MANAGEMENT TRAINING CENTRES: Centres of excellence - Management training centres have added to their offer with improved catering, leisure facilities and very competitive rates, as Colette Doyle discovers

The designation "management training centre may conjure up an image of austere places of learning with little in the way of frills, but in reality these venues are giving hotels a run for their money when it comes to the variety of events they host, from training sessions to smaller conferences and even team-building programmes. "Around half the business we place for one of our management consultancy clients is at management training centres, rather than hotels, notes IBR account manager Sharon White.

The reasons, according to White, are numerous. "Training centres are more specialised, they offer a dedicated service and they often work out better value than four-star hotels too, especially with 24-hour rates for residential courses. Of course, such centres do not appeal across the board - they may not be first choice for top-end board meetings, for instance - but for some they are an ideal solution. As White points out: "A lot of the training this particular client does is for graduate recruits who wouldn't really expect perks such as 24-hour room service."

White has used a number of training centres during her time at IBR, including Robinson College Executive Centre and Whittlebury Hall, and maintains they offer "a superior learning experience". She continues: "Because they're purpose-built they have conference rooms with natural daylight specifically designed to hold meetings, and a large amount of break-out rooms next to one another so access is easier."

Conference Venues Countrywide (CVC) chief executive Gill Smillie, whose agency regularly places clients in training centres, also believes this kind of venue offers buyers a quality meetings environment. "Nowadays, you can hardly distinguish between a training centre and a four-star hotel, she comments. "The standard of accommodation and catering has improved so much that these venues now compete on an equal footing. And, because they don't take passing trade you don't get people popping in for drinks or lunch, so it is less distracting."

Event organisers also cite training centres' flexible attitude as another plus. Team-building specialist Oxygen Learning chose residential conference centre Middle Aston House, near Oxford, rather than a hotel in the same area because of its staff's can-do attitude. For a personal leadership course for Microsoft managers in May, Oxygen needed to take over the centre's kitchens so that participants could work as a team to cook themselves a gourmet meal. "We wanted a free hand to set up the event and many, more conventional venues simply wouldn't allow this much freedom, explains account director Phil Rose.

Another factor to consider is training centres' all-inclusive nature, as they often include more in their day and 24-hour delegate packages.

"Our pricing includes the use of syndicate rooms and unlimited quantities of tea and coffee, points out Initial Style Conferences sales and marketing director Becky Graveney. "And we have a standardised system for extras such as data projectors, all of which makes it easier for buyers to budget. Stewart Elsmore is director of residential services at Cranfield Management Development Centre and chairman of Conference Centres of Excellence (CCE), a marketing consortium of dedicated training and conference centres, which now has 32 members including recent additions Dolce Norton Manor in Winchester and the Manor House at Godalming. He points to a number of other ways in which management centres can fulfil the needs of conference organisers.

"The service they provide is tailored to the industry, the meeting rooms aren't used for any other purpose. At mealtimes, staff appreciate delegates may have to make phone calls or carry out other work-related tasks so they often provide a carvery or buffet option, he comments. "Plus, the fact that tea and coffee are freely available means that, unlike hotels where refreshments tend to be served at set times, it doesn't matter if a meeting overruns. And, rather than a porter who maybe isn't too technically minded, the centres provide trained technicians to help organisers with their AV requirements."

In fact, the issue of staffing is another area where Elsmore believes training centres excel. "Staff retention levels are higher because they're generally paid better than in hotels and have better working conditions - they don't often have to work weekends, for example. So, because staff have been there longer, they understand the meetings market and what organisers expect, he explains.

In terms of location, training centres are well placed to adapt to the current move towards smaller, regional meetings instead of full-blown national events. "Big firms will often break down their training requirements into regional blocks to minimise time out of the office by cutting down on travelling time, notes Hayley Conference Centres sales and operations director Jane Littlewood.

Graveney points to another geographic trend. "Larger conferences, with around 200-250 delegates, tend to take place in the south east or the Midlands, whereas training and assessment sessions are usually held locally. To offer regional buyers greater choice, as well as seizing the opportunity to pick up business in untapped areas, both Hayley and Initial Style have new openings planned. Hayley is undertaking a £12.5m refurbishment of Wotton House, a historic building near Guildford, which will be the company's first venture into the south east. "Our new venue will give us a better national spread and a handy connection to the prosperous M25 corridor, comments Littlewood. The centre will be able to hold up to 200 delegates in the largest of the 40 conference, training and syndicate rooms.

Next February, Initial Style is opening Wychwood Park at Nantwich in Cheshire, a modern, purpose-built centre that will give the company a northern focus to its operations. With 108 rooms, and a main training space for around 250 theatre-style, the venue will also offer groups a PGA European-standard golf course.

Over in Yorkshire, training provider Fusions launched its own non-residential venue this May in Skipton, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Part of a complex of restored 18th century stone buildings that were previously a working farm, the facility offers state-of-the-art training rooms, an IT suite and a ropes courses that can be incorporated into team-building events. Business development manager Karen O'Loughlin comments: "We already have bookings from local companies like the Skipton Building Society, but I believe the site will appeal to clients further afield, too. It's a stunning spot, and so tranquil that it's conducive to work."

Uninterrupted peace

Indeed, a peaceful environment is a major selling point at many management training venues. As CVC's Smillie points out: "The beauty of the rural venues is that everything is on site, and fewer distractions means participants tend to be more focused on their work. Also, there's no need to go out at night, which is a bonus as some groups have evening syndicate work to do."

Littlewood believes as long as there is convenient road access, delegates are happy to try out-of-the-way venues. "The whole idea is to slow the pace down and introduce the group into tranquil surroundings where they can have time out to concentrate."

As well as offering on-site fitness suites, often including saunas and swimming pools of a standard most hotels would be proud of, countryside training centres have the added advantage of plenty of space for team-building activities. The Wyboston Lakes centre at St Neots, midway between Cambridge and Bedford, offers a games, driving and shooting zone, as well as a selection of water-based sports including jet skis. Elsewhere, at the newly opened Sunhill Centre, the 500-acre site can play host to a wide choice of activities such as treasure hunts, archery, paint-balling and rock climbing.

Yet, despite the undoubted appeal of the great outdoors, interest in non-residential, city-centre venues is also on the increase. Caroline Bull, director of venues at ETC Venues, which runs four London-based centres, has noticed a surge in demand from both the retail and public sectors.

"If we leave last year out of the equation but look back to the financial year for 2000-2001, we had to turn away about £3m worth of business during that period, she recalls. "Our turnover is about £5m, so that's nearly half as much business again that we weren't able to handle because of lack of capacity."

Bull is in no doubt as to the reasons behind the rise in demand for this kind of centre. "A city-centre venue obviates the need for an overnight stay and minimises travelling costs, so it's certainly a viable option for those sectors where budgets are more restricted, like the health service."

Initial Style acknowledged the potential of city-centre venues when it launched its City Style brand, with the opening in May last year of its Portland Place centre. Graveney confirms that the company is looking at expanding this side of the business further. "There's no timescale on it as yet, but we do plan to open more sites in the capital as well as in other urban hubs such as Manchester and Birmingham. These kind of venues will complement our existing regional residential portfolio very well."

Another recent London opening is the Jerwood Centre, a £5m investment on the Royal College of Physicians' site, close to Regents Park. With a maximum capacity of 60 delegates, the brand new complex offers five flexible training or seminar rooms, all featuring a range of AV technology from video-conferencing equipment to interactive response handsets for use with PowerPoint presentations. Royal College of Physicians managing director Clive Ostler is confident the new venture will prove a success due in part to what he describes as "the lack of dedicated training facilities in the capital.

The demand for this type of standalone facility is already evident, as Ostler is at pains to point out. "The centre was only officially opened in March and we've already had a good response from a broad cross-section of clients, including government departments, professional bodies and the corporate sector - and pharmaceutical clients in particular, he notes.

For a flexible, dedicated solution to the requirements of corporate trainers and organisers of smaller meetings, it seems training centres have much to offer. Whether city centre or rural, residential or day-use only, such venues have one thing in common: the capability to service the needs of a specialist market by providing a quality service and facilities that are second to none.

Company: Schering-Plough
Venue: Robinson College Executive Centre
Event: key account development course
Group size: 80 delegates
Date: 24-27 February 2002
Budget: undisclosed

This three-night residential course was designed to train the company's hospital sales reps from across the UK and Ireland. The location is ideal for Schering-Plough as the centre is just ten minutes away from its offices and close to Luton airport, making transfers easy.

Margaret Blundell, training administrator at Schering-Plough is impressed by the facilities. "The thing about this venue is that the standard is always high, she says. "All the rooms are en suite doubles, the food is consistently reliable and the breakout areas are spacious and comfortable.

Plus, there's a gym and pool for leisure use. With the 80 delegates broken into smaller groups, full use was made of six of the syndicate rooms over the duration of the course. On the last evening, the company held a fancy dress party at the centre's restaurant.

"We have a hospital band so they provided the music, recalls Schering-Plough's GB training manager, Sally Smith. "We had exclusive use of the facility and the staff were extremely helpful in organising everything for us."

Smith points out that one reason for choosing the venue is it reinforces the idea that participants are there to work. "It's not a jolly, she states. "The fact there's no 24-hour room service is a good thing as it ensures that delegates concentrate. Smith was also impressed by what the centre offered in terms of technical capabilities. "There is always at least a couple of technicians on hand to help with the AV equipment." Schering-Plough uses the centre around six times a year and has another course booked in for July. "It offers a reliable service with a strong focus on customer care and a flexible approach, concludes Blundell.

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