Thursday 20-11-2014 - 17:25
In a city full of competition, Nottingham Trent Students’ Unions commercial activity is somehow bucking national trends with trade, student satisfaction and relationship with their parent institution all looking positive as a result. For this week’s Hot Seat, we spoke to Ceri Davies, Chief Executive Officer at NTSU.
Tell us about your current role and the Nottingham Trent’s most recent achievements.
I am the CEO at Nottingham Trent. Our work over the last three to four years has focussed on a new building development at our City Centre site and some smaller capital developments at our Clifton and Brackenhurst campuses. These developments have been part of a commitment by the university to ensure sector leading facilities for students. In parallel with this a key task for the union has been to ensure that our staff structure, policy framework, management team, staff team, financial performance and the governance of the organisation are fit for this purpose, can meet the needs and aspirations of our members and maximise the benefits of the new facilities.
Nottingham Trent’s commercial activity is bucking the national trend; retail is up 15 per cent against a national increase 1.3 per cent, your licensed trade is up a staggering 192 per cent compared to a national increase of 0.7 per cent and catering in up 103 per cent against a national average of 6.0 per cent - why?
Most of the increase in catering and licensed trade can be attributed to the new facilities at the City. However, we have also seen increases in all three trading areas of trading at our other campuses.
Our retail offer has been driven by the introduction of the NUSSL Co-op offer in two of the stores, better product selection, improvements in the merchandising and the physical store environment. These were prompted by pressure from the institution for a better retail offer and this was achieved with the help of external designers who were recommended via NUSSL. Our catering improvement has been driven by the establishment of a new catering management role which has in turn led to revised menus which better suit our members and which deliver better gross profit figures. We have also updated the food offer at our coffee outlets, which was predominantly serviced in house, to include more of the Urban Eats range accessed through the consortium.
Our licensed trade has been driven by a strong entertainments offer. In addition to careful programming, our entertainments team have developed the art of holding their nerve when confronted with an occasional dip in attendance. They address this by focussing on student feedback rather than eroding margins. During the last three years we have also progressively strengthened our welcome week entertainments offer with rapid growth in sales before students arrive on campus. We focus on using welcome week to offer value for money and build a strong affinity with our membership rather than maximising profits during the week at the expense of loyalty over the rest of the year. Our entertainments team have also cultivated some stable relationships with other operators in the City which have enabled positive affiliation agreements. We avoid using external promoters for our key nights at our union sites.
We rely heavily on students to staff all our commercial operations and this creates the right atmosphere for our members who seem to feel a strong sense of ownership over their facilities. We expect our permanent staff to show a commitment to this way of operating and this seems to attract and retain permanent staff who genuinely like working for us.
As we are effectively a seasonal business we have a very strong awareness of what constitutes our core and variable costs. We strongly resist loading costs into the commercial side of our activities which do not fit within this framework although it can sometimes be hard to maintain this discipline.
What advice would you give to other unions who are facing declines in their commercial activity?
A clear sense of purpose and direction is key and a focussed staff team who are able to deliver the strategy is also important. However, one of the issues that we faced at NTSU was that we were insufficiently critical about what our figures were telling us. For example, delivering something as ‘a service to our members’ in unions which was previously making a commercial contribution can sometimes absolve us from recognising that students no longer want the service in sufficient numbers anymore or that the commercial model needs to be reviewed. It can also shield us from exercising proper control over our costs.
You sit on the NUS Services Board what does that involve and how has it helped you?
Being a Board Member helps identify trends affecting our commercial activities nationally. It also highlights where there are areas of excellent practice in other unions that we can learn from. We visited lots of other unions to inform the development of our new facilities for example looking at everything from grand designs to minor detail. There are lots of services within NUSSL that we have accessed to support our development over the last few years and being present at some of the national events and board meetings has highlighted these for us.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing SUs commercial activities in the next three years?
Pre-drinking continues to be a major challenge for our licensed activities. External competition also remains an issue. Tighter licensing regulation and keener enforcement tend to increase our costs in ensuring that we are operating at the highest standards. I also think that institutions are increasingly a source of pressure for some unions. We have been lucky to have an open-minded parent institution that has been willing to adjust its opinion of us as we have grown and developed and understand the benefits that we can offer to the overall campus offer and our members that cannot be replicated by some of the other contractors and brands operating in the sector.
How do you think unions can best mitigate against these?
There is some interesting work being piloted around breathalysing customers at the doors of clubs in an effort to deter pre-drinking, which I know Loughborough have been involved in and which may be extended to Nottingham City Centre soon. We are watching this with interest. Perhaps we all share the task of making the case for the unique benefits of SU run commercial activity within Higher Education. This includes promoting our high standards of operation, the way that our services reflect our values, our student staff reflecting positively on employability agendas and the quality of the relationships we have with our institutions which should be an area of strength compared to external brands.
What are your plans for the future and where do you see at the next commercial opportunities for your union?
Now that our operations are established at the new City Centre site, we are keen to develop our entertainments offer further. We have recently brought our media sales operation back in house and see this as an area of significant growth in future.
We are seeking to invest in more development at our Brackenhurst Campus this year. It has long been received wisdom at NTSU that we should make the same offer available to students at all three of our campuses (commercial and membership services). However, we are increasingly recognising that students at the different campuses have different needs and that we have a responsibility to recognise this while still treating our members at all three sites equally rather than treating them the same. As we work this through, we hope that this will develop new opportunities for service delivery.
How do you stay touch with students?
We have regular forums where students can feedback to us regarding service delivery. We seem to be in a minority of unions that continue to elect a student officer with responsibility for ‘services’. However, the focus of this role is on convening groups for feedback and ensuring that we are meeting the needs of students rather than on, for example, financial performance. We have well developed social media capacity. Our system of ‘fresher reps’ also can sometimes elicit high quality feedback very quickly well into the academic year. Responding positively to student feedback makes our members more enthusiastic about providing it in future.
Find out more about the University of Manchester Students' Union by visiting their website at www.trentstudents.org or by following them on Twitter at @trentstudents.