We caught up with James Lackovic - Venue Manager at University of Surrey Students Union, and Ryan Snook - Operations Manager at the University of Birmingham, to find out more about what it’s like to work in this unique area of the licensed trade…
How did you get into working in the licensed trade?
James: From my first year at Uni I was a very active member of the Students’ Union working with the Stage Crew Society. In my second year of University I ran out of money.
I asked the venue manager for a job, due to my talents of being able to move big stuff safely he gave me a job working in the cellars (moving Stock, restocking and cleaning up vomit)…. From there I progressed to be a Duty Manager for a few years supporting the full time staff with the running of the 1550 capacity nightclub.
After my studies I went full time as a Venue Supervisor, Deputy Venue Manager and then Venue Manager.
What does your role as Operations Manager cover?
Ryan: My role is looking after the commercial services side of things, the catering, the bars, and we’ve got a little nightclub. We run big events like the Grad Ball which is for four and a half thousand people, it’s like a festival in the middle of campus.
As well as doing a lot of other things in places like Edgbaston Cricket Ground, we’ve also got the Great Hall at the University which we use seven times a year to put on big formal dinners too - for 400 to 500 people.
What’s the best thing about your job?
James: Every day is different. The joy of working in a Student Union is that people’s talents are used to help with different things. It might be a Ball for 900 people offsite or an external event on campus.
Do you employ many students? Are there benefits to this?
Ryan: We’ve got close to 200 staff part-time and 9 full time staff and all of our part-time staff are students. Everyone that works in the bar, our whole security team, are all students. It could be difficult to use purely students but here we’re quite lucky that the students are well behaved, so we use our students to do all the security as well.
If you’ve got staff that do a certain course or part of a certain club they’re going to know a significant amount of people and that means they’re likely to respect the venue. And it obviously gives more students an opportunity to work.
For many students, these jobs could be their first – how do you make sure they are able to work to a high standard if they don’t have much experience?
James: A lot of the staff will stay for their entire stay at Uni, working up from Team Member to Supervisor to Duty Manager. We use over 11 BBIAB course in their training to enhance their knowledge and employability after University.
Ryan: We’ve got a whole internal training programme and we also put a lot of our staff through the Security Industry Authority (SIA) badge, they go through the training which we do here with an external trainer and we pay for their SIA badges as well which means they can use those to go off and work in the summer in their home town or at festivals.
What are some of the main challenges that a Student Union faces?
James: I think the main challenge is how we (as a venue) and the students are perceived by the local community. The union has done a lot of work engaging the wider community and showing them that the students are not just a waste of space but actually contribute the wider community.
Recently we were won an unheard of 3 categories at our local Best Bar None Awards: Best Late Night Venue, Best Independent and Best Overall. Our team has worked hard for this over a number and just proves that we have one of the best and safest venues in the local night-time economy.
I would also say that in the last 10 years the biggest change has been pre-drinking. We’ve seen the model go from home-pub-club to home-club. I think this due to a number of issues: Firstly the difference in prices between supermarkets and licensed trade. These supermarkets have captured most of the market and in theory have the same responsibilities than a pub but because the consumption doesn’t take place on their premises they don’t have to deal with any of the consequences of their cheap alcohol and the rest of the licensed trade, NHS and Police have to pick up the pieces.
What advice would you give to a licensee wanting to attract more students and young people to their venue?
James: Do something different. A certain local branded pub will always be popular because they are perceived to be cheap. Reach out to the societies and sports teams, offer them a space to meet and be social and offer them deals unique to their club.
Ryan: It might sound really simple, but value for money. Yeah they want a cheap night out, but they still want quality- I think back in the day many years ago people were like: “yeah a pound a pint!” And they chucked any vodka into a drink and it kind of worked, but it’s changed over the years.
Yes students are looking for value for money, but they’re also looking for quality as well - you have to link the two up.