David Vaughton: “Competitive forces have led many venues to diversify”

Name:

David Vaughton

Role and company:

Director of venues for EEF Venues, a group of three AIM-gold accredited business and conference centres including Broadway House in Westminster, Woodland Grange in Leamington Spa and Engineers’ House in Bristol. 

Employee numbers:

80

Growth forecast for the next three years:

We expect a growth rate of between 15 and 20 per cent over the next three years. Our 2014 order book is already ahead of where it was this time last year, showing increased private sector confidence from corporates willing to commit in advance to bookings, an indication that they have the funding and are ready to spend it. Historically, performance within the meetings sector is linked to GDP growth and we have seen our own revenue performance for the 3rd quarter increase in line with that right across our three venues.

In fewer than 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace?

We are a customer-led, dedicated business-to-business organisation, so we understand the needs and objectives of corporate organisations and provide bespoke solutions to them. Our specialist teams have the experience and expertise to hone into the very specific needs of business clients. Competitive forces have led many venues to diversify into the leisure sector but staying true to our core business market is important to us. 

What’s the big vision for your business?

Ultimately, it would be great to think that we could expand our portfolio of venues but our main goal is to maintain growth levels through a rolling programme of continuous investment at each of our three venues as this is vital to ensure consistent customer satisfaction and retention. We are fortunate that our parent group, EEF, the manufacturing organisation, doesn’t have shareholders so any profits are invested back into the business. Some 70 per cent of our business is repeat bookings and we believe that this is key to solid business growth. Over the last 12 months we have invested over £1m in a refurbishment project but it’s not just about great facilities. Great service stays with people and we will continue to invest in passionate people who drive this business from within.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it:

My biggest career setback occurred when I was appointed assistant manager at an independent hotel. I was just 21 years of age and shortly after my appointment the manager left and I was asked to take over his role for six months. It came as a complete shock and a great disappointment to me when I was not given the position permanently. I was deemed too young and inexperienced at the time, and I can understand that now. What I gained from it was enhanced determination to get the experience I needed to prove myself. It was a well-timed kick, and above all, it made me realise that I could have done the job and done it well but lacked the experience to be taken seriously. I set myself a goal of becoming general manager within five years and I achieved that goal.

What makes you mad in business today?

Poor customer service makes my blood boil. I know that it is a cliché to say that the customer is king but realistically, that is the case. Good and genuine customer service is about acknowledging the importance of an individual to a business’s growth and success. Customers should be cherished and respected and the only way to do that is to recruit the right people. Bad attitude is bad business. At EEF Venues we recruit on attitude as much as on experience. Someone with the right attitude and with a desire and willingness to learn can be groomed and nurtured. We support several apprentices within the business for that very reason. 

Another thing that makes me mad is when there is too much focus on price rather than value, a legacy of our economy’s more stringent recent times. Hopefully, we can put that behind us now and put a value on great service and the smaller details that can enhance a business meeting experience. 

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?

As the economy continues to recover, it should return to a sellers’ market, with reduced pressure on margins. One of the biggest and on-going challenges for us is meeting increasingly high expectations in terms of facilities. IT and indeed, food. Quality of food has never been so high in the conference and meetings sector. High Street trends, demand for more eclectic choices, seasonality, provenance and special dietary requirements all come into play as delegates’ increasingly sophisticated tastes set the bar for venue operators. We have already seen a shift in eating patterns, with traditional set meals times now a thing of the past. The food offer will become 24/7 and that will bring its own challenges. 

Another possible challenge is the rise in popularity of virtual meetings via more sophisticated technology but I believe that there will always be a place for face-to-face meetings as this is vital for people to inspire, motivate, network and engage properly with each other.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?

If the business case is strong and there is realistic payback then accessing finance in this sector is possible and relatively easy.

How would others describe your leadership style?

I have been told that I lead by example and that I am firm but fair. I am very results driven and I have a clear vision of what my goals for the business are. When you go from being a manager to a leader you take your managerial attributes with you but I think it takes time and maturity to develop a leadership style. Call it the wisdom of age but I believe qualities like empathy and understanding can enhance one’s leadership style and consequently, impact positively on the business.

Your biggest personal extravagance?

I love a good red wine and don’t mind paying a little extra to have it. Over the last three years, another personal extravagance, if you can call it that, has been to pay all of my own expenses to go out to Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka Aid Project (SLAP) to support victims affected by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. I had the privilege of first visiting in December 2012, meeting such humble, charming and grateful people. I help with fund raising and monies raised to date have supported repairs to the hospital in Bentota and, more recently, invested in Bondupitiya School on the fringes of the town where facilities and amenities are extremely basic. I will be returning there in February 2014 to help build a school. 

You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

Reduce taxation and business rates so that young businesses can have a fighting chance at success. I would like to see the Government introduce a business scheme for young entrepreneurs along the lines of the recent Funding for Lending Scheme to help to get new enterprises off the ground by giving them easy access to a capital. The highest unemployed group in the UK is the 18-24 year olds so a kick-start for young people would be a great incentive.

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