A conference center in the middle of campus?

Colleges & Universities, Conference & Business Centers

Yes, it does exist.

By Selena Fragassi

By now, we all know that most colleges and universities have dedicated conference departments to help facilitate visiting groups. Even more exciting are the campuses that have within them the Holy Grail: actual conference centers onsite. And we’re not just talking about some general boardroom, either. 

“We like to call our space a mini UN.” Susan Labentsoff, director of marketing and communications at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, is talking about the school’s Asia Pacific Hall, a theatre-in-the-round facility that seats 154 people in a circular space where “everybody can see everybody,” making conferences held here that much more interactive.

“I dare to call it one of the most unique rooms in North America,” she says. Much like the UN, the Asia Pacific Hall offers translation booths and data projectors that are ideal for video conferencing. The Hall is part of the downtown campus’ Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, which opened in 2001 as a purpose-built conference center for groups of 5 to 300 people. “The university started getting more serious about utilizing space for conferences and meetings,” says Labentsoff of the development 12 years ago.

It’s a common thread seen at other schools that, around the same time, adapted to the demand for dedicated conference space by building, expanding or repurposing venues. Penn State’s Judy Karaky saw a similar move in 2004 when the school updated the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel to accommodate larger groups. “We built an addition that year,” says the general manager who notes that the current space, located in the school’s research center called Innovation Park, now includes 300 guest rooms alongside a restaurant, pub and 48,000 square feet of meeting space.

Penn State also has a second option for groups at the Nittany Lion Inn, an historic hotel on campus. “They call it Penn State’s living room,” says Karaky, thanks to the building’s trademark white exterior and blue trim and shutters. The Nittany Lion Inn offers 223 guest rooms, dining areas and also 12 additional event spaces.

“We’ve had a lot of groups that started meeting here from the beginning but they’ve grown in numbers over time, and we’ve had to grow with them,” says Karaky. Although she does note that because the school hosts a number of association and government groups, attendance has somewhat declined for those sectors in recent years due to budget cuts. Yet those gaps are often filled with new clients who find out about the school’s capabilities in various marketing efforts like industry periodicals and ads. “A lot of our business is still word-of-mouth,” Karaky admits.

At Lindy C. Boggs International Conference Center, a part of the University of New Orleans, 70% of their business, too, is government or non-profit groups. Part of their success is offering special rates for these sectors and additional tax-exempt savings. The 16-year-old conference center, which offers 21 rooms that can accommodate 15 to 300 people as well as summer housing, also does something more traditional spaces might not: “We allow everyone to bring in outside A/V equipment and catering to help save them some money, unlike other hotels or venues that require groups to use their services or preferred caterer,” says Brian Bruhn, event and audio visual coordinator at the center. The free parking helps, too, especially when the larger groups like Chase Bank, Google and the NFL pay a visit.

Echoing Bruhn’s statements, one of the biggest benefits of hosting a session at a collegiate conference center seems to be the savings. “We have different price structures for all of our buildings,” says Labentsoff of Simon Fraser University. “If planners have a more restricted budget, we have spaces that can accommodate them. If they have more to spend, we have more elegant rooms to host them in, too.”

Another benefit at SFU is the ability to book as far in advance as the planner desires. “We have no credits or classes offered in the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue so we don’t have any restrictions in regards to having to book classes first and then sell only the available space left,” she says. “If a planner right now wanted to book a 10-person boardroom meeting for 2015, we could do it.” That’s one of the perks provided by a professional meeting and events team that takes care of all the details for you.

It’s a similar scenario at Lindy C. Boggs International Conference Center. “We can do all the planning, from getting hotel blocks booked and arranging shuttle services all the way down to designing and implementing the event’s registration page and handing out badges during the sessions,” says Bruhn. The attention to detail has been attractive to groups like the Orleans Parish School Board who rents the entire facility annually to train personnel on new protocols before the school year commences.

A likeminded level of service has also been a boon for Penn State, which is attuned to meeting their customer’s every need, as was the case when the school hosted the massive 1,400-person Annual Conference on Autism this summer. Not only did the school help to facilitate educators and professionals for the parents and caregivers, they also arranged activities for the children.

“This way the adults could actually attend sessions and network, which makes a big impact,” Karaky says. Her team was also very careful not to adjust guest rooms too much during cleanings. “We didn’t move any personal items because we knew the children could get upset if the order they liked was gone. We did everything we could to make their stay as comfortable as it could be.”

In another example, when the MS Bike Race made a stop at the Penn Stater on their 75-mile journey through Pennsylvania, Karaky’s team made sure to have dinner ready upon their arrival and breakfast at the early bird hour of 5:00 a.m. the next morning. “We also put plastic down on the floors and hallways so they could store their bikes overnight.” It’s just one more way these special venues show that they always go the extra mile.