by Neil Harris
It's the conference season. When the undergraduates leave for vacation most universities are in the business of filling their rooms, refectories and lecture theatres with anyone who will use them, whether they are corporate organisations, learned societies or individual clients.
During the summer, many university staff are either on vacation, busy dealing with student applications for courses in UCAS ‘clearing', or preparing for the coming term. Hospitality staff, however, are frenetically meeting the needs of their visiting customers. On some campuses it's a huge business and goes on throughout the year (bedroom accommodation is normally not offered during term time, however). At Warwick University, for example, with a large out of town campus and three purpose built training and conference centres on site, their turnover from this activity alone exceeds £22 million a year.
It's a business that employs staff in many roles including sales and marketing, events management and coordination, catering, portering and the provision and support of audio-visual equipment. University students often find temporary vacation employment in these roles during the busy summer vacation season.
Jenny Potts, senior events coordinator at Hull University, is responsible for running a vast range of events, from weddings and wakes after funerals to conferences for up to 500 people. The accommodation and refreshment of interview panels and the arrangement of formal dinners are also a part of her role. ‘I am responsible for everything from the initial enquiry to running each event on the day', says Jenny, ‘and I do it with a small team, two people reporting to me directly. Every event is different and I work closely with the catering staff and other partners that are required for each varied situation. For each event I get together a designated team which may include waiters, waitresses and porters. It's a job which involves liaising with every department within the university to help them organise their own events and it offers a wide variety of activities, which I enjoy. I came to it with an HND in Hotel and Catering Management and some experience of employment in hotels.'
Sales and marketing
At Nottingham University they call their events business ‘Nottingham Conferences' and it operates all year round. Accommodation is offered during student vacation periods. During the academic term, however, they offer to find hotels in Nottingham for people attending events. Their staff includes people working in sales and marketing and they manage an excellent web site that provides details of everything from a banqueting suite to conference facilities for up to 580 people. Kirsty Danzey is the marketing manager with a team who sell day conferences, accommodation and support facilities. Those employed in sales take the phone calls, negotiate the contracts and agree a price. ‘We deal with many different requirements and even have a licence for weddings and civil ceremonies', says Kirsty.
Heather Reid is the events coordinator at Nottingham. ‘We have a team of five people', says Heather. ‘My involvement begins after the sales people have negotiated the contract and agreed the price. I then liaise with each client and discover their needs. Wherever possible, services such as catering, portering, housekeeping and accommodation are met in-house, but there may be a requirement for some unusual equipment or balloons and then I use external suppliers to provide whatever is necessary to make the event run how the client wants it.'
‘It's a job that requires skills in administration, organisation and computer literacy. We usually employ people with graduate level education, not necessarily qualifications in event management. Before I came to it I had gained relevant experience with an exhibitions company. For me the university is a great place to work because I deal with every department and it is a job that includes lots of variety.'
Visit the seaside
If you want a holiday by the sea or a conference near a beach there are many universities with suitable facilities including Aberystwyth, Bangor, Brighton, Plymouth, St Andrews and Hull with its Scarborough campus. Wanele Lewis is the Conference Service Manager at Swansea University - she works alongside two events assistants. As a team they are marketing and running all of the university facilities including sports facilities and the swimming pool. There are language schools that take up accommodation on-campus during the summer vacation and schools that send pupils on field courses to Swansea, attracted by the Gower Peninsular and local beauty spots.
‘Most of our events are of an academic nature', says Wanele. ‘Many of them are held for learned associations. They attract academics from abroad and offer our staff the opportunity to showcase their work. Universities vary in the way they arrange events management within their structure. We are a part of the Estates and Facilities Department here at Swansea but in some universities this function is a part of the Catering Department. In our department we have five staff who supervise the work of those employed in portering, cleaning and catering. I came to this job from a catering background and hold an HND in Hotel and Catering Management. We sometimes employ people with marketing qualifications such as members of the Chartered Institute of Marketing or people qualified or experienced in event management.'
Eighty UK universities are members of Venue Masters, an organisation that promotes the use of university accommodation for the whole range of possible events from a central web site. Venue Masters also provides those working within the events teams at universities, especially people employed in marketing and sales, with a meeting place for training and their own conferences both to share experiences and for professional development.