Catering has long been a strength at Calderdale College which has now moved into corporate entertainment, Huw Richards reports
FORGET Highbury and Old Trafford, Parkhead or Ibrox. If you want to find Britain's most vibrant current sports stadium, head for The Shay in Halifax.
The clubs who share the bowl-like ground next to the corporation bus garage in the Yorkshire town are on the up. Rugby League's Halifax Blue Sox left their atmospheric, 100-year-old decaying ground, Thrum Hall earlier this year and promptly had their best season in more than a decade, finishing third in the Super League.
The older inhabitants, Halifax Town Football Club, in May regained the Football League status lost five years ago. And they have continued to rise. If they beat Barnet at The Shay today they will go to the top of the Third Division.
Both clubs' fortunes are closely followed at nearby Calderdale College. Their success has a direct bearing on the amount of business done by The Weavers, the corporate hospitality suite at The Shay which is now run by the college's school of customer services.
The rugby season is over and so there will be fewer corporate revellers. But Town's rising fortunes mean The Weavers should still be pretty busy.
The contract developed out of earlier links with the rugby league club. Ron Hill, director of corporate affairs at Calderdale College, says: "We've had people on courses from the club and we helped with events like matches against the Paris St Germain club, providing interpreters and putting on food."
Catering and hospitality has long been one of the strengths of the institution which has 8,500 full-time equivalent students, and the colleges silver-service teaching restaurant, a popular location for events in Halifax. But as Hill says: "We are aware that there is now a lot more to hospitality than formal restaurant settings."
Stephen O'Boyle, head of hospitality and food studies, underlined the same message: "There's a phrase in NVQ-speak 'realistic working environment'. This isn't just realistic, this is the real thing. If something goes wrong in the teaching restaurant you can make excuses. That leeway doesn't exist here - they aren't going to extend half-time by 10 minutes because the drinks arrived late."
Students are paid between Pounds 3.60 and Pounds 3.95 per hour for working at The Weavers. Graham Marsh, 16, a second-year national vocational qualification level 2 catering and hospitality student, confirms that the money - known by the slogan of "earn as you learn" is a strong attraction. However, he adds: "It is good experience. You learn different aspects of the job you don't get with the restaurant work." An enthusiast for fishing rather than football or rugby, he says nevertheless: "People at rugby are more polite to you."
The sport element was an attraction for his course colleague Gavin Williams, 17, who paid to watch most of Halifax Town's home games last season and now enjoys the chance to meet players. He says: "Here you have to cope under more pressure than at the college and that's good experience."
There are benefits for staff as well. Walter Hand, head of customer services, says: "Most of our staff come from a commercial catering background and this gives them a chance to update their experience without working outside or going on secondment."
The customers are happy with the first few months' work. Nigel Wood, chief executive of Blue Sox, says: "We are now regarded as market leaders in this area of the business" - an important consideration when corporate hospitality, advertising and lotteries provide as much income as the average 5,500 crowds coming through the turnstiles.
Town, newer to entertaining and to links with the college, are also happy:
"We've had nothing but praise," says director David Cairns.
The college has yet to devise a way of incorporating the work into assessment. Mr O'Boyle acknowledges the importance of ensuring that educational aims remain uppermost: "There is a danger of losing sight of academic priorities, and we have to make sure that students are here primarily as part of their curriculum. If we happen to be employing them as well, that is separate and on top. "
The precise details of the contract between the clubs and the company set up by Calderdale to handle the business are still being hammered out. But Nigel Wood believes the hospitality and other links such as marketing co-operation are only the beginning of the relationship: "We want to develop co-operation in a number of ways - accrediting our stewards through NVQ and running services such as hairdressing, a gymnasium, and a travel agency in business units at The Shay. We think the formula being used for catering and hospitality can be applied in other areas. This is a natural form of co-operation between important institutions in the town."