Pushing forward in the new university environment

Loughborough Uni's Kay England shares her approach to adapting to the increasingly commercial environment within the HE sector

Loughborough University has long been renowned for its forward-thinking and innovative approach to providing an exceptional experience for its students, staff and guests. It also contributes to the University’s strategy of building excellence by maximising its physical resources ensuring its accommodation, catering, conferencing and world-leading sporting assets are fully utilised and generate an income for the University when students are on vacation. 

The challenges facing the HE sector are well documented and reduced government funding has led to an increased focus on innovative commercial solutions. League tables play an ever-important role at a time when universities are competing for the best students and successful commercial activity can contribute to this funding deficit.

Imago was established 25 years ago as a subsidiary company in order for it to compete in the commercial sector and to have the flexibility to adapt to market forces. This has proved to be a successful model with surpluses being gift-aided to the University each year. The conference centre, hotels and event management service provide a reliable income stream as well as a useful shop window for the University for training, accommodation, catering and hospitality.

Loughborough won the Commercial University of the year award at CUBO this year

As with most service organisations, great people are at the heart of our operation and fundamental to our success. We employ 740 people in Imago and Campus Living (student halls and catering). Our values support our staff, giving them a sense of belonging and direction and inform our strategy, planning and decision-making. They were chosen by our staff and represent what is important to us: inspire, engage, create, focus, passion and celebrate. Our values are embedded in all our activities and our strong customer service culture is guided by them.

Ensuring our people are motivated and engaged, understand their role and go the extra mile is something we concentrate on. The University staff survey informs our progress and benchmarks us within the sector. This information is used to prioritise areas of focus in our people management strategy. Investors in People is another key tool in our quest for continual improvement. Imago is proud to have achieved the Gold standard for the second time running and the best practice recommendations from this award are built into our continual improvement plan.

Awards are important for external profile but also provide an independent assessment of progress to our teams. Winning the ‘Best Commercial University’ award at the recent CUBO conference in June 2016 was a great honour and hugely motivational for our teams. In addition, we have won Best Hotel (VisitEngland), Best Academic Venue (Meetings & Incentive Travel), Green Business Tourism Gold (VisitEngland), Best Accommodation (What Uni) and three of our halls of residence were in the ‘Top 50 Best Hall 2015’ Student Crowd survey. Loughborough also won ‘Best Accommodation Office’ in the 2015 Igrad survey. These awards provide external verification of what we have achieved. They can take quite a lot of time and effort to enter in an already busy world, but the results really do improve staff engagement and team spirit as well as providing us with a benchmark in the sector.

Branding is important to ensure we can compete effectively in the marketplace and also reflects our culture and values. We have embarked on a refresh of our brand in terms of its look and feel. It is important that staff understand and buy into our brand whilst also ensuring it is embraced by our customers. Our new branding will flow from that of the University and identifies the vibrant student experience in our halls of residence. It will adapt to our customers, reflecting high-street trends in our cafes and a more ‘corporate’ image for Burleigh Court, our four-star hotel and conference centre.

Loughborough University has always championed progression and continual improvement is at the heart of our strategy. Burleigh Court was established as a small conference centre 25 years ago and it has now more than doubled in size. We have also added another hotel to our portfolio as well as a non-residential conference centre, an event management service, increased the number of cafes and shops on our campus and refurbished many of our 5,500 student bedrooms. We are actively considering expanding our halls of residence to meet demand and to ensure our bedroom stock reflects the increasing expectations of students now and for the years ahead. It is important that staff also actively engage with the culture of continual improvement, so we promote suggestion schemes and reward exceptional behaviour, especially if it enhances the customer experience or demonstrates best practice.

A desire to ensure our customers, whether they be a student, member of staff or a conference guest, receive the best possible experience drives our strategy and thinking. We invest in benchmarking and use customer review tools such as mystery shoppers, electronic feedback and surveys to innovate and improve. This customer-led culture demonstrates our tireless and uncompromising commitment to continual improvement, quality and excellence and has driven a growth in revenue and a 6% growth in surplus last year. This sustained commercial growth, all of which is reinvested into the University year on year, helps Loughborough University to continue to deliver an exceptional student experience. Our conference and hospitality teams within Campus Living and Imago are proud to have helped our University achieve first place in the THE Student Experience Survey and fourth place in the 2017 Guardian University League Table. The consistent success of Campus Living and Imago and the willingness to innovate and change over time has provided a reliable and consistent income stream to help ensure Loughborough is able to compete with the best.