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Meeting the challenge: How our Conferencing Team stepped up during the pandemic

Tuesday 1 June 2021

With modern facilities, historic backdrop and central location, St Catharine’s is a popular choice for conferences, meetings and weddings, and the in-house Conferencing Team of five event professionals has a reputation for excellent customer service. Throughout the pandemic, the College has been incredibly fortunate to be able to draw upon the Conferencing Team’s considerable skills and expertise. Two of the team kindly shared how they have stepped up to take on new responsibilities in recent months and how their experiences will make them even better prepared to support clients when the College starts to accept event bookings again from July 2021.

Name: Martin Cullum

Role: Catering & Conference Operations Manager

Joined Catz: 2009

Life before Catz: Head Chef and subsequently Operations Manager at a Michelin-rated restaurant

Name: Ella Purkiss

Role: Events Coordinator

Joined Catz: 2015

Life before Catz: Assistant Practice Manager in a GP surgery for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness

Before the pandemic

Ella and Martin are both rightly proud of how they helped to nurture St Catharine’s relationships with event organisers and provide a high standard of support before and during events.

Ella explains, “Our team is the main point of contact into the College for event organisers so our days used to be spent liaising with existing and prospective clients to ensure they had everything they needed, whether that was a quote, finalising pre-event details or running the event on the day.”

Martin adds, “We also oversee the interface with other teams in College so we are responsible for updating our systems to reflect client requirements and speaking with colleagues in housekeeping, the Porters’ Lodge and the kitchens to ensure everyone is clear what is needed for the next event.”

The arrival of COVID-19 in the UK

Back in March 2020, the Conference Team were closely monitoring the situation as cases started to spread in the UK, and working with clients to review their needs. Sadly, the last externally-organised event held was on 15 March and all events scheduled since have been cancelled or postponed.

Martin comments, “We have stayed in contact with organisers throughout the pandemic. Clients were initially optimistic about the summer and looking forward to bringing their events to St Catharine’s once it was safe to do so, but it soon became clear that it would be some time before we could reopen for business. Client feedback about when these important partnerships were likely to resume was important for the College’s financial recovery plan, given that conference revenue is reinvested in supporting our students and other aspects of College life.”

Channelling skills in new directions

1. COVID-19 precautions

Both Ella and Martin were closely involved in implementing the College’s reopening plan, which ensured that the wide array of spaces and facilities available to students, staff and Fellows were COVID-secure for the start of the new academic year in October 2020.

Ella reflects, “Households are such an important part of public health restrictions in the UK, so it was vital to identify early on which bedrooms belonged to a specific household (by virtue of using the same kitchen and/or bathroom facilities). My knowledge of bedroom layouts from hosting overnight conference guests meant I was well-placed to assist in setting up student households alongside our Accommodation and Housekeeping Managers. I toured all our properties to make sure we were minimising transmission between households, and I put up signage so that both the College and resident students were clear about who belonged to which household.”

Martin recalls, “Shared spaces across St Catharine’s were reconfigured to comply with social distancing guidelines. I helped install one-way systems through College, with floor stickers to guide people through and chains to rope off areas. I also calculated new maximum capacities for rooms and produced signage to notify people before they entered. This wasn’t a one-off task – we needed to be nimble and refresh arrangements as soon as new national and local restrictions were announced.”

2. Asymptomatic testing programme

Since October 2020, St Catharine’s has offered our students weekly asymptomatic testing as a part of a programme coordinated by the University of Cambridge. Given her close involvement in student household arrangements, and previous experience working at a GP surgery, Ella was invited to help oversee the programme at St Catharine’s, as part of a team including the College Nurse and the Student Services Manager:

“Launching testing in College meant dividing up our 98 student households into 68 testing pools of between 6 and 10 students, providing them with testing kits and supporting any students who tested positive for COVID-19. Working with the core team, I was able to set up testing arrangements in a short space of time and ensure we kept the programme on track for the 30-week period that testing has been available.

“This additional role involved meant I needed to able to absorb detailed, technical documentation provided by the University’s clinicians responsible for the programme, and manage complex data sets that had to be accurate and up-to-date. The programme has enabled me to hone my project management skills and attention to detail, which I will certainly draw upon when events resume.”

3. Creative catering

Throughout the disruption of lockdowns and changing restrictions, St Catharine’s has recognised the benefits of shared mealtimes for physical and mental health, and has been committed to providing delicious and nutritious meals from our own kitchens. Martin helped to determine how to cater safely for the College community, while finding creative ways to lift spirits:

“I’ve often had to think on my feet in the past, which has come in handy this year when adapting to changes to guidelines – sometimes at short notice. I worked with the kitchen to ensure we were able to provide hot meals throughout term-time and retained much of our usual formal hall arrangements to host household dining experiences when restrictions allowed. From the start of Michaelmas Term, it was clear that students who needed to self-isolate would miss out on catering so I set up an ordering system so they could request meals from the kitchens. When the second national lockdown hit in the middle of Michaelmas Term, I even worked behind the camera to film a series of weekly cook-alongs with the Catering & Conference Director and JCR President, which was great fun for everyone involved!”

4. Imaginative use of spaces

Both Ella and Martin have helped the College to repurpose our spaces to support student welfare, in response to concerns that online learning and limits on household mixing could unintentionally lead to students having little opportunity to leave their bedrooms.

Martin comments, “From Michaelmas Term, Governing Body agreed that we could use the lawns in Main Court and Sherlock Court for student recreation (with a particular focus on isolating households) so I installed outdoor games equipment and set up a booking system. We also adapted our indoor facilities: the Rushmore Room became a shared study space, and other rooms were bookable for household use for study or recreational time.”

Ella adds, “Now we are in Easter Term, everyone at St Catharine’s is mindful of the pressures of the examination period, particularly given most examinations will be online. We’ve tried to exhaust every available space for our students, with conference facilities like the McGrath Centre and Ramsden Room being reconfigured with rows of desks so they can join the growing list of shared study spaces. Martin and I also set up systems to enable students to reserve a vacant bedroom as an alternative to their own room for quiet study or sitting online exams.”

Helen Hayward, Operations Director, sums up, “Ella and Martin exemplify the way so many teams at St Catharine’s have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic. I’m enormously grateful for and proud of their ingenuity and willingness to take on different responsibilities. St Catharine’s looks forward to providing a warm welcome to external events in the coming months, safe in the knowledge that our Conference Team is completely immersed in the latest public health guidelines.”

Find out more about hosting your conference or event at St Catharine's.