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Are Universities Doing Enough to Encourage Entrepreneurial Event Managers?

By Becki Cross

Across the world record numbers of people are engaged in entrepreneurial activity or intending to start a business within the next 3 years. But are universities and event management degree courses doing enough to instil and develop entrepreneurial spirit within students? Do graduates really see starting their own business as a viable option?


Countries worldwide are trying to remove barriers to make it easier than ever to start up in business through less legislation, paperwork and more agile set up times. The global events industry is dominated by small and medium sized businesses with less than 250 employees. As an example the UK events sector is served by 25,000 small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

According to the most recent data from The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013 Report the UK is currently outperforming other European innovation led economies including France and Germany on almost all entrepreneurship indicators but is lagging behind the USA.

- 3.6% of the UK working age adult population are new business owner-managers (with a company between 3 and 42 months old). The US estimate was similar at 3.7% with 2% for Germany and 1.8% for France.

- 3.8% of the adult population in the UK were nascent entrepreneurs (actively trying to start a business), compared with 9.2% in the US.

- It is estimated that if the UK had the same rate of entrepreneurship as the US there would be 900k additional businesses.

- If the UK had the same levels of female entrepreneurship as the US it is estimated this would contribute an extra £42 billion ($62.5 billion) to the economy.

Entrepreneurship is a subject of great interest to me as I set up my own event management company only a few years after graduating, whilst still in my twenties.

Another event management graduate from my course of 75 people also took a similar path at a similar age and is also now celebrating over 10 years in business. It isn’t a decision to be taken lightly but there can be a lot of benefits to starting out when you are young, before the commitments and complications of later life take hold.

Graduates are also generally more ‘tech savvy’ and skilled to continue to drive the exciting technological revolution witnessed in the events industry. However very few graduates seem to view it as a viable option to them and so I decided to explore ‘if’ and ‘how’ modern event management degree courses are supporting and encouraging budding entrepreneurs.

Why Are Entrepreneurs Important to the Event Industry?

The event industry is a competitive and increasingly saturated job market and unfortunately no graduate today can be assured of walking into their ideal job, however outstanding they may be. This has been particularly true during the recent worldwide recession when times were particularly tough across virtually all sectors. Economic downturn is however traditionally a great time for innovative and disruptive start-ups to come along and shake things up.

Increasingly people are taking matters into their own hands and deciding on their own destiny by setting up in business. In the events industry, other than perhaps the technology sector, start-up costs are generally low and a large amount of capital isn’t necessary. In a service industry such as events you need your skills and contacts, a mobile phone, laptop and internet access and potentially very little else to get started in business.

Even when capital investment is required there is more opportunity than ever to gain support not just through traditional business loans or angel investors but also through crowd funding and community finance options.

Even if you do not want to take the leap into running your own business you may have an event idea you are passionate about and wish to develop. Increasingly people are becoming ‘5-9 Entrepreneurs’ working evening and weekends around their day job to get an idea off the ground.

Are Event Management Degrees and Universities Doing Enough?

Historically universities have focused on academic rather than vocational learning and creating employees rather than employers, however times are changing. Researching this post identified some outstanding commitment in terms of developing entrepreneurial thinking, however there are many more institutions completely missing the mark.

According to the 2012 Report ‘Make Business Your Business’ by Lord Young the majority of college and university students state that they are “untouched by enterprise whilst studying.” Indeed many students and graduates I chatted to did not seem to be aware of how to access support services within the university system so this could be an area for improvement.

It was particularly disappointing to hear the story of one forward thinking student who had a business idea he wanted to develop however his university couldn’t signpost him to any advice or offer any support within the institution and “sent him in circles with regards to who to talk to for advice.”

Feedback from another was that they had to study a compulsory Business Management Module on their Master’s Degree, however this was very broad and mostly relevant to managing large companies, not at all focused on SMEs or enterprise.

What Should you Expect as Part of Your Event Management Degree Course?

It seems however that the majority of universities are striving to encourage world class event managers and entrepreneurial thinking. In researching this post it was inspiring to talk to many Course Leaders and Lecturers who understand completely the importance of developing entrepreneurial skills.

I believe for many universities there has been a massive shift in thinking over the last ten to fifteen years since I graduated. Below are just some of the ways the forward thinking universities I interviewed support students and alumni and I have highlighted some particularly shining examples which stood out to me.

Increasingly nowadays University Lecturers have a strong industry background in the real world, which is absolutely essential and much more valuable than a life in research and academia! Lecturers today may even have run their own business. It is important to have these positive role models and I remember being strongly inspired by one of my tutors who had run his own business for many years and had lots of enlightening anecdotes to share.

Guest Industry Speakers
It is vital to have varied input from industry given by micro businesses, SMEs and right through to worldwide event organisations. Their input can be inspirational and thought provoking and this also offers the unique opportunity to ask direct probing questions directly to an expert. I am particularly impressed by those universities that can call on their own graduate success stories to come back to give guest lectures.

Business Planning Skills
I think all university students should learn how to create a business plan as this is an important tool for thinking, learning and understanding. In the events industry even if you never start your own business the principles of writing a business plan will be vital transferable skills throughout your career. Client briefs and proposal need to outline the mission, vision and objectives of an event, financial projections, marketing and development plan.

Work Experience, Placements, Internships and Volunteering Opportunities
The biggest preparation for a career in the events industry is lashings of experience across a broad range of events. Without this you will have little chance of securing a job or having the skills and confidence to start your own company. Universities have a duty to signpost and develop as many opportunities as possible for their students as well as the individual being proactive.

Pitching and Working with Real Clients to Run Events
The UK Centre for Event Management at Leeds Beckett University requires students to develop a business idea and pitch this to experts via a Dragons Den style pitch. They then work for real clients to plan and stage an event with academic and industry professionals providing rigorous feedback to them.

Personality Testing
At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) event management students undertake personality tests and psychometric testing to identify their particular strengths and weaknesses which are then matched in a random group of people with different traits. Each group then meets with charities, selects a wish list of those they would like to work with, develops revenue generating innovative event ideas and pitches directly to the clients.

As in the real world this is a competitive process and there is no guarantee the groups will be chosen by their ideal client but the projects proceed through the planning process to the live event and generate profit for these worthy causes.

Funding for Ideas Testing
Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) have the ‘Try It Awards’ which offers students £250 to test an early idea to minimise risk and maximise support.

Industry Skills
Idea generation, brain storming, research, pitch presentations, project planning, report writing, team work are just some of the industry skills that universities are developing in students. These abilities are essential for the modern event manager whatever career path they take.

Incubator Units
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has a high success rate in terms of their graduates demonstrating long established businesses. They offer a business support and incubation facility dedicated to “nurturing enterprising people.” Northern Lights offers business mentoring, bespoke advice, group learning, workshops and networking for those at the ideas stage or looking for development and growth.

MMU have also just invested £1million on their Innospace business incubation unit with more than 70 tenants operating from the base.

98% of businesses succeed within incubator units, compared to a national average of less than 30% and UK Business Incubation estimates that each environment provides an average of 167 jobs across a range of sectors and regions.

Signposting to Bespoke Support
Within the university system there should always be bespoke one to one support available for those exploring starting their own business and seeking independent advice. Within LJMU for example there is access to free legal and financial advice.

It is also particularly impressive to find that LJMU doesn’t only support their current students and alumni, they go over and above to give support to anyone looking to follow their dream, wherever they studied.

Entrepreneurial Competitions
Another inspiring project from MMU is their project where every student has £5 and must come up with enterprising ideas for how to grow this money, similar to the Tenner Tycoon Charity ethos. The students critique each other’s ideas and have to vote to decide the final winner. Creative thinking and working with little or no budget are often important skills for event managers and entrepreneurs alike so I really love this concept!

Event Support Services
Leeds Beckett now offers an event support service where students can volunteer and test out their own initiatives and ideas within events that the university have professionally tendered for and run, which should be a winning combination for everyone involved.

University Entrepreneur Networks
University Entrepreneur Networks are becoming more common in the UK, following the American Societies model.

“Everyone at Harvard’s inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.” - ‘The Social Network’

NACUE, The National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, supports students to create enterprise societies with the aim of driving ambition, awareness and capability. The LJMU Start-Up Network gives access to a bank of entrepreneurs who offer peer to peer support, publicity, events and contacts.

Entrepreneurship Awards
Universities such as UCLan run a Student Entrepreneurship Award with a prize awarded of up to £1,000. This is a valuable process and a fantastic financial boost to the winner starting out in business.

Recognition of Excellence
I was particularly impressed by the event management degree course at MMU as they really seem to strive to embed entrepreneurial thinking throughout all levels of the course, rather than just within specific optional or compulsory modules. The university was recently awarded as an Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs Centre of Excellence at a prestigious awards event at the House of Lords, recognised for its creative approach to enterprise education.

In Conclusion

It is inspiring to see what many of the forward thinking universities and event management degree courses are doing to create the entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow and I have enjoyed sharing some of their best practice within this post.

Little research currently seems to be done to track the career paths graduates take after university. It would be particularly revealing to find if more people from innovative universities truly embracing the entrepreneurial ethos go on to run their own businesses and if this happens at an earlier stage?

A future post will consider the barriers and benefits to anyone starting out in business and further ideas for how we can support and encourage entrepreneurial event managers.

I believe that universities across the world have a key role to play in encouraging enterprising graduates. Whether or not students have the ambition to start their own business in the short or long term I believe that this belief and ethos should be inspired throughout the education system, particularly in Higher Education. In the events industry developing the best creative and enterprising individuals is the only way we can ensure our event economy remains world class.

How do you think universities can best support and encourage the entrepreneurs of tomorrow? Do you think event management degree courses are doing enough? What is your personal experience? What other ideas would you like to see offered through Higher Education? What can be learnt, particular from the USA? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Thank you to all of the contributors interviewed for this blog post including students, graduates, course leaders and universities.

Further reading and references:
Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013 Global Report
GEM United Kingdom 2013 Monitoring Report
Events are GREAT Britain
Make Business Your Business
The role of entrepreneurship clubs and societies in entrepreneurial learning – International Small Business Journal

about the author

Becki Cross
Becki Cross is Managing Director of Events Northern Ltd, a UK event and conference management company established in 2004. Becki set up the business in her early twenties and is particularly passionate about conferences, innovation, entrepreneurship and the legacy of events.Becki is also the Deputy Editor, Community Manager and Contributor to EventMB, her dream job alongside event planning!Follow Becki via @beckitrain.
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  • Patti Shock

    As a professor that teaches event management, I can tell you that at least half of my students have wanted to start their own business. I caution them to work for someone else first, to gain experience – and to make their mistakes on someone else’s dime.

    • Hello Patti
      Fantastic that you have so many enterprising students, that is a high percentage and I bet they are an inspiring bunch to work with!
      Very true advice though, experience is essential to succeed….

  • Harry Zhang

    I founded a tech startup when I was a freshman at NYU’s Hospitality Program and ran it for two and a half years until junior year. I’ll say the one thing that was absolutely critical to enabling me to pursue entrepreneurship, though I think it may or may not be something that would necessarily be in universities’ best interests to act on, was how easy my program was those first two years. I worked with many of my friends for my company, and many more of my friends were also fellow entrepreneurs doing their own things. We all had the time on our hands. So the one thing I’ll say about this from my own college experience, is that in addition perhaps to all the offers to hold their hands, you might be surprised how enterprising and capable college kids could be if you just inspire them then give them space to be free.

    • Hi Harry
      This is a great example and also a very good point well made! Definitely food for thought!
      Well done on juggling studying and running a business though.
      Has your entrepreneurial leaning continued since graduating?

  • eventbirdie

    Great post Becki! The events industry is full of people wanting to go it alone, but it’s not always easy. Having the contacts and reputation behind you does make it “easier”, but if you’re determined and hard-working then anything is possible. The events industry will benefit from creative new products and services being developed, and universities should encourage their students to innovate – we all know clients are constantly asking for, ‘What’s new?’ – so it’s a great time to deliver.

    • I agree that inspiring the ethos that anything is possible is so valuable. Whether it is one, five or twenty years after graduating we need people to follow their dreams if they are serious about starting their own company. They also need to realise that it is never going to be the “easy option.”
      Innovative thinking can be powerful whether you are an employee or an employer.
      Thanks for commenting!

  • Hotel Desk

    Wow Becki – great minds think alike! A great post. After meeting you at a seminar at Media City a couple of weeks ago, Hotel Desk has now taken the plunge and offered 2 Salford University students work experience placements bringing digital marketing and events together to the work place. Whilst only in week 2 of the placements, the students are very impressive and professional. They are both ambitious, have bags of enthusiasm and also work commitment. Salford University itself is award winning for its business innovation strategies. It is also currently running a ‘2014 Year of the SME’ campaign with different initiatives to help students gain hands on experience with SMEs who are looking for additional support. A very easy process to facilitate the placements and an all round win-win situation for all parties – the businesses, the university and the students themselves. I have no idea if the students will go on to make the leap and start their own companies but I have every confidence they will both go on to have very successful careers and I hope their Hotel Desk placements will have helped them make a good head start.

    • Hi Jo
      Thanks for your tweets and comment.
      This is fantastic news – well done – sounds like a great move all round. I would love to hear more about the outcomes and how the students develop and progress in the future!
      I am really interested to hear about the “Year of the SME Campaign” too, which sounds like another fantastic example of best practice. I have signed up to attend the forthcoming event by Salford University – thank you for highlighting this.
      Best of luck to you and the 2 students! I will look forward to reading your blog posts around this topic!

  • Great post Becki! Some great points. Universities should definitely do more to support students looking to start their own companies. Shocking to hear about the poor student who was sent round in circles. Hopefully this post, and posts like it will highlight the need for proper support services in schools and universities.

    • It is heartbreaking and shocking to hear that this can happen in this day and age I agree. It also makes me question what other learning and support those institutions could possibly be overlooking?
      I hope any universities not making the grade will take on board some of the many examples of best practice from this post as it was inspiring talking to those that are taking this seriously and getting it right.
      Hopefully this post will also be useful for students looking to compare universities and to gauge the courses and support on offer to decide which choice is right for them.

  • Chris Phelan

    A very timely blog post! Firstly, I must confess to a bias as a University Lecturer who teaches Event Management and Entrepreneurship (sometimes together, but not always!). There are certainly a wide variety of undergrad / postgrad options out there and I am pleased to say that many are now including options related to SMEs / enterprise and not just corporate / traditional employment.

    However, it begs the question of what we want our University sector – and event management programmes in particular – to do. Other equally important topics are taught by some and overlooked by others, with sustainability, accounting and project management springing to mind. In addition, whilst many courses may not (yet) have a named entrepreneurship route, enterprise skills may still be firmly embedded with creativity, innovation and opportunity recognition delivered as key employability skills. The challenge for event educators is to broaden student horizons to include the full range of 21st Century employment options – from the traditional to the enterprising…

    • Hello Chris
      It must be challenging as a Lecturer to cover all the learning and skills needed to be a modern Event Manager! The pace of change is great and the role is already so varied.
      I think your last sentence is spot on. Keep up the good work!