February 1, 2018, by Stephen Legg

Workshop I: Conferencing and Universities, 20 December 2017

Workshop I: Conferencing and Universities

20th December 2017, University Park, Nottingham

As part of our “Pathways to Impact” programme we have been establishing links with individuals and organisations who have various connections to conferences, hospitality and events management. We plan three workshops over the following year as ways of engaging in “knowledge exchange”; that is, to share information and insights, rather than “transferring” our findings to non-academic partners. The first workshop took place on the University of Nottingham campus and brought together contemporary conference practitioners with academics who have researched conference/events on campus and/or hosted them. We gained a tremendous amount in terms of insights into the current conferencing industry, some of the foundations of which were lain in the interwar period, which is the focus of our research.

We had two afternoon sessions. In the first session we heard from three teams who organise conference events on local campuses, representing: the University of Nottingham (UoN); Nottingham Trent University (NTU); the events team of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union. We were also joined by members of the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Advanced Study who advise on bidding for conference funds within grant-writing. We invited the attendees in advance to reflect on:

  • Their experience and career in the conference/event industry
  • How universities market themselves as conference spaces – the advantages and limitations to doing so effectively?
  • What makes a successful conference environment?
  • The role of conferences (about conferencing) within the industry itself
  • The role of new technology as both a challenge and opportunity
  • What state the sector is in?

The discussion ranged widely, from what marks out a conference venue as a successful space (return clients, the size and duration of conferences, as well as feedback on sites like Venue Verdict) to the significance of location. NTU has the benefits of being in the centre of Nottingham with access to a dense infrastructural network (transport, restaurants, bars) while UoN has its own hotel and extensive green spaces but is located further from the city. Aligning directly with one of our research objectives (the multi-sensory environment of the conference) both UoN and NTU teams described the important of showing potential clients around the sites, suggesting that “you just have that feeling” when a location works, whether it be an older space (with more “character”) or a modern venue with better functionality. We discussed the value to a city of a university conference venue, with financial demands making it more desirable to keep as much capital as possible on campus, although the considerable advantage to the host city (in terms of kudos, and travel and entertainment costs) was noted.

We learnt a lot about the supporting business infrastructure for individual conference organisers. Organisations like Venuemasters produce biannual reports on academic venues, collating information on current business levels (an average member turnover in 2014-15 of £2.5 million), appraising the unique appeal of campus locations, and of the infrastructural challenges they pose (student halls, marketing budgets etc). In addition to reports, conferences on academic conferences are held, such as the October 2017 Academic Venue Showcase at the Emirate Stadium in London, where universities will set up stall to attract conference organisers and conference agents (who mediate venues and large companies seeking to host substantial events).

In terms of the art and craft of conference organising, all practitioners agreed that this was something learned on the job and was difficult to codify, despite the increasing number of allied qualifications at degree level (hospitality, catering, travel and tourism, events management). There were also demands in terms of security which were shared by the conference organiser and the event leads. The Student Union would help organise events (not host them directly) so the responsibility for researching any potentially controversial figures fell on the hosting party and, if necessary, the university Registrar (if the police were required the organiser would be billed).

In the second session we tried to provide materials that could help the UoN team reflect on the history of events on campus. Stephen Legg spoke about the visit of MK (“Mahatma”) Gandhi in October 1931. The photograph of Gandhi speaking to students on stage in the University College (as it was then) Great Hall adorns various information boards around campus but the details of his visit are relatively obscure. He came to visit his cousin, Mr JV Joshi, who had been at the University for nine months and was doing some work experience in the nearby Ericsson’s phone factory. The news coverage reported a cool reception for Gandhi at Nottingham train station and at the Beeston factory, although the students received him warmly. The stay was brief but the Principal, Hugh Stewart, hosted Gandhi on stage, who spoke for 30 minutes on his quest and the participation he hoped for from the students of Nottingham. The editor of the Student Union magazine, The Gong, was struck by his talk, reporting in the termly review that on hearing the Mahatma speak:

… I was suddenly sitting cross-legged on the brown earth somewhere far away, and in the centre of the circle this man with the pointing hand was whispering wise words to the young who heard him… I have heard men speak in that hall with the maximum of flattery and ceremony: I have heard them say big things and bold things; but they were proudly conscious of their bigness and boldness: I have heard them shout and use all the richness of oratory; but never before have I heard the still small voice of calm that renders all but itself and its message inessential. (The Gong vol XXI, n1. N.S, Xmas Term 1931)

Excerpt from the Nottingham Guardian 19th October 1931. Reproduced with the permission of Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham. Ref: MS 854/3/4

Professor John Beckett, author of Nottingham: A History of Britain’s Global University, explained the interwar context for Gandhi’s visit. Nottingham University College had failed in 1903 to secure full university status (failing to follow in the footsteps of Bristol and Birmingham) and so launched a campaign of foundation lectures and high profile events to raise the status of the College. This included the annual Byron Lectures, established in 1912, the Cust Lectures from 1919, Einstein’s lecture in 1930 (mistakenly reported by the reputed journal Science as taking place at the “University of Nottingham”), and the 1937 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), at which HG Wells delivered a disparaging lecture on the British education system. The Cust Lectures assembled Nottingham’s great and good in mass networking events, including dinners presided over by the President of the College at which the Bishop of Southwell performed grace. The BAAS conference was a week-long affair involving numerous field trips, lectures in venues across the city, a social evening at the Palais dance hall, and a Sunday service at St Mary’s Church. It was felt that these events directly played in to enhancing the College’s reputation ahead of the eventual award of University status in 1948.

We concluded with some reflections by Professor Stephen Daniels on a 1984 conference held on campus, the papers of which formed the basis of the book, co-edited with Denis Cosgrove, The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments. This foundational text of the “new cultural geography” of the 1980-90s has come to overshadow the space, and even the time, from which it emerged. Daniels spoke of the much different university of the 1980s, in the midst of cut backs instituted by the Thatcher government. While there had been freezes on staff hires, and there was practically no central university infrastructural support for organising such events, the organisers drew on the support of Dr Don Rees, Warden of Hugh Stewart Hall, where the event was hosted. The small scale event, its various field-trips, and its relaxed atmosphere, fostered the innovative bringing together of art historians, geographers and scholars of landscape to sketch out new ways of reading our surroundings.

We concluded with a discussion with the UoN conference team about how these histories might inform their work, but also where they felt the future of conferences lay (and whether this could support meetings such as the Iconography of Landscape event). We discussed a recent report that collated future conference trends from industry insiders. These included the use of interactive technologies, breakout sessions, creative exhibitor zones, personalised catering, healthy eating, teleconferencing, exclusive apps, the supplementing of the hotel conference with delegates self-sourcing through AirBnB, and inspiring locations. This raised the tension between the increasingly corporate vision of what constitutes a conference space with the opportunities raised by more creative rethinking of what constitutes a conference format. The debate continues…

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