Events mean business for Cambridge colleges

Conference and events have become increasingly important to universities. So how have Cambridge Colleges risen to the challenge?

“The volume of enquiries for conferences and events at our venues has increased by 45% over the last ten years,” says Judith Sloane, Deputy Manager of Conference Cambridge, the official venue-finding service for the University of Cambridge and the Colleges.

“In the financial year 2006-2007, we took 2,410 enquiries for events in Cambridge and in 2014-2015, it was 3,557 – an overall increase of 45%.

“Back then we received an average of 201 enquiries per month and now we take an average of 296. In 2015, enquiries to our service were valued at over £30m. Over the period our conversion rate has remained fairly consistent at between 28-32%, resulting in 1,000 enquiries booked during 2015, which were valued at £4m.’

So how is the growing business being managed by some of the individual Colleges?

Churchill College sees the impact of a growing conference and events business as a positive one. Bursar Jennifer Brook (above) says: “Our turnover has more than doubled over the last ten years from £700,000 to its current total of £1.9m and as it has grown, we have worked hard to ensure that College members do not feel excluded. We are known for our links with industry and so we don’t see any problem in holding say a scientific conference or exhibition on the same day as our undergraduate Open Day – it reinforces a link with real-life.

“Over the last ten years, we have become more flexible in how we respond to client requests. We offer a full range of conferences and events – both residential and day – as well as private functions such as weddings and family celebrations. We do Christmas parties, team-building exercises and give delegates access to our sports and gym facilities. We have even had an event where delegates abseiled from trees into our parkland grounds.

“We are also more flexible in terms of having several events running side-by-side simultaneously and work well with other colleges to deliver multi-site events, where more than one venue is required.

“Going forward, we’re committed to upgrading our accommodation and facilities – which are used by students during term-time and conference delegates in the holidays. This underpins our striving for academic excellence and is exemplified by our new Cowan Court development which opens this September, giving us an additional 68 double en suite bedrooms, as well as a multi-purpose meeting space.”

The new Cowan Court accommodation 

There are definitely ways to help ensure a commercial conference business co-exists comfortably with student requirements, says Deborah Griffin, Bursar at Homerton College.

“One thing that has helped us at Homerton is keeping them separate so students don’t feel they are living in a conference centre. We have a designated Conference Centre with its own self-contained facilities and car park.

“In terms of staffing we have also introduced a dedicated resource for our internal clients – students, Fellows and staff – to support their meetings and events.

“In general we think students like seeing appropriate events such as scientific and educational conferences here and over the last two years, students and conferences have co-existed happily.

“Last year we amalgamated Conferences and Catering which has brought the teams closer together operationally and they now work more effectively.

“Homerton has been investing in its conference and events business for much longer than some of the other Colleges. In the decade up to receiving its Royal Charter in 2010 the contribution of the conference business to building up the College endowment was invaluable and remains critical in contributing to College running costs today.

“In terms of trends, we are seeing fewer long and large residential conferences than ten years ago and so we have put our marketing efforts into attracting local meetings business year-round, as well as large events such as Summer parties which utilise our extensive grounds.”

Students actually derive significant benefit from the conference and events business, says Nick Milne, College Steward at Robinson College (below).

“Firstly, in terms of the standards we need to provide – such as accommodation, bar and catering – which they also use. Without the driver of our conferences and events business, standards would probably not be as high.

“Secondly, revenue from events is ploughed back into College and supports our academic aspirations. It also enables the domestic costs for students which we control, to be kept as low as possible – fees are decided centrally so we are not able to influence these.

“Over the last ten years, our turnover from conferences and events has increased from £1.3m to its current value of £1.9m. The growth has been organic, apart from in 2008 when the recession hit our corporate and association business. The recent addition of the Crausaz Wordsworth Building to our portfolio has enabled us to provide spaces for smaller corporate meetings and training days and so broaden our offering.

“In terms of trends, there are no dramatic developments but we are seeing shorter events now and buyers are very savvy which has put pressure on rates and value for money.

“To manage our conference business, our team has grown a little to keep pace with the volume of the business so we can maintain standards. One thing we have found is that our staffing requirements during term-time and in the vacations are now almost the same, as the students market has become more discerning

“For the future we want to grow the business but this objective is not profit-driven. It’s important to remember why we are here – to support the high standards of education Robinson College provides.”

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