Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Benefits of Choreography, Magic and Psychology to Front of House

Working here in the Conference Cambridge office, we can sometimes feel a little removed from what’s actually happening on the ground at our venues, so when Catering and Conference Manager, Bill Brogan from St John’s College invited me along to sit in on a one-off, special training session for his front of house staff with Dimitrios Leivadas, former restaurant manager at The Fat Duck I jumped at the chance!

Dimitrios is a captivating speaker with extensive experience of the hospitality industry and we were all hooked with his anecdotes about working in some of the world’s most famous restaurants as he shared his tips and tricks for creating the perfect guest dining experience. 

I think it’s true to say that we were all taken by surprise at the elaborate level of detail involved in front of house service in high-end dining establishments.   

Apparently it’s not unusual to find teams working with choreographers, magicians and psychologists to fine tune their skills and develop their art.  Staff who are trained to move around the restaurant in a certain way, for example will be more efficient, reducing the risk of collisions or crowding, which in turn brings a sense of calm to the dining room and adds to the overall ambience. 

Additionally, a restaurant manager, who can read body language, will be able to decode feelings and emotions, he or she will know instantly if a guest is unhappy or unwell and will be able to respond before a situation can escalate. Dimitrios explained that being proactive and engaging with a guest on arrival, with even the simplest of gestures, will  reap rewards if anything goes wrong later in the service.

Achieving this level of quality obviously takes time, dishes at the Fat Duck go through a one year period of development before they make it to the menu, staff will be in training an average of three months before they even meet a guest and the training to serve Mock Turtle soup alone, at the Fat Duck, takes 5 -7 days, such is the meticulous attention to detail.

And it doesn't stop there.  Dimitrios made it clear that front of house service can be stressful and to that end it’s important that staff are well looked after.  Motivation unsurprisingly is hugely important, managers must encourage staff to be creative, challenge team members with new tasks and have a constant innovative approach.  The team at the Fat Duck have two reflexology sessions a week during service, a leisure space to relax between shifts, regular outings to suppliers and team sports afternoons, in essence, they work hard and they play hard too!

Dimitrios couldn't emphasise enough the importance front of house staff and the crucial role they play in the whole dining experience.   His advice to the each of the team at St John’s was to have a period of reflection at the end of each shift, to pinch yourself he said, to remind yourself how far you've come, congratulate yourself on your achievements and to acknowledge the wonderful historic surroundings in which you work.

St John’s catering department has a continued commitment to staff training and development and for me as an observer it was fascinating to get an insight into not only Dimitrios’s world, but also that of the college’s operation and the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes.  Here’s hoping that the staff at St John’s won’t have to wait too long for those reflexology sessions! 

Picture shows The Wordsworth Room, St John's College.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Meetings are Dead; Long Live Meetings!

Networking Event at Clare College, Cambridge
Over the years, various zealous pessimists have asked ‘will video-conferencing, podcasts and webinars be the death of meetings?’.

My reply, ‘don’t be ridiculous’.

Yes, delegates are busy and event content and architecture will become increasingly sophisticated to adapt; but at the end of the day, people love to meet and there are many things that you simply can’t do without being face-to-face.

For many events, the networking is the now the single most important element, overtaking even educational content in some instances. Alongside sourcing unique venue spaces, planners are finding some interesting methods to improve the quality of the networking.

A couple of the more innovative ideas I've seen recently include ‘reception concierges’, the ‘human library’ and ‘the recharging lounge’.

How marvellous would it be to have an event concierge, to meet and greet and who could tell you who you need to speak to about a particular area of interest; better still – introduce you?

Not everyone is great at this networking malarkey – it doesn't mean they’re not interested in talking – it can just be difficult to make the first move. But if everyone in the room is there for the same reason, a gentle nudge might be all it takes for some great collaborative ideas and future projects.

Like helping molecules to bump into one another?

The human library was introduced at a recent seminar I attended at IMEX America, called ‘Got Connexity’, presented by Sarah Michel, VP Professional Connexity, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting The concept being that you make experts available for one-to-one or small group exchanges. Make the speakers work harder for their fee (sorry speakers).

The suggestion was not to run these sessions in parallel with key presentations, but maybe to allow ‘white space’ in an itinerary for interaction, or for a greater depth of topic coverage to a smaller audience in mini theatres (small talk/tech talks). Allow delegates the flexibility to dip in and dip out.

It was also suggested that hashtags and social media could be used to highlight or flag themes to delegates – making it contagious; maybe in advance of the sessions, to give the experts a fighting chance - only fair? And post event, the hashtags could extend the life of the event – so people, with similar issues could continue the conversation in micro incubating environments. Keep the conversation flowing.

My experience at an ICCA event in Amsterdam earlier this year really demonstrated to me the importance of dedicating time in a schedule to ‘milling about.’ I got as many ideas and learnt as much, if not more, from speaking to colleagues from other destination bureaus from around the globe as I did from the eminent speakers.

The recharging lounge was an extension to the library concept, where delegates, along with their mobile devices, could recharge; watering holes and sockets, where experts were available for conversation. Simple really.

A case study called Sage City demonstrated how exhibitors/sponsors can be made to feel part of an event, aside from showcasing; invite them to facilitate opening sessions instead of a keynote speaker. Ask your delegates ‘what are your lie awake at night issues?’ in advance of the event and pool like-minded people with the vendors who can potentially solve their problems. They would welcome this contact with their (potential) clients to find out how they can help in a ‘helping’ vs ‘selling’ environment and is there any better kind of market research?

So no, meetings are not dead in the water, in my humble opinion.

We hear regularly from clients who bring international guests to Cambridge on business – where a hard day’s negotiating is positively concluded over a glass or two and dinner in a College. Old colleagues who find each other whilst ‘getting some fresh air’ in the cloisters or new acquaintances made because of an eleventh hour seating plan change.

Long live meetings!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Everyone's a winner

So, it's October already and the start of a new term; the freshers look even younger and I feel even older! 

As we hand the bedrooms back to the accommodation offices, we're reflecting on another crazy summer and how sometimes, let's be honest, it is a challenge to connect the academic community with the world of 'external events'.

We're not bad at advocating the benefits of academic venues to clients, but I do wonder if we are guilty of not communicating the genuine benefits, financial and otherwise of these events to our internal audiences, Fellows, students, researchers etc. 

Richard Partington, Senior Tutor, Churchill College comments:

"Conferences are fundamental to Cambridge's academic well-being. Teaching and student support cost significantly more to run than is available to us through student fees. So I say to our students, 'Every conference guest you see is paying for your education.' Plus it is interesting for us to interact with the outside world in our own environment."

In addition to the financial contribution this business makes to the primary academic and research focus of the University, these events keep our venues alive out of term, allowing for permanent staffing; they mean that staff receive training in hospitality and customer service, (now also demanded by paying students); the audio visual equipment is usually the latest available and catering is of an extraordinary standard; plus the invaluable recognition that individuals, departments and the wider University can gain from hosting events.

The Cambridge Amabassador Programme supports academics who are interested in hosting events in their particular subject area and this brings unprecedented rewards

Alongside the fact that there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having staged a successful event, it can help to elevate personal profiles in the spheres of professional peers; it can gain international recognition for research or a department; it can highlight individuals or departments as leaders in a particular field and can create opportunities for collaboration between departments and Cambridge-based businesses.

As well as a financial boost for the venues, international events particularly, provide a great boost the wider Cambridge economy.


Spread the word!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

15, 8th and Top 10

It's hard to believe that this month, Conference Cambridge will be 15 years old; I've been here for 11 of those years and the business is totally transformed from my first day. We're now a team of 5 and the volume and value of enquiries we handle has more than doubled. 

And, before someone gets there before me .. so has my marketing budget (thankfully!).

So what's next?

With the very exciting first flight of Darwin Airways from Cambridge Airport this week and our IMEX America plans, which are well underway for the October show, we're truly going global with our marketing efforts. 

VisitEngland have been busy stand designing and time-tabling - we’re looking forward to sharing a pod with Visit Manchester on our trip to Las Vegas – and who knows, we might even be able to squeeze in a trip to the Grand Canyon between our scheduled appointments!

We take enquiries from all over the world and over the recent summer months we have welcomed summer schools, visiting fellows and specialists from every field imaginable from every corner.

According to VisitEngland’s International Passenger Survey, Cambridge ranked 8th in 2012 in the Top Towns for ‘inbound staying visitors’ (and has consistently placed 7th-10th over the last 10 years), with business visitors coming mainly from the Netherlands, USA, France, Germany & Poland. 

But you only have to step out of our office to look and hear the diversity of our visitors.... so, what is it about Cambridge that gives it that quintessential appeal and makes it a top location for business events? 

We’d love to hear what you think!

How many other destinations can offer state of the art meeting facilities and candle-lit dinners like this?

 Here are our Top Ten Reasons to come to Cambridge:

1. Cambridge is not just a conference destination; it offers visitors a completely unique experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

2. Great access - less than an hour from London Stansted, London King’s Cross, St Pancras International, Harwich and super links with several international airports plus Cambridge International Airport, which now offers flights to several European hub airports – straight into the heart of the City.

3. Cambridge is a beautifully compact City and is easy to get around; so using two venues in close proximity is a great option for larger events.

4. A calm, comfortable, distraction free location, where your delegates can focus on the meeting agenda and then enjoy immaculate gardens or quiet cloisters that are perfect for relaxing or networking.

5. Cambridge has the venues, the outside space, the ambience, the technical ability, the people, the culture, the imagination and 800 years of experience to bring any event to life.

6. The quintessential English destination, our world-famous Colleges offer ancient courts and halls alongside contemporary purpose-built centres brimming with the latest technology.

7. Tread in the steps of our famed alumni – from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking, William Wordsworth, Samuel Pepys to Stephen Fry and Prince Charles and Jeremy Paxman to David Mitchell.

8. Historically, international events hosted in Cambridge attract greater delegate numbers than other destinations 

9. Interesting landmarks, museums and galleries give delegates the opportunity to enjoy a rich and varied social programme too.

10. Our portfolio offers a choice of architecturally stunning venues, with something to suit every taste and budget. 

* Photo shows the 16th century College Hall located in First Court of Magdalene College. Originally, the monastic refectory, it seats up to 100 people for dining, has a small gallery and is beautifully decorated with the heraldic arms of Queen Anne. The Hall has a special atmosphere particularly when dining in the evening by candlelight.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

It never rains ...

I met these little fellas enjoying the monsoon on my way into work today.

Wasn’t everyone supposed to go on holiday this week? What happened?

The CC team were in Amsterdam with ICCA (International Congress and Convention Association) for three brilliant, enlightening days of destination marketing tips and networking with our international counterparts.The Dutch work hard and play hard but their marketing strategy is mind blowing. #inspired;

We learnt that Cambridge ranks 5th as an inbound destination city and 56th internationally – 11 places up on the previous year; the power of Ambassadors and the power of video. We have some work to do;

Two intense days of St John’s Ambulance refresher training (but please - don’t even cut yourself on my watch);  

16 site visits with our agent gurus from Trident Hospitality and working hard to deliver on our Agents' Promise with a flurry of excellent new proposal opportunities for us to host events here in Cambridge;

Super exciting ‘getting to know you’ sessions with our fantastic new Associate Venues – second photo shoot in a week and we all look like we’ve melted! Massive thanks to Murray Edwards College for hosting us over the two days.

Half a dozen show rounds for multisite events as far into the future as 2018 covering all manner of weird and wonderful subjects from animals to archaeology, rare medical disorders to mobile technology!

Motivating presentation by the team from Yorkshire @letouryorkshire and the start of planning for Le Tour de France 2014….. get your yellow flags at the ready for Monday 7 July 2014 and follow @letourcambridge on twitter to keep up to speed and find them on Facebook too.

So my friends in meteorology, who wasn’t paying attention? The sun was out on St Swithin’s Day! In East Anglia, apparently, we have the lowest precipitation rate in the UK!

'St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.’

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Squaring the Circle*

So, I’m back at my desk after a long break and have paddled my way through two weeks’ worth of correspondence; my productivity may have been low, but everything is now in neat, coded piles of importance and priority.

I have the most comprehensive, annotated, doodled-on ‘to do list’ ever and on the first day of our new financial year, with my extensive wish list of projects, I've already spent the budget.  At least twice.

Now, I just have to get on with it!

To attempt anything requiring any degree of creativity or logic would have felt like attempting to square the circle. But the day wasn't completely fruitless.

We launched our Associate Venue Membership – welcoming a dozen or so new non-academic venues into the portfolio – very exciting times. To find out more about our new venues take a look at www.conferencecambridge.com.

Martin Dempster and Kevan Holland of Trident Hospitality introduced our new Agents’ Promise and Code of Conduct at Midlands Consortium of Conference Organisers (MCOCO) Agents’ Showcase at Ramada in Sutton Coldfield. 

We found out that we’ll be hosting the next Great Ambassador Networking Group over Easter next year and we have a meeting on Wednesday with a fantastic potential Cambridge Ambassador as a result of our efforts on the ICCA database.

We have a meeting with the helpful people from UKTI to discuss our international efforts and potentially some joint promotions with Cambridge Airport, now that they have daily scheduled flights to Milan, Paris, Amsterdam and Geneva with Darwin Airlines.

And on Thursday,  we are very much looking forward to entertaining some clients at the Cambridge Belfry’s Banqueting Showcase – with an American theme, it being Independence Day, I think we’ll have a good night.

I love my job. (Most of the time)

Kelly Vickers
Manager, Conference Cambridge

Conference Cambridge is the official, free venue-finding service of the University of Cambridge, its Colleges, hotels and other  unique venues in the City.

*Squaring the Circle: On this day in 1769, a witty poem was published in the Cambridge Chronicle, in which, students were expressing their desire to wear square caps instead of round black caps.

Reference: the Cambridge Book of Days, Rosemary Zanders