Big international conferences are big business. The Lambeth conference has some 650 bishops attending, from 165 different countries. That is a major effort in hospitality for Canterbury and the University of Kent. One estimate is that including staff, volunteers, media etc some 3, 000 people are involved: about 1, 500 physically staying in person on the campus. Let us consider the ‘circumfluence’ of the university.
The Conference Industry
Having been an academic conference convenor myself (when working in a University in South Africa) I have some sense of how the conference industry works. At the sharp end, big hotels tout for business by contacting the largest societies that organise conferences and advertising their services. There are even specialists in generating conference business by brokering topics that will attract the paying attendees.
Towns and cities compete for the large conferences by advertising their cultural or scenic attractions, as a side-benefit so that busy medical researchers or academics can tack a few days of holiday there along with the conference.
Room at the inn
If the conference is very large, the capacity of the local hotels becomes an issue. For example in 2000 Durban was able to host an AIDS conference which attracted 16,000 participants because it had enough tourist hotels which could cope, along with the accommodation of three Universities.
Universities count on the income from Conferences in the vacation to contribute to their annual campus budget. Indeed the recent pandemic which caused the cancellation of in-person conferences must have torn a hole in their accounts.
I tried to find out from the Conference office at University of Canterbury how much the University will gain from hosting the Lambeth Conference but was told they were “snowed under.” Unfortunately they do not choose to put any prices visibly on their website, even though they advertise B&B availability for the vacation. They seem to prefer a telephone conversation to negotiate prices.
Then I was alerted by the media team of the conference that it is actually run by a charity called Lambeth Conference Ltd. So I looked up their accounts. There I read that this charity has already paid the University of Kent £1,464,000 for ‘event facilitation and accommodation’. That works out at about £1,000 per attendee, assuming the on-campus figure of 1, 500 booked in is correct.
Bed and board? Or just bed?
I wonder if that includes catering? For a 13 day/night event, at £75 pd it seems a bit low to include catering, if measured by comparable UK hotel costs. Maybe the participants are mostly paying for their food as needed, which is sensible considering the ethnic diversity of the bishops coming from lots of different food traditions.
There are 12 different catering outlets on the Canterbury campus, and all of them will be closed to students during the fortnight of the Lambeth conference so presumably they will all be involved in feeding the delegates.
But will the delegates all have enough money to pay for the food? Visiting the UK during my vacations, having changed some of my Rand salary into £s, I was frequently shocked by the price of a cup of tea or coffee, compared to what I could buy with that amount in South Africa. And I was coming from what is called an ‘upper middle income country’. What must it be like to come from a poor country?
“From each according to their ability”
For some international conferences, especially those likely to attract participants from poorer countries, the fees vary depending on the World Bank classification of the country: higher income, upper middle income, lower middle income, and less developed. The forthcoming AIDS conference in Toronto for instance is using such a fee differentiation.
For the Lambeth Conference, the charity is offering bursaries for those who apply. This is fair as travel costs will also differ enormously. Flying in from a Pacific island is a more costly and arduous flight than arriving from New York. The conference organisers have been sensible in programming some more restful days this week at the start of the conference to allow participants to overcome jet-lag.
The bursary fund held £1,714,753 at the end of 2021 so some of this will also have been spent on air-tickets. The Lambeth Conference, a charity formed in 2008, gets most of its income from donors, 32 of them listed by name in the programme. But some of the richer dioceses and provinces will of course have paid for their own bishops to attend.
Mary and Martha
Some readers may be surprised that I am writing up first on the practicalities of conference hospitality rather than plunging into the issues on the conference agenda. True – it is a bit of a Martha or Mary choice (Martha was the one who bustled about with the dishes while Mary sat and listened at the feet of Jesus). Once the agenda proper starts, we will indeed do more of the listening in.
Meanwhile, what may be of interest to local readers in Kent is how our local University measures up on the various challenges. As featured in Times Higher Education supplement and other journals on higher education, the most prestigious metrics are the ones on research output, which are also reported in national news every year. Public Universities in the UK (and in many other nations) receive research grants depending on these metrics.
But it was pointed out, about 25 years ago, that Universities not only contribute to public wealth via research and their output of well-qualified graduates, they also contribute to their locality. I used to call this their ‘circumfluence’. They provide jobs and services for the towns in which they are located. The campus itself is a source of wealth – in concert halls, sports fields, shops, money that staff and students spend. That is a more countable source of wealth than the intangible cultural benefits of better bookshops, research links with local business, student placements, student volunteering and so on.
Just to take one example of ‘circumfluence’ at the University of Kent, I discovered at the media reception at Woody’s Bar that it is run and staffed by the Student Union who also run many other clubs and enterprises on campus. This means they can cross-subsidise: for instance, profits from the shops can support sports clubs and so on. It is good that students can be involved in University hospitality.
Consider other venues
I wonder if the Lambeth conference will always be at Canterbury. Wouldn’t it be fairer to locate it in different dioceses? Have a bidding system, as for the Olympics or an award system like the Eurovision song contest? As a matter of fact, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) which does much of the work of implementing Lambeth decisions, is meeting next in Ghana.
But somehow I guess many bishops like to come to Canterbury, not only for the facilities of University of Kent, but because of the extra cultural and symbolic value of Canterbury itself, with a Cathedral that is the mother church of Anglicanism.