This resonates with business today - how to make decisions in a more complex world, rather than more autocratic decision-making," says Paine, who hopes that conference clients will flood in.
Such unique learning environments are what make universities stand out in the conference market, according to Tom Holbrook, an architect with Cambridge-based 5th Studio. The practice has recently been involved in what Holbrook calls "a thickening" of spaces at Trinity and Darwin colleges, such as adding new formal and informal areas for meeting, breathing new life into the existing space. For instance, at the Wolfson Building at Trinity there are two hanging glass rooms for teaching and networking.
Universities offer "a hothouse intensity of spaces", Holbrook says. "They get people in a set of rooms and don't let them go until they have hit the topic. They can provide spaces with power rather than the blandness of motorway Holiday Inns that used to be associated with conferences."
He disputes that corporate clients will necessarily be expecting five-star luxury - in fact, the opposite may be some universities' biggest selling point. "For a really effective conference, there is a suspension of the everyday world to think about your topic and have sets of conversations, either formally or informally," Holbrook says.
"Universities like Oxbridge and York, which have settings away from city centres, are slightly monastic and rarified. People put up with an awful lot for the power a space will bring. The expectation of universities in the 1970s was quite 'hair shirt'; it was not through lack of money - there was an expectation that comfort was not the same thing as learning."