Pimm's and punts

March 23, 2007

Oxford University's convention bureau is happy to use the Brideshead image to promote its conference business, but it also boasts many contemporary selling points. Harriet Swain reports

Afternoon tea on a college lawn. A glass of Pimm's while punting along the River Cherwell. Oxford University may be fighting to shed its Brideshead image when it comes to attracting students, but its conference arm does not shy away from the traditional stereotype. Not that its promotional activity ignores more contemporary selling points - familiarisation trips for conference organisers offered by Conference Oxford, the convention bureau that represents the university and its colleges, include a visit to the Said Business School.

The bureau operates by acting as a central inquiry point for conference organisers wanting to use the university and by matching the inquiries it receives to suitable university venues. What Conference Oxford has to offer has expanded considerably since it was set up 11 years ago by 36 of the university's colleges. Last year, the university itself came on board, and with it venues including the Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, University Museum of National History and Rhodes House. This coincided with a major push to increase conference business at Oxford from the current £24 million per year to £40 million over the next five years.

Conference Oxford has just launched a website and PR campaign. Already general inquiries to the bureau have increased by 30 per cent in a year.

Overseas conference business is one area it is keen to exploit further.

As universities become ever keener to maximise sources of income other than from government, the conference industry has become an increasingly lucrative - and competitive - area. Tony Rogers, executive director of the British Association of Conference Destinations, says many now make venues available all year round and often provide them purpose-built. "Some are on a par with four-star hotels," he adds.

Terry Billingham, chief executive of Venuemasters, which represents 95 academic venues, says about 38 of the institutions he represents now offer conference facilities, including residential accommodation, for delegates in term time as well as during the vacations, some on the university campus itself.

The most recent British Conference Venues Survey, published annually by the British Association of Conference Destinations, showed that universities and other educational institutions increased their share of the market from 4 per cent in 2003 and 2004 to 6 per cent in 2005.

A significant factor has been the web. Judith Sloane, assistant manager at Conference Cambridge, which represents all the Cambridge colleges and some of the university departments, says that three years ago the office was taking about 50 inquiries a week. Now it is between 30 and 40 a day, and it expects to place about £3 million worth of business next year.

The great selling point for most university accommodation is that it is relatively cheap - 24 hours at Oxford with breakfast, lunch, dinner, accommodation and venue costs about £80 per person on average.

But increasingly universities are realising that it is not enough to rely on cheapness. Rogers says there are about 3,500 actively promoted conference venues around the UK, and advances in technology mean demands from clients are changing all the time. "It is a very competitive marketplace," he says. "Unless you continue to upgrade, you will lose out."
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