Butlin’s Conference & Events division ‘yin and yang of the academic world’

Butlin’s Conference & Events division is continuing its expansion in the sector, having invested more than £200 million on new facilities and improvements.
Since the start of 2017, growth in the sector is up 6.8 per cent year on year. To further bolster the business, Cheryl Russell was appointed in August 2018 to lead the conference and events team. She reveals how Butlin’s will continue its winning streak, positioning the brand as a conference and events venue offering an alternative to traditional spaces in the UK market.

What has been the biggest obstacle for the brand to overcome?
For us it’s very much about changing perceptions. People think they know what to expect with Butlin’s but the reality is very different. Butlin’s entered the conference market five years ago, so we are latecomers to the corporate world, but we have some of the most iconic spaces in Britain.

We’ve done a lot of work around perception and that will always be a challenge. We tend to find it’s more a generational challenge. We do get a little bit of resistance but once people have actually seen and heard what we’ve got, those barriers come down very quickly.

Do you work hard to get away from the ‘Hi De Hi’ reputation?
People don’t actually know what to expect. Once we get someone on resort, they are blown away with what we can actually offer. It’s what we can bring over and above what our competitors can, which is a cost saving to our clients.

How have you improved the facilities?
Over the last five years we have invested over £200 million in the resorts. For example at Bognor Regis, we have purpose-built hotels which work very well for the conference market. Our competitors can provide the big spaces or they have accommodation. But they can’t offer everything on one site. We have the accommodation, we have team building and we have huge venues – all on site. We can do anything from 10 people up to 5,500 for an arena event.

Is technology of paramount importance?
Because of the entertainment we put on, we have a huge portofolio of AVs, production, sound, light, rigging. We can actually include that as a value-add, whereas our competitors need to charge for it or bring it in. We are quite happy to throw in and include that for the events. We can include AV technicians and for the client, it’s a massive cost saving.

Are you aiming at the campus model?
I would say we are resort driven. It’s campus in that we do compete directly against a lot of the academic venues, maybe because of our space and capacity. Our core market is holidays, so we are not looking for demand during the summer season when a lot of the universities want to take conference. We are the yin and yang of the academic world. We work to the reverse of the academics.

Price points: is it all about budgets?
I don’t think it’s just about the money. What event planners are looking for is value for money. We are not the cheapest but we do offer many value-adds.

Who are your most eminent clients?
We work with some really high-profile clients that you wouldn’t necessarily align with Butlin’s such as Elizabeth Arden, Sainsburys and Waitrose. That gives us credibility and kudos that helps position us in the market.

How do you measure success?
Repeat business. So many of our clients will re-book straight away.

What are your latest plans?
We are about to relaunch our conference menus around wellbeing and nutrition. Brain food as opposed to the more traditional fare. If the food’s right, the conference goes well. If you get the food wrong, it becomes the main talking point of the event.