Students’ Unions have a rich history here in the UK; the very first was set up in 1884 and from then on student unionism has gone from strength to strength. Today they are an integral part of student life, facilitating important student activities and campaigning on behalf of their students. Of course, like any organisation, they require funds to run. While some university grants are available, students’ unions have to raise some funds independently. The answer? Build successful students’ union enterprises.
To find out more about what it takes to run a successful SU enterprise we spoke with Andrew Berrie, Marketing and Communications Manager at The University of Northampton Students’ Union, Catherine Farrell, Communications Manager at Hull University Union and Michael Kind, Development Officer at the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union.
Before we discover their top tips for building a successful students’ union enterprise, let’s take a look at two case studies to get an in-depth take on the issue.
Case study 1: HUU Homes
We spoke with Catherine Farrell, Communications Manager at Hull University Union, to find out more about the new housing service on offer at Hull University.
“Students often find it quite daunting to source a quality property with a good landlord. In August 2013, we created HUU Homes to improve the quality of student accommodation, selecting safe properties owned by responsible landlords. Our ethos lines itself with the Union itself, with the main concern being student welfare. Since then the enterprise has progressed to be a competitor in the student letting market, managing 69 properties for 32 landlords and providing homes for 291 students. We are increasing our portfolio of houses that we manage year on year through hard work and dedication to our students. We always encourage students to go out and see a number of properties before making the big decision.
HUU Homes is part of Hull University Union and students already have an on-going relationship with us through the range of services the Union provides, from societies to Starbucks in our cafés and bars. We rely on word of mouth recommendations for both students and landlords. Students look to us because they trust we have their best interests at heart. Students respond to our friendly, professional, customer-focused service – we are always available for students and they do often pop in just to say hello.
Our office is based on the ground floor of the Student Central Student’s Union building at the heart of the University of Hull campus, which makes it very convenient for students to access throughout the day. “
Case study 2: #NUBrew
Research has found that sales of draught and packaged beer at unions across the country has fallen in recent years. But craft beer is having a bit of a moment, with the number of UK breweries rising by 8% last year.
Enter: NUBrew. It started out as a student-led activity and has gone through three different iterations already. Andrew Berrie, Marketing and Communications Manager at The University of Northampton Students’ Union, talked us through the process.
“NUBrew began as a student-led activity run by the Green Party Society and funded by a Planet Too Sustainability Loan, an initiative that formed part of the Students’ Union’s Planet Too Project, designed to embed sustainable behaviours across the organisation and within every aspect of enterprise and entrepreneurship education at the University of Northampton.
The Planet Too Project in turn was funded by the Students’ Green Fund; A £5mil pot of funding granted to NUS by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) to deliver transformative, student-led sustainability projects across England. The University of Northampton Students’ Union was recipient to £250,000 across two years.
The core aims of the NU Brew Project was to develop a completely student-driven and localised process with students brewing, marketing, selling (and consuming) the final product. As such it would provide a valuable learning opportunity to students in addition to reducing our carbon footprint through reduced purchasing of externally produced beverages.
NU Brew’s first batch was produced on campus in a microbrewery located to the rear of one of our café bars, in a converted space that used to house a sports changing room. The product was brewed, sampled, tested, bottled, marketed, hand delivered and sold within a 100m radius of the microbrewery. The NU Brew Team featured in an ARTE TV documentary that explored the activities of various political parties and their supporters in the UK in advance of the 2015 General Election.”
“Following the 2015 General Election, the Green Party Society at the University of Northampton was closed and the venture was spun out as an independent student volunteer project. The new group, led by a committee of business and marketing students, were motivated to expand the previous group’s scale of operations and established a partnership with local brewery company Phipps NBC, who were able to support a larger production.
NUBrew’s second batch, Legless Llama, was launched in February 2016 and made available across all Students’ Union venues and retail outlets for purchase. Whilst the product sells steadily throughout the year, it has struggled to compete on price with some of the bar’s alternative products, due in part to some more expensive ingredients being used in the brewing process.”
“This has led to NU Brew’s third iteration, which sees our existing Sports Clubs and Societies given the opportunity to create test batches for their existing members, supporters and customers and the subsequent opportunity to expand production campus wide and capitalising on affiliation to Students’ Union-owned assets, like the Stallions sports brand, to which all sports clubs at Northampton belong.The first such batch has been produced by the University of Northampton Men’s Football Team and will be made available in Fresher’s Week 2017.”
Students’ Union Vice President: Union Development, David Lewis said “The NUBrew enterprise provides students a fantastic opportunity to develop their business and marketing acumen on campus in a fun and safe way with the support of Students’ Union departments and staff, enabling them to enhance their communication, leadership, organisational and negotiation skills. It’s been fantastic to see this initiative grow year on year, involving more students and expanding production. I look forward to seeing and sampling our next batch!”
How to build a successful students’ union enterprise
Know your audience
“Being mindful of the needs of students ranging from having affordable food to being an audience whose tastes change quickly,” says Michael Kind, Development Officer at the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union.
Catherine from Hull University Union agrees that keeping your audience at the heart of every decision is critical. In fact she tells us it’s “instrumental to business success and particularly when it comes to students’ unions. The main thing is to listen to what students want and adapt your offer to remain fresh and appealing. Giving great value for money and strong customer service while constantly looking for the next trend are key to running a successful student union enterprise.”
Catherine mentions the importance of listening to students and as Michael tells us, there are plenty of ways this can be done: “Involving students in decision-making to ensure that our understanding of their needs is precise and that our offer matches up with them is key. From gathering data from students to actively placing students in the room when developing concepts, we do this well. Competitors in the city have extensive offers and events for students, so if we were to drop the ball we’d lose out. Yet our members’ continued favourable perception of us highlights that we stay on top of what students want!”
Adapt when necessary
Andrew shares an example of how NUBrew had to be adaptable: “NUBrew recognised that in producing their second batch the use of premium ingredients had positioned their product at a less competitive price point. Subsequent batches have addressed this issue by ensuring that the best quality product is made utilising standard product ranges.”
Capitalise on strengths
Andrew tells us that it’s not enough to understand any given enterprise’s strengths, they have to be acted upon: “In both our third iteration of NUBrew and in our sponsorship model, we’ve identified our strong relationship with sports clubs and societies as a key strength of the organisation, but one which wasn’t being fully realised within our commercial activities. Their student committees are fantastic brand ambassadors for the organisation and by creating additional opportunities for these students to advocate for our services we can further expand our sales and increase engagement.”
We all know that students are not a homogenous group. For every freshly turned 18-year-old with a taste for Jägerbombs there will be a student who’d sooner spend an evening in the library. It’s important enterprises are diverse enough to cater to different segments of the student body.
At the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union, this has become second nature. “The range of our offer is key in ensuring that every student is able to find something to suit them. We are an inclusive Union which seeks to make all students feel welcome and represented through our offer. For example, we recently identified a lack of non-alcoholic evening entertainment provision, and are taking steps to provide for students who’d benefit from this. But in addition to this, an innovative and passionate staff team ensure that our offer remains relevant and interesting, and is often ahead of the curve. This has been manifested through inaugural events this year such as Prosecco and Vegan Food Festivals,” says Michael.
Create added value
Andrew shares a practical example of how this works in practice: “The University of Northampton Students’ Union operate a sponsorship model for all student groups, which rewards the spending of their members in addition to loyalty points gained as an individual. In the 2016/17 academic year £14,000 has been provided to Sports Clubs and Societies in recognition of their engagement with students’ union venues and retail outlets on top of £10,600 worth of loyalty points awarded to the student body for their spending. Both mechanisms support customer retention, ongoing engagement and attendance at Students’ Union events and brand loyalty amongst our most involved students.”
The loyalty and Student Group sponsorship models in their bars have been deliberately design with creating added value for members in mind: “Sports Clubs in particular would often fundraise to fund new kits or social clothing and spend considerable time and effort doing so through multiple activities sometimes at the expense of the development of their sport or studies. By creating a programme that rewards our students for involvement across all our commercial activities (not just the alcoholic ones!) we were able to recognise those students that help create the vibrant student community and positive atmosphere that can be found on campus!”
Define ‘success’ before you start
Success could mean very profitable, it could mean a serious boost of student engagement or it could be helping international students feel at home. So defining what you want success to look like before you get started will help you measure accurately down the line.
“Our outlets measure their success in different ways. For example, ‘Our Shop’ and some of our club nights such as ‘Pop Tarts’ generate a lot of revenue for the Students’ Union and help fund a lot of our activity. Then there are outlets which generate less income but measure success in providing a service for specific audiences. ‘Pearls Bubble Tea’ for example caters to international students in particular, while ‘New Leaf’ provides a healthy option for our students,” says Michael.
There is no getting around the fact that students’ unions need funds in order to operate effectively. While some of that money might come from the university, finding their own funds to supplement any grants is vital. While the answer doesn’t always lie in SU bars and pub crawls, when considering building a students’ union enterprise there are some universal truths which should be adhered to.
First and foremost, it’s vital that you know and understand your audience. HUU Homes demonstrated this by responding to a very real need with a friendly service that prioritised student welfare above all else and thus distinguishing themselves from the pack. Like NUBrew discovered, it’s also important to adapt when necessary. What was popular a decade ago most likely won’t be now, so it’s important to embrace change. To better understand when this is necessary you can’t beat speaking with students directly and getting their feedback.
Determine what your strengths are before you get started and then utilise them. In the case of HUU Homes, they had already established trust with the students and had a track record of prioritising student welfare. More specifically, NUBrew realised how crucial sports societies were in their model and by allowing more opportunities for such students to sing their praises they saw an increase in sales and engagement.
Given the diversity amongst the student population inclusivity is a must and, wherever possible, create added value. We like the loyalty scheme idea from Northampton as an example of this. In short: consider what success means to the enterprise, understand your SU and don’t be afraid to get creative and you are sure to go far.