Exploring the value of commercial and campus services

In 2019, CUBO is on a mission to provide its members and the sector at large with new research into the impact of universities’ commercial and campus services

Members of CUBO have lead responsibility for a broad portfolio of activities, including student accommodation, catering, retail, sports and arts venues, security, marketing, conferencing, vacation letting and even hotel management.

The work of a university commercial team is consequently no small challenge – a challenge CUBO meets by offering development and support in four key areas: events, training, sharing best practice and research.

Successful expansion

The prioritisation of research in 2019 comes after the successful expansion of CUBO events and training in 2018, with two annual conferences, a new residence life conference and a burgeoning training programme in partnership with University Hospitality Seminars. The association has also increased best practice sharing with a new online library of case studies complementing the member-led workshops, sub-groups and online forum where exchange traditionally takes place.

For CUBO members, access to data is essential: both to inform business decisions and to highlight the importance of the services they run. Three initiatives are now underway to provide more and better data.

CUBO already has a well-established annual benchmarking survey, in which members share accommodation, conference and other statistics. Around 30%–50% of members participate and, in return, receive the raw data, while all members receive the consolidated results later.

The 2018 results were presented at the CUBO winter conference at Leeds Beckett University in November in a report that analysed commercial income (total and breakdown by residential, catering and conferencing); catering income and profit; price indexing; salaries and staff costs; conference activity; and residences (income, commercial activities in residences and rents).

The CUBO benchmarking survey will be redesigned in 2019 to increase its value and relevance.

“Our aim is to provide benchmarking that doesn’t duplicate the excellent work of our fellow associations, but addresses the specific needs of CUBO members,” says Jo Hardman, CUBO Vice Chair and Head of Commercial Services at Lancaster University.

Accounting for some 75% of commercial income, accommodation is a key area of activity for university-owned and independent PBSAs – one that is more critical than ever this year in a highly competitive market. Plans for a piece of research into university accommodation supply and demand are currently taking shape, with the aim of identifying and sharing successful models with CUBO members.

The third and major research project to be undertaken by CUBO in 2019 is a unique study of the impact of campus services. It is divided into two parts – a member survey and a student survey – and a CUBO Research Steering Group is working with Mirus42 Consulting to shape it.

“We want to measure the quality of a campus, what the component elements of a great campus are, assess how well these elements are being provided by universities, how best to provide students with the services they want on campus and make campuses and brands ‘sticky’,” says CUBO CEO Jan Capper.

In the first phase, a survey of CUBO members will take place in early 2019 to gather information that will increase knowledge and sharing in some of the most important current areas of campus service.

Through the survey, CUBO members will better understand the differences between types of university, learn how their institution is performing against peers and how it fits into the wider picture.

The survey taps into an unrivalled seam of experience. While the most senior CUBO members are concerned at the higher level with the overall campus experience and the campus as a concept, others are actively involved with the day-to-day running of particular elements that impact significantly on the campus experience. Focused interviews with a range of CUBO members in late 2018 revealed that, in every case, giving a great service and a great experience is what concerns CUBO members: the impact in terms of first impressions of new visitors and prospective students, and for those who study, work and live on the campus longer term.

The survey recognises that services and experiences on campus are a differentiator. Bricks and mortar, shiny new and heritage buildings play a part, but what sells an institution is how people feel when they come to campus, and this is influenced by who they meet and what they come into contact with: people, services, buildings and the environment. Even those who would not define their university as a campus have the same issues about how to build communities.

From the top down

The campus experience is driven from the top down as well as the bottom up. Reporting lines, roles and job titles, and the views at the top of the university hugely influence the emphasis placed upon the campus experience. The CUBO research will provide information about the impact of different services and different environments that could shape future decisions on investment and development. Already we hear phrases like ‘delivering customer excellence’, ‘the look and feel’ of the campus and ‘sticky campus’ as universities realise that success is partly a strategy of infrastructure and partly an emotive campaign.

The results of the survey will be published and presented at the CUBO summer conference at Swansea University’s Bay Campus on 3–5 July 2019.

CUBO is then scoping a second and ambitious step: a student survey in late 2019 that explores the impact of campus services on the student experience. “We can find no existing survey that measures the quality of university campus experience and the extent to which students really engage with them,” says Sarah Jones of Mirus42 Consulting.

It is 18 months since CUBO embarked on a new phase of development, with a CEO, a strategic plan and the determination to offer more to its members and the sector. The research to be undertaken in 2019 marks a significant milestone in the history of the association at a time when commercial and campus services are more important to universities than they have ever been.

CUBO (College and University Business Officers) is the professional association for senior managers of commercial and campus services in higher education. Visit cubo.org.uk