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Hot Seat: Louise Davies

Tuesday 01-03-2011 - 00:00

Lancaster University Students’ Union’s licensed trade operations have defied the cold grip of the thorny economic climate. Last year, the union’s main venue, the Sugarhouse, made an annual profit of £114k, a remarkable increase from £4k the previous year. Venue Manager Louise Davies unveils the secrets behind the success.

Tell us a little bit about your position. What are your responsibilities?

I’m responsible for running the operations at the Sugarhouse, the biggest club in Lancaster with a capacity of 1,350. I directly control all areas of student staffing, health and safety, licensing, customer safety and security, and building maintenance. I work with a small team of individuals on the events and promotions for the venue. I am referred to as ‘Mother Goose’ by my staff!

For how long have you worked at Lancaster, and what made you want to work for a students’ union?

Currently in my tenth year! I took on the position of venue assistant at the Sugarhouse, having spent many a night out here, and then became the manager seven years ago. There’s something about the place that has captured my heart! Plus, working with and around students keeps everything fresh and challenging.

The Sugarhouse made a profit of £114k last year, compared to £4k the year before. How did you achieve such a huge improvement?

We have placed an absolute emphasis on building and reinforcing our relationships with our customers. In addition, I have focused on consistent cost control in all areas. There are, of course, a number of other factors involved that we constantly review and evaluate.

How has the venue evolved in your time with the union?

The building itself has undergone some massive changes; walls have come down, walls have gone back up, bars have moved position and become bigger and more ergonomic. We have always kept improving the student experience at the forefront of our minds, so any physical changes that have taken place have reflected this.

What do you do to encourage students to come into the Sugarhouse rather than go into town?

It’s all about communication, accessibility, and making people feel welcomed and special. There’s a lot of high-fiving and smiling that goes on at our front door!

Are there any special or original promotions that you offer?

We have the Sugarhouse card, which is basically a loyalty card. Bought at the beginning of the academic year, a customer can get free entry to the venue on any of our standard nights. I wouldn’t say it’s original, but as the saying goes, ‘talent borrows, genius steals’.

We use our guest list system in an innovative way for the union’s clubs, societies and junior common rooms. We also hide the Sugarmouse around campus for people to find and get treats for retrieving, as well as the face of the week all over our posters.

As venue manager, do you have creative freedom over the space and events schedule, or are you guided by the sabbatical officers?

We have a very productive management group setup, that allows both the permanent staff and full-time officers to have equal input into the use of the space and the events that take place.

Actually, this setup has – certainly over the past couple of years – been a major success in terms of idea generation and getting the student body on board. We meet weekly for reviews, updates and forward-planning.

How do you use the Sugarhouse website to promote the venue, and do you use any social media?

The website is still a work in progress at this stage, but we are making it more interactive, with feedback functions, guest list requesting, staff profiles and squirrels (!). Social networking sites are still in favour, so we make the most of them, although we’re careful not to bombard people with messages and information.

How do you promote the venue around campus?

We have a promo team who are all a little bit crazy. They regularly take to the campus to talk about the Sugarhouse, and cause mayhem dressed in squirrel suits. Why squirrels? I don’t know – but it works!

What is the venue’s pricing strategy?

Affordable but not heavily discounted. Our strategy has never been one of entering into pricing wars with other venues around the city centre. Our aim is to create an entertainment experience that delights our customers without the need for cheap and nasty drinks offers.

How do you measure the success of the venue?

Aside from the financial results, feedback is a major factor for us, whether this comes from our full-time officers, student officers or customers.

What training do you give your staff?

We have a full day’s training session before the first shift. I use a mix of theory and practical methods to keep things interesting, plus my team leaders join in and assist in the running of the practical side of things. The session includes health and safety, manual handling, control of substances hazardous to health, fire safety, customer care, service, behind-the-scenes activities and much more. We also take part in team-building games to openly encourage the Sugarhouse team spirit from the word go.

What culture and values do you encourage in your staff?

I’m very big on ‘team’. I believe that everyone has something to bring to the venue and, as such, actively encourage individuals to feel ownership over the place. It sounds clichéd but respect, trust, hard work and fun are my key values.

What advice would you give to a union running a licensed trade venue in today’s economic climate?

Know your audience, get people excited, be realistic and honest, and always believe that you can be better.

What do you think are the challenges in general facing licensed trade venues in students’ unions in 2011 and beyond?

This one I could talk about for hours, to be honest. But, being brief, the obvious challenges are the perception and reaction to the economic climate, a changing student demographic and keeping on top of the trends.

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