Meeting… with Honors

Colleges & Universities

When it comes to meeting responsibly, college campuses are ahead of the class. Our experts do the homework for you with notes on how to make the right impression.

In today’s economy, planners not only have to be budget-conscious but image-conscious as well. Hosting events or conferences, especially in the public sector, nonprofit or educational industries, presents a fine line of matching memorability with message. While most traditional venues such as hotels and conference centers can do the trick, college and university campuses offer a beneficial alternative by providing a supportive environment and practical amenities—sometimes at half the cost.

“We are not in the hotel industry, so our motive is not the bottom line,” asserts Perry Hacker, director of the University Guest House & Conference Center at the University of Utah. “Hotels are in the business of event hosting to make money; our first priority is always to support the mission of a campus, to educate students and create facilities that encourage growth, learning and research. Since we can be flexible, we don’t have to have rigid standards in how we serve our clients.”

While the idea is not to compete with hotels (“partnering with them for overflow” is a better idea according to Hacker)—it’s hard not to when you consider the cost savings alone that are associated with hosting a meeting or event on campus. It can be a tenth or twentieth of the cost, says Hacker. Jennifer Bruss, a planner with New Jersey-based Standards Solutions claims it can be more like 50 percent.

“Being able to utilize university services is fantastic because it never costs anything close to what a traditional hotel venue costs us,” she confirms. Her education consulting firm has only been utilizing campus environments in the last calendar year but already the benefits are paying off. “We thought it would be responsible to stay within our industry as well as utilize local venues that would help us save money. Typically we spend about $20-30,000 per event when working with hotel properties, and since working with campuses, we have seen a substantial drop in costs—sometimes in excess of 50 percent. …In 2012 alone, we were able to drop costs almost $100,000 by using conference services at universities.”

Vivian Walker, a planner with Vancouver, Canada-based ACT – Autism Community Training, agrees. Of her 18 training events for special ed counselors held on a campus this past year, she says pricing was the biggest motivator; with her firm’s affiliation with Simon Fraser University’s psychology department, she gets a break on costs when hosting at the school’s downtown campus. “We don’t need a lot of the extras” you’d find at a hotel she says, “people don’t expect us to have chandeliers in our function space.”

all beats nothing

In fact, a big part of the savings structure comes from all the included extras you do get, rate-free, at a full-service college campus that has been built to serve a demanding student body—and can benefit the planner as well.

“All of our amenities come with the rental rate, so you don’t have to pay for parking, screens, projectors, mics and podiums. Anything you can find in the building is included in the planner’s rental fee and that makes it more economical across the board,” says Kay Wilson who directs the Younts Conference Center and Summer Programs at South Carolina-based Furman University. “There’s no extra charges beyond what a company has budgeted,” which can help planners meet their fiscal responsibilities and have a better chance for approvals from internal committees.

Bruss cautions, though, that planners sometimes need to beware of a less hospitality-driven model at a campus: “There are times you have to be more flexible with your resources and know that you may have to shuffle some tables and chairs and make calls for meals,” she says, cautioning that in the end this loose structure can be a benefit, too. “It actually gives you more flexibility to be creative with a space and do any type of event you could imagine unlike a hotel, which is structured a certain way.”

For Canadian planner Lea Carpenter that means using a campus’ ice rink for a staging area and corporate breakfast station during a 20 km bike ride at the University of Victoria. “The ice rink gave us a big open area that was indoors, and in British Columbia that can be very beneficial,” she says, chuckling. “There was lots of parking on campus and people could easily bring their bikes. Plus, I found the grounds to be a much safer environment for people milling around compared to downtown, which saved us because we didn’t need as many volunteers or policemen to man certain areas.”

the trip is worth it

Another benefit of meeting on a campus is its accessibility to local transportation, which can save on both fuel surcharges and emissions. Many campuses, as a result of having a student body that is mostly pedestrian, are near trains, buses, even airports so attendees can gather with ease and have a number of options for travel. “College campuses provide convenient locations around the country,” confirms Rita Stewart of Ball State University. “Most are logistically located, and if they’re not, then transportation is built around them because of the heavy traffic that comes to a campus year round.”

From students to groups, there’s a reason many flock to collegiate grounds all year long: the environment.

“Campuses offer a component of education, innovation and advancement. Often meeting space can be generic, but campuses have that unique perspective,” says Katrina Tu, a planner with the Vancouver Economic Commission.

Hacker seconds the point, noting that on school grounds, “You also get a retreat setting so you can pull away from distractions and focus more on your program.” Same goes at Ball State where the focus “is on immersive learning,” notes Stewart. “It’s one thing to go into a meeting room in a commercial establishment and be told something or see a PowerPoint; and it’s another to be on campus and actually experience the learning. Our attitude here is that if you’re going to learn something new you have to experience it in order for it to be impactful.”