The value of learning in style

Roger Trapp on a company that understands the benefits of training people in the right environment

There is little doubt that training has become an accepted part of business. But it is equally true that companies take a much less scientific approach to it than they should.

Only last week, a study by the trade magazine Training suggested that, while UK organisations spend nearly pounds 10bn a year on it, 37 per cent of them have never evaluated that expenditure in terms of business impact.

Similar findings in the United States have prompted the publication of a recent book, Running Training Like a Business: Delivering Unmistakable Value. In this, David van Adelsberg and Edward Trolley, of the Forum Corporation, demonstrate how training organisations can help companies meet their strategic goals. Essentially, this means running training and development activities in the same way as other business operations so as to maximise opportunities.

One London organisation that seems to have an intuitive awareness of this is etc, a training, consulting and venues business that was originally part of Greater London Enterprise. It has recognised that training works best when the conditions are right; and, as a reflection of this, it runs its own premises.

Seven years ago, the venues arm of the business was seen as merely a sideline. But as Caroline Bull, who built up the company and is now its chief operating officer, says, things began to change through a stroke of luck. A former accountancy college behind the etc offices, just south of the Thames in London, became vacant and the fledgling company made a deal with its entrepreneur owner to run it in return for a modest rent.

The company's first venue achieved a turnover of pounds 250,000 in its first year. Emboldened by the experience, etc has opened two others, in the City and in the West End. Next month it will open the doors of its most impressive yet, in Hatton Garden.

The Hatton is situated in a specially refurbished, distinctive building, and will offer those attending courses and seminars high-class catering from a top-floor restaurant as well as a space that combines adaptability with the latest in hi-tech equipment.

It is more sumptuous than anything that etc has done in the past, but Ms Bull insists that it is in line with the principles that have served etc venues so well so far.

The need for more and more training in so many organisations has combined with cutbacks in office accommodation to create plenty of business for those hiring out space, particularly upper-end hotels in big cities and the country.

But Ms Bull detected that many organisations are not satisfied with hotels because they do not always receive as good a service as regular guests. Moreover, delegates do not always enjoy going to hotels since the meeting rooms tend to be in the middle of the building and lack natural light, which is seen as vital for concentration.

"The thing that's made us so successful is that we're totally dedicated to providing space for business, mostly for training, but also for conferences, interviews, AGMs and the like," says Ms Bull.

And although outsourcing is all the rage, etc takes care of everything itself - from the cleaning to the catering - on the grounds that this is the best way of ensuring the appropriate standards of service. "We're very, very flexible. We always have a yes culture," adds Ms Bull.

It is an approach that has clearly paid off. The business has more than quadrupled in size since its inception, largely on the back of repeat appointments and referrals. Moreover, organisations with which it has worked have backed it to such a degree that etc, which initially was only going to let a couple of floors, has taken over almost all the space at Hatton, making this by far the company's most ambitious project yet.

MDA, a financial training company, has taken a 25 per cent stake in the venture, enabling etc to keep bank borrowings to a minimum and bringing in such clients as ING Barings and the accountancy firm Arthur Andersen to give the project a flying start.

And for the first few months of business the centre is already fully booked.

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