Universities are often the largest or most dominant aspect of the city or town they inhabit, known by all by both sight and reputation. With campuses covering swathes of pricey real estate in their respective locales, it’s essential that these sprawling portfolios are pulling their weight year-round, utilising every asset in every corner both inside term time and out. In particular, the extensive summer break is a potential goldmine for universities hungry for business. But in such a competitive market, how are HEIs placing themselves front and centre in the minds of potential clients, and what are the challenges universities face in catering for these one-off or sporadic events?
It is surely just that sprawling size that is a key reason for universities’ success in the events market, an advantage they are uniquely placed to deliver. The volume on offer from HEIs is often unparalleled locally – be it in terms of dining space, numbers of lecture halls, or accommodation.
Eat, meet and sleep
At the University of Sheffield, their two residences add up to over 4,600 bed spaces, all with facilities on site: “An eat, meet and sleep facility,” as Pat McGrath, Director of Accommodation and Commercial Services at the University, terms it. Over at the University of Exeter, following extensive investment the number now tops 5,000 – and makes for a far more convenient arrangement than ringing round B&Bs for event organisers looking to house large numbers.
“Many organisations are turning to universities because they recognise our state-of-the-art facilities are better than hotels and purpose-built conference centres.” Phil Attwell, Director of Campus Services, University of Exeter
In addition, HEIs are often more up to date and contemporary than their event space equivalents, and this can go a long way when it comes to clients picking their perfect place. “Many organisations are turning to universities because they recognise our state-of-the-art facilities are better than hotels and purpose-built conference centres,” comments Phil Attwell, Director of Campus Services at the University of Exeter. In addition to conference facilities, this includes world-class sporting facilities, which are highly sought after for organisers of regional tournaments, sports training camps and international competitions.
On the other side of the scale, it’s the sheer beauty of many universities that secures their bookings – particularly for events such as weddings. Renowned for its historical charm, the University of Exeter currently takes about 40–50 wedding bookings per year, while in peak season the University of Sheffield can be hosting as many as four per weekend. “Good grief, there’s been a real increase in weddings! It’s been just incredible,” exclaims McGrath. “So in our residences one of the things we’ve done is turn one of our old buildings into a boutique hotel, just 38 beds, with some lovely grounds, a real parkland setting. And it’s in a location where many students met so it’s got all of those happy memories for them.” This new facility dovetails well with the University’s other spaces, which include their first court, used to host large dinners, and quad, used for pre-dinner drinks. “It’s about having a real mix of facilities but also having the accommodation that can go with it.”
The main event
Their far-reaching – often international – reputations can lend high-profile events a certain prestige, something other venues would struggle to match. Additionally, high-profile lecturers and alumni within the university are an asset if used wisely, as the University of Sheffield has done. “We’re really blessed with fabulous alumni,” enthuses McGrath, “so we’re able to draw on all of those. We did a dinner a few weeks ago with an alumnus who has the largest planting of truffle trees. He’s absolutely world-renowned. And we did a dinner based on truffles and he hosted it and gave a talk on it. It’s about using all of those skills in the university to our advantage.”
While not every meal can come with truffles, both Attwell and McGrath agree that the kitchen operation is a vital part of the event experience. “The quality catering that we provide is key,” comments Attwell. “Whether a high-profile awards evening or gala dinner as a conference finale, this is often when delegates get together to celebrate so ensuring they have a good dining experience is very important to us.” To achieve top-quality dining the University keeps a keen eye on its ingredients, ensuring fresh and sustainable products by sourcing from local suppliers so they can be completely assured of the calibre. In addition, their chefs regularly take part in TUCO competitions, which keeps standards in the kitchen high.
“I think the standard has to be as professional whether you’re catering to the Queen or a student,” Pat McGrath, Director of Accommodation and Commercial Services at the University of Sheffield
Similarly at the University of Sheffield, the staff are recognised as key assets, with both their executive chef and head chef Masterchefs of Great Britain. McGrath explains: “When you’re talking about fine dining, when you’re hosting the Queen, those sorts of people, you have got to have the best of the best. If you’re an elite Russell Group university you have got to be able to provide those sorts of services.” The chefs are at the University year-round, producing menus for everything from the students’ cafeteria to weddings to events for leading dignitaries. “I think the standard has to be as professional whether you’re catering to the Queen or a student,” opines McGrath. Attwell concurs: “Students are our customers just the same as staff and external visitors.”
However, good food does not necessarily equate to blinis and champers, particularly in modern times. Attwell explains: “For many sports groups who stay with us food is key, as they might require a high protein or carbohydrate menu.” And with the rise in food intolerances, chefs who can’t cater to allergies and religious preferences might as well stay at home. “You have to show a full range,” comments McGrath. “We’ve got people coming and saying, ‘Oh I’ve got people who are gluten-free,’ well if we can’t do all those basics and do halal foods and do a whole international cuisine, there’s a problem. And you don’t want to do just the same old same old. If they’re coming for a few days, you have to make sure it’s interesting.”
With their size, facilities and reputation, it’s a shame that so many still see universities as exclusively for student use. With so much to offer both locally and further afield, there are umpteen opportunities for universities to maximise profits through the holidays – with catering a major part of that.